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How is a plant-based diet different from a vegan diet?

Story Highlights
  • Definitions
  • Top Tier Foods - Most of what you eat
  • Second Tier Foods - eat less of these
  • Third Tier Foods - avoid

How is a plant-based diet different from a vegan diet?

The definition of a plant-based diet means everything you eat comes from plant-based sources, like grains, legumes (peas and beans), nuts and seeds, and of course, fruits and vegetables. Nothing is of animal origin, so no meats, fish, milk and milk products like cheese, whey, casein, or eggs.

The definition of a vegan diet largely overlaps with that of a plant-based diet but is often more strictly defined and does not include the use of honey, though the use of honey is hotly debated among vegans.

Many people associate a plant-based diet with eating more whole foods, which is indeed important for optimal health, whereas many vegans may or may not necessarily focus on whole foods. Often the vegan focus is more on avoiding animal cruelty, but French fries, Oreos, and peanut butter sandwiches can still be staples of a vegan diet. Yes, Oreos are really vegan!

Here is where thinking about your long-term needs and lifestyle truly comes into play. If you are interested in enjoying optimal health, longevity, and happiness, you need to think about HOW you are implementing your plant-based or vegan diet. There are better ways and then there are less long-term sustainable ways to eat plant-based or vegan. For optimal health, you need to make the majority of your food choices from the highest quality foods available in the plant-based or vegan category, and not so much from the Oreos category. This has been scientifically proven to be the type of diet most closely connected with longevity, with lowest risk of chronic and degenerative diseases (think heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer), and for just plain feeling good with plenty of energy. Here are some examples of plant-based foods from each category:

Top Tier Foods (nutrient dense, health protective, should be 80-90 percent of what you eat)

These include plant foods that are whole, unrefined, unprocessed and prepared simply without the addition of excess fat, condiments, and inflammatory spices.

In order of most nutrient dense first, these are what you should be looking for:

  • Green leafy vegetables (dark green lettuce, kale, turnip and mustard greens, chard, bok choy)
  • Green vegetables (green beans, Brussels sprouts, celery, sprouts and microgreens)
  • Colorful vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, squash, beets, garlic, leeks, onions, etc.)
  • Beans and legumes (pinto/black/navy/kidney/lima beans, soybeans, chick peas, fava beans, etc.)
  • Starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, yams, corn, peas)
  • Fresh fruit (apples, oranges, bananas, lemons, limes, coconut, berries, pears, etc.)
  • Whole, unrefined grains (barley, oatmeal, brown rice, bulgur, millet, amaranth, spelt, etc.)
  • Raw nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, etc.)
  • Whole-food fats (olives, avocados, coconut, nuts, seeds)
  • Top-tier beverages (water, fresh-pressed vegetable juices)

Second Tier Foods (eat sparingly if at all, not nutrient dense)

In order of decreasing nutritional value:

  • Processed whole grains (breads, pasta, whole wheat flour products, whole grain cereal)
  • Processed fruits and vegetables — (applesauce, canned or dried fruits with added sugar, canned and salted vegetables)
  • Milk alternatives (soy, almond and other nut milks)
  • Meat substitutes (soy burgers, veggie burgers, soy hot dogs, textured vegetable protein)
  • Virgin oils used sparingly (extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, hemp seed oil, esential fatty acid oil blends)
  • Second-tier beverages (100 percent fruit juice)

Third Tier Foods (avoid completely)

  • Refined grains (white flour products, white rice, white pasta, etc.)
  • Refined sweets (cakes, pies, pastries, cookies, artificially sweetened candy, etc.)
  • Regular oils (non-virgin vegetable oils, shortening, lard)
  • Processed, packaged foods (margarines, baking mixes, fast food, canned soup, potato chips, microwave popcorn, many snack foods)
  • Deep-fried foods, fast food, restaurant fried foods (French fries, onion rings, egg rolls, etc.)
  • Third-tier beverages (sodas, caffeinated beverages, natural or artificially sweetened beverages)

With choices that skew towards mostly top-tier foods, it’s easy to begin incorporating plant-based or vegan eating principles into your diet, whether you do it all at once, or transition over time. Take your lifestyle into account as you begin to look at replacing lower tier foods with higher ones and notice how you feel and the changes to your body, mind, and energy levels. You may be surprised how quickly a plant-based or healthfully done vegan diet affects you!


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