Plant-Based vs Vegan: What Is Actually The Difference?

By Ella Mills, Founder of Deliciously Ella

By Ella Mills, Founder of Deliciously Ella

With the rise of interest in plant-based, flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets, the myriad of terms and definitions can get a little confusing. So, here's a breakdown of the key differences. 

Plant-based vs vegan: what’s the difference?

The term “vegan” was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, an English animal rights advocate who founded The Vegan Society, to describe someone who abstained from animal products for ethical reasons. Veganism refers to your whole lifestyle, not just what’s on your plate.

The expression “plant-based” was established in the 1980s by Dr Thomas Colin Campbell, an American professor of biochemistry at Cornell University, to describe a high-fibre, vegetable-rich diet. He later added “wholefood” to the definition. It was created to distinguish a plant-based way of eating from a vegan or vegetarian diet, moving the emphasis from the moral, ethical or environmental considerations to the effect of nutrition on long-term health. 

Nowadays, the distinction between plant-based and vegan feels much more nuanced, which can mean it’s hard to follow. I do, however, think the terms are less interchangeable than they often appear, and can be explained by three simple points:

1. The first is that veganism extends far beyond what you eat - it shapes many other life choices, whereas plant-based just refers to your diet.

2. The second is that veganism stems from a moral and ethical perspective, so the diet isn’t necessarily designed to improve our health. As such, both a vegan and a vegetarian approach to eating can include a lot of ultra-processed food, whereas I don’t think a plant-based diet does. At its very essence, a plant-based diet is about nourishment and enhancing human health and thus includes limited amounts of ultra-processed foods.

3. The third is that a plant-based approach is not all or nothing. The word “based” denotes the simple fact that the diet has a strong emphasis on eating plants but - to my mind - does not have to exclude other foods entirely. I believe it refers to someone who is actively making the choice to eat a plant-based diet the majority of the time, say 80-90%, and within that the focus is on fresh, wholefood ingredients.

What about vegetarian and flexitarian?

A vegetarian diet has a much longer history. It was first mentioned by the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras of Samos around 500BC, with the first vegetarian society created in 1847 in England – almost 100 years before the word vegan even existed. While plant-based refers to a diet that is mostly (or entirely) made up of plant foods, a vegetarian diet includes more dairy products and eggs.

A flexitarian diet is the most recent addition to the conversation. It was coined by the American dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner in 2008. The word itself is a fusion of flexible and vegetarian, and thus refers to someone who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish.

Simply put vegan, plant-based, vegetarian and flexitarian is  a continuum that ladders up from absolutely no animal products in any part of your life at the vegan end, to a more flexible approach that includes lots of plants, but also animal products at the flexitarian end.

My journey to a plant-based diet

Just over 10 years ago, I changed my diet overnight, swapping my standard western diet - lots of quick, convenience foods, not much fruit and veg - for a wholefood plant-based diet. The year before that I’d become very unwell, and after spending the best part of a year in and out of hospital and having to sacrifice my university studies, I was diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, a condition that affected the functioning of my automatic nervous system. I hit rock bottom, both physically and mentally. 

Rock bottom, however, changed my life. I was determined to find a solution, and researched what could possibly help me. This took me into the science of nutrition, looking at the latest research on how our food choices impact our health. Over a decade later, this doesn’t seem such a wild idea, but back then I didn’t know a single vegan, and the term “plant-based” was almost non-existent in everyday parlance. 

When I was researching the dietary changes I could make, I came across so many vegan recipes. However, the vegan recipes that I found were mainly focused on meat mimics, where meat or fish was replaced with a vegan alternative, as opposed to sitting more within the plant-based approach which would focus on veggies, beans and fruits. Often these meat mimics were ultra-processed, and therefore not what I was looking for. I wanted to challenge myself, change the way I ate and make a healthy, natural, plant-based diet the norm, so I started sharing plant-based recipes back in 2012 and haven’t stopped since.

What does a plant-based diet include?

A plant-based diet focuses on fresh, wholefood ingredients: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans and legumes. This list may sound a little boring when you first read it, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. We have a library of over 1,000 different plant-based recipes, as well as seven cookbooks, designed to show you that a plant-based diet can be varied, delicious, and exciting. 

To ensure a plant-based diet is balanced, each meal should have a mix of complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats. The combination of these supports stable blood sugar, which stops you having the spikes and crashes that leave you lethargic and craving more sweet or processed food. To meet the vitamin and mineral needs, your meals should contain a rainbow of colour, and vary a lot throughout the week.

A concern that often puts people off a plant-based diet is the belief that this way of eating won’t provide enough protein, but this simply isn’t the case. Almost no one in the Western world is deficient in protein and numerous studies show that those who don’t consume animal products consistently meet, if not surpass, the recommended daily allowance of protein, consuming 60-82g a day on average, and the NHS recommends 50g of protein per day (1).

Great plant-based sources of protein are tofu, tempeh, edamame, peas, quinoa, all nuts / seeds / nut butters / tahini, beans and legumes. Think about adding at least one source to each meal. If you’d like more information on protein as part of a plant-based diet, read our Protein 101 article here.

Where to go from here

I’m not here to persuade or guilt-trip you into becoming 100% plant-based. My mission with Deliciously Ella is simply to encourage you to eat more plans, more often. You need to find the balance that suits you and best supports your wellbeing. 

It may be that just switching one or two plant-based meals a week is right for you or perhaps you want to make a bigger change. Either way we have all the resources and ideas you need to make eating more plants, more often as easy as possible. 


1. Allès, B., Baudry, J., Méjean, C., Touvier, M., Péneau, S., Hercberg, S. & Kesse-Guyot, E. (2017). Comparison of sociodemographic and nutritional characteristics between self-reported vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters from the nutrinet-santé study. Nutrients, 9(9), 1023. doi: 10.3390/ nu9091023.; Clarys, P., Deliens, T., Huybrechts, I., Deriemaeker, P., Vanaelst, B., & De Keyzer, W., et al. (2014). Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients, 6(3), 1318–1332.; Sobiecki, J., Appleby, P., Bradbury, K. & Key, T. (2016). High compliance with dietary recommendations in a cohort of meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans: results from the European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition–oxford study. Nutrition Research, 36(5), 464–477.

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