Skip to content

What are vegan and plant-based diets?

Find out about the origins of veganism, the difference between veganism and a plant-based diet and why people choose to follow a vegan lifestyle.

What is veganism?

In the 1940s, a group of people concerned for animal welfare coined the term vegan and went on to set up the vegan society in 1944. Although, evidence of people choosing to avoid animal products can be traced back over 2,000 years.

The vegan society defines veganism as a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose [1].

According to the vegan society, in the UK alone, the number of vegans has increased by 445,428 people (40%) in 2020-2021 [2]

Vegan vs plant-based

A vegan could say that they eat a plant-based diet, but someone who eats a plant-based diet isn’t always a vegan.

Veganism is a philosophy based on avoiding animal cruelty. Yet, someone who chooses a plant-based diet may not avoid all products or services that cause suffering to animals. For example, they may choose to use products that are tested on animals [3].

So, unless you live a lifestyle where you avoid any product or service that causes harm or suffering to an animal, you are not a vegan.

A plant-based diet is defined as a diet that consists of all minimally processed:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes, nuts, and seeds
  • Herbs and spices

Veganism excludes all animal products, including:

  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products

Is plant-based the same as being vegetarian?

Some people consider plant-based to be quite a flexible term, which has a scale of how much of their diet is solely based on plants.

More strictly, vegetarians will only eat a diet of grains, pulses, seeds, fruit, and vegetables, as well as dairy products and eggs. Vegetarians who also don’t eat eggs, dairy or any other animal product are called vegans.

So, we can say that vegans and vegetarians both follow a plant-based diet, or a diet that’s mainly made up of plants. But not everyone who follows a plant-based diet are vegan or vegetarian. In fact, they could be flexitarian or pescatarian.

Other types of vegetarians include:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians– eat both dairy products and eggs (this is the most common type of vegetarian diet).
  • Lacto-vegetarians– eat dairy products but not eggs.
  • Ovo vegetarians– eat eggs but not dairy products.

What do vegans eat?

A vegan diet contains only plants (such as vegetables, grains, nuts, and fruits) and foods made from plants [4]. Vegans do not eat foods that come from animals.

Unlike plant-based and vegetarianism, veganism is not based on diet alone. Being a vegan is a way of life and affects many choices such as clothing, beauty, and household products.

Vegan foods include:

  • Legumes; beans, lentils, and chickpeas
  • Grains; bread, rice, and pasta
  • Starches; potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Tofu, tempeh, and seitan
  • Meat replacements; Quorn
  • Herbs and spices
  • Oils
  • Margarine
  • Nut butter; peanut or almond butter
  • Plant milk: almond, oat, soy, and rice (rice milk is not recommended for anyone under 5 due to it containing natural arsenic)
  • Plant yoghurts and cheeses; usually made from soy, coconut, or rice milk
  • Condiments; tomato and barbecue sauce

Read more information on nutrition in our plant-based diets and nutrition blog.

Why do people choose a vegan lifestyle?

There are lots of reasons that people choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle, including:

Environmental

Concerns for the environment is one of the main reasons veganism has become so popular. In August 2020, Greenpeace released an article on seven reasons why meat is bad for the environment, including acts around meat causing deforestation and forest fires, as well as climate change.  A 2019 United Nations report also urged people to reduce their meat and dairy consumption to help tackle climate change.

Ethical

In the UK, over 8 billion animals are killed each year for human consumption, with many of them kept in tight spaces on factory farms [5]. The growing research into animals’ capacity to think and feel also means that many people are choosing to avoid animal products for ethical reasons.

Health

A study carried out by Oxford University’s department of public health found that eating meat no more than three times a week could prevent 31,000 deaths from heart disease, 9,000 deaths from cancer and 5,000 deaths from stroke, as well as save the NHS £1.2 billion in costs each year [6].

How veganism can have a positive impact on health:

  • Diabetes – A 2019 study by Harvard scientists with over 300,000 participants found that eating a vegan diet can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by almost a quarter [8].
  • Heart disease – Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 people found that people who ate mostly plant-based foods were 32% less likely to die from heart disease – the number one leading cause of death in the UK [9].
  • Weight loss – Eating a vegan diet may also help people who are overweight, reduce body fat without having to restrict calories [10]. A 2015 study showed that people following a vegan diet lost more weight than people following omnivorous and vegetarian ones [11].
  • Longer life – As veganism can reduce the risk of some of the leading causes of death, such as heart disease and obesity, it could lead to people living longer. A 2016 study from Oxford argues that the mass adoption of a vegan diet could cut around 8.1 million deaths a year [12].

Are vegans healthier?

On average, our vegan customers tend to have healthier results for diabetes, cholesterol, inflammation, and liver function markers.

Medichecks vegans

  • The average level of HbA1c (a diabetes marker) is 5% lower in vegans.
  • Vegans have higher levels of healthy HDL cholesterol and almost 14% lower non-HDL cholesterol.
  • Inflammation markers for risk of heart disease and strokes (CRP-hs) are slightly lower in the vegan population.
  • White blood cells that increase with allergies (eosinophils) are significantly lower in vegans (-17.6% compared to non-vegans).
  • Liver inflammation enzymes (alanine transferase and gamma GT) are over 30% lower in vegans.

Though current studies point towards the health benefits of a plant-based diet, studies into the long-term health effects are relatively new. More research is needed to understand the full extent of the health outcomes of this way of eating.

There are also other health considerations that vegans need to be aware of, such as vitamin deficiencies. Have a look at our veganism and diet section for more information on how to lower your chances of becoming deficient in necessary vitamins and nutrients.

You can also find more information on the NHS, The Vegan Society and meat-free Monday websites.


References:

  1. https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
  2. https://trulyexperiences.com/blog/veganism-uk-statistics/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466934/
  4. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-vegan-diet/
  5. https://www.viva.org.uk/what-we-do/slaughter/slaughter-farmed-animals-uk
  6. https://meatfreemondays.com/why-it-matters/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466941/#:~:text=Among%2041%2C387%20individuals%20followed%20for,CI%3A%200.236%E2%80%930.617).
  8. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6221888/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25592014/
  11. https://www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.abstract
  12. https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-03-22-veggie-based-diets-could-save-8-million-lives-2050-and-cut-global-warming