Understanding Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets

Embracing better health for better living

For National Nutrition Month, WEforum unpacks the difference between vegetarian and plant-based diets so you can make informed food choices and customize your diet to meet your individual dietary needs.


Understanding Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets

Several longitudinal studies have linked a diet rich in plant proteins to improved health and longevity.(1) And plenty of folks are taking notice, turning to plant-based diets in order to control their weight and promote good health. Many also express a desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle and reduce their carbon footprint.

But what is a plant-based diet, and how does it differ from a whole foods plant-based diet (WFPB), or vegetarian and vegan diets? Sometimes it just comes down to marketing. Consumers seem to respond better to the term ‘plant-based’ than they do to ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian;’ and food companies know this, frequently marketing unhealthy processed foods under the plant-based banner to appeal to health-conscious consumers.

Below is a breakdown of each diet and basic guidelines for avoiding processed, unhealthy plant-based products. We’ve also added tips for maximizing your food choices. This is particularly important for children, growing teens, athletes, pregnant and breast-feeding women. So, before you choose any diet, please consult first with a medical doctor and a registered dietitian.

TIP: Whole foods plant-based diet (WFPB) allows only minimally processed plant-based foods. Vegetarian, vegan and plant-based diets do not prohibit processed foods, so beware of products with unhealthy fats (like palm and coconut oils), added sugars and sodium, artificial flavors and colors, fillers, preservatives, and controversial additives you might not recognize (like carrageenan). Alternative meats often contain many of these additives. As a rule, try to purchase more raw ingredients and avoid processed or packaged food products.


Vegetarian Diets Don’t Always Mean Strictly Vegetables!

  • Lacto-vegetarian includes dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt and butter (but no eggs).
  • Ovo-vegetarian includes eggs (but no other dairy).
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian includes both dairy products and eggs.
  • Pescatarian includes fish.
  • Flexitarian occasionally includes meat, fish and poultry.
  • Vegan excludes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products, and honey. Strict vegans also avoid products, like white sugar and wine, that use bone char and egg whites, as part of their refining process. Vegans also avoid animal-based consumer goods, like leather.

TIP: If you cut back on meat and dairy, make sure to get enough B12, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids from other plant-based foods, like mushrooms, nutritional yeast, legumes, nuts, pulses and seeds. Also try pairing foods appropriately, which increases the body’s absorption of vitamins. For instances, eat foods that are rich in calcium + Vitamin D, iron + Vitamin C, Vitamin B12 + Folate, Omega-3s + Vitamin D.


Plant-based Means Plants!

  • Mostly fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, pulses, nuts, seeds, tubers, plant oils
  • Some plant-based eaters do consume moderate amounts of meat, fish, dairy and eggs.

TIP: Harvard Health Publishing recommends serving meat, if it is a part of your diet, as more of a garnish than the primary menu item. Many dietitians recommend smaller portion sizes and a ratio of 50% veggies + fruits, 25% whole grains, 25% protein per meal. A registered dietitian (RD) can guide you through this process.


Whole Foods Plant-Based Equals Whole Ingredients:

  • Whole grains only (which contain a concentrated source of nutrients and more fiber, essential fatty acids and protein than processed grains). No white flour, pearl barley, white rice, or any processed grain or food product. Some whole grain breads, in moderation, but not necessarily multigrain (read the label first).
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Legumes (including organic soy products, in moderation, like tofu and tempeh)
  • Pulses
  • Tubers
  • Veggies and fruits
  • Healthy oils only (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), like avocado, algae, sunflower, flaxseed and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO))
  • Some plant-based eaters do consume moderate amounts of meat, fish, dairy and eggs

TIP: Pick organic ingredients in order to avoid foods with controversial added chemicals, like the glyphosate found in genetically modified corn and soy crops.


(1) A 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine (JAMA), [https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2748453]




Vegan Green Goddess Dressing and Green Gazpacho