diets · eating

Vegan, plant-based, plant strong? What’s in a name?

Times they are a changing for those of us moved by animal suffering, the environment, and human health to eat a diet more about plants and less about flesh.

It seems there are more and more high profile vegetarians and vegans (even Bill Clinton!). And recently, all of the conferences I’ve been to have had terrific vegan food. Indeed, the most recent conference had only vegetarian and vegan lunches and no one complained.

What’s interesting are the number of people who are happy to, or who are inclined to, eat vegan much or most of the time. More people seem to be following Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Some people call this moderate approach to plant based living ,’flexitarianism.’ The Guardian asks isn’t that just vegetarianism with cheating.

Mark  Bittman in a New York Times column The Flexitarian: Healthy, Meet Delicious puts it this way:

“The moderate, conscious eater — the flexitarian — knows where the goal lies: a diet that’s higher in plants and lower in both animal products and hyperprocessed foods, the stuff that makes up something like three-quarters of what’s sold in supermarkets. That’s the kind of cooking and eating I’ll be exploring in this monthly column. (It’s also the topic of my new book, “VB6” — for vegan before 6 p.m.)”

There’s now a plethora of names for the way one eats and I’m interested here in the people who describe their diet, not as vegan, but instead as plant based or plant strong.

What’s the difference?

First, the latter two admit of degrees. I say I’m mostly vegan but people look at me oddly since veganism is an all or nothing thing. But if I say that saying I’m eating a primarily plant based diet my moderation makes sense. See my post Experiments in Moderation for an explanation of what I’m up to.

Second, there’s a political association with veganism and animal rights that I think some would rather distance themselves from. Although it’s not necessary–we might be moderates to minimize animal suffering for example–the focus of most plant strong people seems to be human health and the environment.

This Huffington Post piece Vegetarianism Cooking talks about the move away from lifestyle vegetarianism which apparently involves wearing birkenstocks and eating lentil loaf. It says that people can now choose cauliflower and kale without a side of ideology.

Third, ‘vegan’ is an identity term and the others aren’t. You’d describe yourself as a feminist, an athlete, and a vegan but the others need to be claimed in connection with the way one eats. “I am a vegan” versus “I eat a mostly plant based diet.’

Vegans aren’t also usually associated with athletic achievement and manliness, Thug Kitchen aside (though note they’re also plant based leaving full strength veganism to the girlfriends).

The most prominent plant based moderate is Lance Armstrong. Here’s Armstrong talking about his 2/3 vegan lifestyle.

Lance Armstrong In 2012: On Exercise, Diet And Why He Won’t Go Into Politics

LA: I started swimming again, and I swim with a guy [ed’s note: former triathlete Rip Esselstyn] who started basically a food program called the Engine 2 Diet, which is a plant-based, 100% natural, organic diet. His dad was a famous cardiologist who did Forks Over Knives, and was President Clinton’s doctor. Clinton has gone to a completely vegan diet and he’s essentially erased his heart disease.

It’s basically whole grains, different types of beans, kale salad with creative alternatives for dressing. They’ll bring out something that looks like a brownie, but it’s not a brownie … though it tastes a bit like a brownie. So I did it for one day, then two days. Then I branched out and started doing it at breakfast and lunch. I still insist that I get to do whatever I want for dinner. But it’s made a significant difference in just in a month.

HPC: What kind of difference?

LA: Energy level. Even when you’re training really hard, it’s normal that you would have certain things for lunch or certain things for breakfast, and then have this dip, or almost like a food coma … I don’t experience that anymore. My energy level has never been this consistent, and not just consistent, but high. I’m a big napper — I couldn’t even take a nap these days if I wanted to.

The other thing — I expected to get rid of that dip, but I didn’t expect the mental side of it, and the sharpness and the focus that I’ve noticed. And I was the biggest non-believer, I was like ‘whatever man’, and I’m in. I’m not doing dinners yet, but breakfast and lunch, I’m in.

HPC: Do you think it’s pretty sustainable?

LA: If I were to stay in Austin, it’s very sustainable. It’s harder when you get on the road, of course — I mean, you walk out that door and breakfast is sitting there. None of that [muffins, croissants, etc.] is on the Engine 2 diet. So it gets harder and harder. But you can even travel with stuff. Breakfast is not hard, you bring your cereal and then you go to the store and buy almond milk, you buy bananas to put on top of it. If you plan, then it’s possible.

Where do I fall? I’m still not sure. I think of myself as an aspiring vegan, someone who recognizes the force of the moral argument and is doing as much as I’m able. Better to be good most of the time than rotten all of the time, basically.

But by description of how I’m actually eating: I’m eating a primarily plant based diet.

And maybe that’s okay. My reasons for being a vegetarian at all aren’t about animal death. They’re about animal suffering. I’m mostly concerned with factory farming and unnecessary animal pain so maybe I can maintain my roughly 2/3 vegan diet while remaining true to those concerns. I’m not sure. I’m still thinking! I’m a philosopher after all.

What do I think of the move to ‘plant strong’ over ‘vegan’? Insofar as it seems to distance our diets from concern for animals, I’m not thrilled. If it results in less animals being raised in and killed in horrible conditions, I think it’s great. In the end, I’ll be happy with good results even if they don’t come about for reasons that I think are the right reasons. But that argument, between results and motives and their moral significance takes us right into the deep end of moral philosophy, so I’ll stop here and go enjoy my buckwheat waffles and green smoothie!

Plant Strong Resources:

Living Plant Strong


14 thoughts on “Vegan, plant-based, plant strong? What’s in a name?

  1. I guess, as with many things, if you can get people to reduce their contribution to animal suffering by de-politicizing the vegan diet, then the outcome is good. But I wish more people would be more attendant to the realities of industrialized farming and the vastness of the animal suffering involved. There are also important environmental and health reasons to be vegan (or eat plant-based foods), and these are compelling as well. But food really is an ethical issue for all sorts of reasons. Animal suffering tops the list for me. So while I love the clip with Clinton and Letterman, I feel like a person with the type of influence that Clinton has good do so much more by also talking about the ethical dimensions of his food choices. I notice you did a fabulous job of laying out the territory here, but didn’t venture to make any arguments in favor or one or the other approach. Is that for another day, or are you going to leave it here?

    Love that picture, by the way. Who wouldn’t want to eat more plants if they all looked so inviting!

  2. Okay — I posted my comment on an old version of your post that didn’t have a conclusion! Now I see the Sam I’ve always known! I was surprised that you’d backed off of a conclusion and happy to see you include one!

  3. My nephew, the bodybuilder is vegan for ethical reasons pertaining to animal suffering. I know he is. But he is very “macho” in some ways, and so he won’t admit it. I don’t understand it exactly, but there does seem to be something almost laughably feminine in the minds of certain men when it comes to caring (or perhaps publicly expressing concern) about animal suffering, or perhaps better said, from where or how you get your meat.

  4. Food for thought indeed – no pun intended. I wonder if “plant strong” is too vague though. I would call my diet “plant strong” but I’m about as far from vegan as you get. I eat plants and animals, with very little wastage (offal), and animal byproducts (manure) going back in to the soil.

    A point I do want to make about animal suffering/factory farming – the good farmers (organic, pastured, free range etc) need our support. Buy locally raised, well treated meat and you increase demand for ethical produce. If you simply stop eating meat then all that’s left are the factory farms and feedlots.

    1. I agree and I support my friends who buy locally farmed, humanely raised meat. I’m not sure I could do it but I do buy local free range eggs. In Australia if I was to be tempted it would be by kangaroo. They’re culled and obviously leading happy free range lives.

  5. I just tell people I eat meat 3-4 times per month. I don’t like using terms nearly vegetarian or flexitarian. It obscures understanding.

    And it doesn’t help when travelling overseas and communicating with others. Who cares about chic lingo? Plain English, please.

  6. I have been trying to eat less meat and more plants for a while now, but I am resistant to making the leap to going full-blown vegetarian or vegan for a bunch of weird psychological reasons. Basically, if I start adopting the identity of being a veg*n, it makes me feel as though animal products/meat is off-limits, which in turn makes me obsess over animal products/meat. It’s easier for me to just be like “I try to eat a lot of plant-based food” and accept that I am also going to eat meat a few times a week.

    That said, my issue has nothing to do with negative associations with veg*ns. I know a lot of veg*ns and I admire their dedication to living their ethics as opposed to just feeling bad about something but not doing anything about it.

    1. But you can do something, eat less meat, and you’re doing that. It’s not nothing to make an 80% effort! I’m not sure why we hold good people up to such stringent standards and don’t worry so much about the people who don’t care at all. Eat less and tell people that animal suffering is why you’re eating less and that’s terrific. Really.

    2. We all draw lines in different places. I have friends who only eat humanely farmed and killed animals. I have tons of respect for that. It’s not my line but I get it and respect it. What I have no respect for? People who refuse to even think about or engage in the issues. Ears covered, eyes covered, la la la. Don’t get it.

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