Describing "Plant-Based" and "Vegan" - Does it mean the same thing?

NOPE. These descriptive words may indicate the same point of view yet, “plant-based” and  “vegan” do not have the same meaning. This is a frequent topic of conversation I have with people trying to improve the quality of their food choices. If you are interested in eating more veggies, fruit, whole grains, beans, and anything else grown from the earth, I would describe that as moving towards a plant-based diet and I support anyone making this effort. 

The Western Diet would rather we all forget how to grow a garden in place for packed and processed foods despite research on chronic disease. The further we get away from eating whole foods the more deficient in vital preventative nutrients we become. There isn’t a right or wrong to adding nutrient-rich, plant-based foods and it takes time to change our addictive habits with processed foods. 

Vegan is much more than a choice about food and describes a lifestyle that avoids all animal products including, cosmetics, leather, wool, down, and most definitely fur. Vegan is a lifestyle deeply rooted in values and personal beliefs that may have cultivated from a specific moment that struck a moral cord. Every vegan remembers their defining moment. This is where the passion to promote a vegan lifestyle comes from.  

An interest in exploring our food system and animal agriculture often brings about a transition away from eating meat for many people. A vegan person may have had a personal experience that was traumatic such as, exposure to a meat packing facility, assisting in animal rescue, or visiting a farm animal sanctuary. Living vegan can feel like a spiritual choice by environmentalists who are passionate about the future of the planet. Others may be especially sensitive to the treatment all animals, not just domestic, and see no difference between the animal on a menu and their pets. Vegan can be an enlightenment to a better way of life to those who feel as if the path chose them as much as they chose to follow it. 

If you are not vegan or trying to understand it better my advice would be to explore why this choice is becoming so popular. It’s easy to understand why someone would want to eat more veggies, fruit, whole grains, and beans, but become curious as to why someone would choose to avoid ALL animal products and you’ll discover a world of answers that may be new to you. 

Plant Based eating and T1D

My story begins and ends with a disease that I learned to live with after I stopped consuming animal products and started learning how to eat. I lived in shame and confusion as a kid growing up with type 1 diabetes passively acknowledging the priorities in my life that made me different from others. I felt like diabetes was my weakness and I was terrified by anything out of my comfort zone. Soon after being diagnosed at 11 years old, the shame amplified with weight gain during puberty. I quit dance class, stopped riding my bike, and ate as much food as I wanted to avoid low blood sugar. Having more responsibility than other kids my age, I grew up fast for the purpose of self-preservation and I knew that I had to pay attention to how I felt.    

Children and adults living with diabetes have a lot to worry about on a daily basis. Everyday has the potential for being a new adventure while making decisions about food, insulin dosing and blood glucose levels. People with type 1 diabetes are insulin dependent, which means it must be injected manually with a needle, an insulin pen, or wearable pump. Making healthy choices is the key to exceptional diabetes management in addition to accurate insulin dosing every day.

Our cells require insulin and glucose for energy to keep us in a constant healthy state. As a result, people with diabetes can experience complications related to poor glucose control that is directly impacted by lifestyle choices. A good day with type 1 diabetes can go very badly in an instant from a slip-up in dosing, a skipped meal, or unplanned exercise. As a community, we have a tendency to become controlling, obsess over food, and are more likely to develop depression than people without diabetes. The underlying issue with physical and mental complications is inflammation to tissues. Stress and pressure on blood vessels is not just caused by high blood sugars but also by food choices that are inflammatory. 

What foods are considered inflammatory? 

Meat, dairy, processed animal fats, sugar, soda, and fried foods. 

Several years before I started studying nutrition and metabolism, my decision to stop eating animal products was primarily a moral obligation. I was hoping to lose some weight in the process but I had come to terms that my body was not going to change. Avoiding meat and milk was much easier than I thought it would be and I simply stopped buying it. My daily diet expanded in variety and I made a point to eat more anti-inflammatory foods rich in fiber. 

Within a few weeks I noticed that my blood sugar was running much lower than normal and I was constantly drinking juice to meet my typical daily dose. This pattern became the new norm so I decided to decrease the amount of insulin I took with meals and then I had to decrease it again, and again. What was happening?! Truly, I had no idea. I didn’t know anyone who was a vegetarian and certainly not a vegan with diabetes. Nevertheless, it became crystal clear that all the signs and symptoms pointed in one direction; my new eating habits were dropping my insulin needs. Realizing what was happening became an epic turning point in my life sparking my interest in nutrition. 

My path to become a registered dietitian emerged from two questions: Why have I become so much healthier since I quit eating animal products? Why didn’t the clinic teach me about this a long time ago? I was driven and a little angry but mostly hungry for information. 

First and foremost, the job of a registered dietitian is to deliver evidence-based recommendations and be diligent in translating the results into consumer-friendly information. Part of the de-coding process of scientific studies is to recognize that not every study is reliable and often need more research to present a valid conclusion. Bias is often evident in the fine print that informs readers where funding for the study comes from. When the purpose of a study is to prove nutritional necessity it would be highly unlikely that an industry funded study, such as driven by dairy, would be published if results could potentially turn off consumers.

Researching the dairy industry was the last thing I wanted to do. I knew I would encounter animal cruelty but the deeper I dug into milk and cheese the more evident it was that the result of cruelty is also imposed upon human consumers through deception.  

The dairy industry is not in the business of promising healthy outcomes yet, we have been misled to believe that if we do not consume dairy products we will not thrive. Dairy became a food group to help people consume adequate amounts of calcium, potassium, protein, and vitamin D, which is a necessary supplement for many people whether choosing to eat dairy or not. As a result of these essential nutritional recommendations, the dairy industry has only to instill fear that without their products we might not do well in life. However, dairy is often consumed in excess of daily recommendations often by children who are not given much of a choice. 

I was one of those kids that started out my day with sugary cereal soaked in milk for breakfast, cheese pizza at school lunch, a cheese stick and yogurt for a snack, broccoli drenched in cheese for dinner washed down with a glass of milk, and if I snuck it, ice cream for dessert. Everything I grew up eating on a daily basis was practically lactating! 

The million dollar question was: how did this affect my diabetes?

Diving head first into every publication I could find on insulin resistance and animal products is how I learned that consuming dairy isn’t necessary and even detrimental to our health. This is especially critical to understand for a person with chronic disease.  

Dairy products are inflammatory due to fatty acids, sugar, and the protein, casein. Cheese is mostly saturated fat and often difficult for people to limit in portion size. Overall, dairy consumption is typically on a level well in abundance of daily recommendations, which sets the body up for a constant state of inflammation. With more than half of the human population having an intolerance to lactose, imagine the internal damage than can result from a diet that includes dairy even if symptoms are not apparent?

The answer for me was finally simple to understand; eating less inflammatory foods increased my insulin sensitivity and improved glucose uptake into my cells. My metabolism became more efficient and I knew this was happening because I had more energy and mental clarity than I had ever experienced before. With great emotion, I realized that I had never experienced what it was like to be healthy in all my years with diabetes until now. 

I’m an average person who took extraordinary measures to take her health back. I found motivation through compassion, learned to accept my condition and turned it into a profession that potentially saved my life. In the beginning, this was a self-help mission but I’ve vowed to never forget what it feels like to be an ashamed and confused patient. As a dietitian, I want to be part of driving the solution which takes consistency and service. This is my commitment to all those living with chronic disease who just need a little spark to change their fate.  

Plant-Based Nutrition

If you find yourself reading anything about nutrition these days, it is most certain that you've come across the words vegan or plant-based. I prefer to use the word plant-based when I educate on how to adopt this way of eating, as it welcomes all who seek to improve their nutrition habits. It is certain that sustainable eating is best for the future of the planet and it starts with how we choose to nourish ourselves.

Here, I will provide the education you need to learn more about animal products, what plant-based is, and why it's not just a choice about food but a lifestyle. It begins with an open mind about where food comes from, a desire to learn about sustainability, and a curiosity about why people are choosing a plant-based way of life.