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What's the Difference Between Veganism and Clean Eating?

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I’ve been getting a lot of sales pitch emails lately that begin with something like, “because of your interest in clean eating and vegan food...”

Oftentimes the product in question is touted as being not only vegan, but also gluten-free, soy-free, preservative-free, refined sugar-free, grain-free, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with any of those labels, except that none of them applies to the way I eat.

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10 Tips for Going Vegan (or Incorporating More Vegan Meals into Your Life)

I celebrate the idea of eating whole and healthful food, and if that’s what “clean eating” means, then I’m all for it. Still, it’s not an expression that I like to use when it comes to my food choices. To call some foods “clean” suggests to me that others are dirty, that what’s healthful is also what’s virtuous and pure.

Maybe this is just my own baggage talking—I come from an eating disorder history, and for many years I really did regard a lot of food as toxic and unclean. Part of my process in recovery was to welcome the idea that not every food I ate needed to be optimally healthful. I learned to trust that, if I ate a mostly wholesome diet and spent a lot of time in the kitchen, I was doing OK. Even if some sugar, additives, or processed foods slipped in along the way.

Variety and inclusion are especially important to me because, as a vegan, I already exclude a number of foods from my diet. It’s a choice that I make happily, but it means that I take care to welcome everything plant-based onto my plate—including vegan foods that aren’t perfectly wholesome (read: vegan sweets, snacks, and comfort foods). They’re not the majority of what I eat, but they give me a sense of freedom and pleasure, and I’m glad they exist, because they make the road to veganism more accessible.

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A Creamy, Crisp-Topped Alfredo In Which Cauliflower Stars as Itself

The Vegan Society defines vegansim is “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

I’ve always liked this definition. I like that it frames veganism not only as a diet, but as a lifestyle that extends to clothing and personal care items as well as to food. I especially like the “possible and practicable” bit. I see it as a gentle reminder that veganism isn’t a quest for perfection or purity, but rather a sincere effort to avoid contributing to animal suffering.

Of course, veganism isn’t just one thing or just another. I began exploring veganism as part of a larger effort to take care of my body, but a visit to a farm animal sanctuary shifted my priorities along the way. I often say that I went vegan for my health but have stayed vegan for animals, which is a simplification but not far from the truth. Many vegans are driven primarily by concern for the environment, others by an interest in health, and some vegans eat the way they do because of religion or culture. There’s no single motivation that speaks for us all.

As a result, vegans bring to their food choices values and priorities that stretch beyond the avoidance of animal products. Vegan eaters might choose to shop organic, local, fair trade, or all of the above. They might avoid genetically modified or artificial ingredients. They might choose to exclude certain allergens from their diet. Veganism is often not the end, but only the beginning of an effort to eat with consciousness. To say that veganism is strictly about animal welfare doesn’t feel like a fair characterization of all vegan diets.

Yet it seems equally reductive to lump veganism together with clean eating. This ignores the fact that, for many, veganism is a lifestyle, rather than a diet; indeed, food may feel like the least significant part (it was harder for me to adjust to the idea of not buying leather than it was for me to avoid meat).

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The Economics of Veganism (+ Proof A Fine Vegan Meal Can Be Made Cheaply)

It also equates veganism with healthful eating, which isn’t always the case. Not all vegans aspire to eat healthfully, and those that do might have different visions of what healthy looks like. Many vegans don’t identify with the concerns that are usually filtered into “clean eating” as a category. They’re happy to eat sugar, refined foods, or artificial ingredients.

Drawing parallels between veganism and clean eating might create a stereotype of veganism that is exclusive, such as the idea that all vegans are slender. It might suggest that the goal of going vegan is lose weight or experience optimal health, which could in turn create unrealistic expectations of the diet. It’s true that vegans have lower BMIs, on average, than non-vegans do, but the community encompasses many different body shapes. And while veganism can be very healthful, and may lower the risk of certain chronic diseases, vegans get sick, too.

In the end, it seems to me that we need to expand our conception of what veganism is in order to do justice to the diversity of the vegan community. For one person, veganism may be part of an effort to eat clean. For another vegan, health and wellness may not be driving forces at all. Vegans might give a lot of thought to what they eat and where it comes from, or they may simply want to avoid animal products.

I’m of the mind that anyone who eats in an unconventional way can identify with others who do. It’s the reason that I feel a sense of kinship and solidarity with folks who have food allergies or other dietary concerns. But veganism really isn’t a special diet, or at least, that’s only one part of what it can be. I don’t mind if we’re grouped together with other dietary labels, so long as we can continue to remind each other and those around us that the conversation we’re having extends far beyond what’s on our plate.

Gena Hamshaw is a vegan chef and nutritionist—and the author of our Vegan cookbook! You can read more of her writing here.

Do you equate veganism with clean eating? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.