What's the Difference Between Veganism and Clean Eating?

January 19, 2017

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.

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.

Shop the Story

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.

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).

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.

Order now

The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

Order now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Ali
  • Debbie Anderson
    Debbie Anderson
  • wik
  • Evan
  • Jeffrey Bowen
    Jeffrey Bowen
Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.


Ali January 20, 2017
Conflating clean eating with veganism is annoying. Clean eating, along with so many other things that are more socially acceptable than saying "I'm on a diet", can so easily devolve into disordered eating and fear of certain foods. The beauty of veganism is that at its core it's NOT about food, but a life philosophy.
Debbie A. January 20, 2017
When you posted the definition og veganism, coined by Donald Watson. Veganism IS about the animals, not a diet. So tired of people spinning or trying to do so, the true meaning. Clean eating, plant based, focuses on you. Veganism focuses on the animal.
wik January 19, 2017
I'm a neurologist & I do actually see B12 deficiency, for various reasons--not usually veganism. take sublingual tabs daily.
wik January 19, 2017
it's kinda cute that you're vegan and your name is HAM-shaw. I can respect that.
Evan January 19, 2017
This is so important, Gena, thank you! I've had variations on this thought for a long time (as a non-vegan but someone trying to be a conscious eater, and someone with many vegan friends)--it's really useful to see it so well articulated here. When we start lumping lots of voluntarily adopted diets or lifestyles together into clusters that blur the goals and intentions of individual practices, we create a culture that tends more towards orthorexia and the adoption of restriction itself as a lifestyle. Veganism should be inclusive (socially, economically, and according to one's ability) and clarifying what it is not might help make it more accessible to all.
Jeffrey B. January 19, 2017
One thing Veganism is not natural. We should be able to get all of our nutritional needs from our diet. The only natural source of vitamin B12 is animal or fish. I try to live a whole foods lifestyle where the whole of my nutritional needs come from my food not from supplements.
Sophie January 19, 2017
The reason why we can't get B12 has nothing to do with "not eating animals" and everything to do with the way we grow and produce crops. So you can eat animals and still be deficient.
Jeffrey B. January 19, 2017
Sophie there is no plant based source of B12. You may grow crops in the most clean and natural way and it will still not produce B12.
Sophie January 19, 2017
I am well aware of B12, how it's made, what food it's in, and why we can't get enough of it. Like I said, you can still be deficient in B12 if you eat meat. There's more information about B12 here if you're interested: