What is a whole food, plant based diet?
The plant-based diet has been getting more press than ever in recent years.
And although it is usually intended to be synonymous with a healthier diet, not all plant-based diets are equal.
There is not actually one “plant-based diet”. Some are healthier than others.
While some people may choose to eat oranges, kale, quinoa, and beans, others may opt for pancakes, pasta, and cookies. Both can be plant-based, and even use fairly healthy ingredients. But the less processed a meal is, the healthier it often is.
That’s where a whole food, plant-based diet comes in.
With an emphasis on healthy eating, the term “whole food, plant-based” attempts to clarify what a healthy plant-based diet should look like.
The term, coined by T. Colin Campbell, PhD (author of Whole and The China Study), refers to a diet that revolves around eating plant foods as close to their natural state as possible.
These foods are more complete, more whole. They come in a nature-made package with nutrients, fibre, and water all working together to deliver the energy and nutrition you need.
Unlike just any plant-based diet, a whole food diet is about choosing the healthiest, most nutrient-rich plant foods.
You can still eat many typical plant-based recipes, but the ingredients will be made up of whole plant foods.
For example, a baking recipe can be made with whole grain flours such as oat flour or cornmeal, and whole fruit can be used as a sweetener.
The aim is to keep refined and processed foods to a minimum.
Why whole foods?
The main reason for eating this way is for health. Because whole plant foods are healthier than their refined counterparts.
Whole refers to the foods being complete, with everything you need. They have more nutrients, fibre, volume, and a higher water content.
All of these aspects combine to make whole plant foods more satisfying and filling to eat. You won’t feel you need to eat as much to be “full”.
Their higher water content to calorie ratio means it’s more difficult to “over eat” on whole foods. Because they’re greater in volume, you’ll be filled up eating fewer calories.
In keeping with a healthy diet, a focus on eating lower calorie-dense foods can help you to attain and maintain a healthy weight.
For instance, when it comes to grains, whole grains are best. So choose brown rice over white, whole grain crackers or bread over refined.
The greater fibre and nutrient content makes these foods healthier. For the more easily they digest and the more nutrition you get from them, the better you will feel.
So go for whole plant foods as much as possible.
What to avoid or limit in your diet
When it comes to whole foods some clarification may be needed.
There are more obvious refined foods you should limit or avoid like white flours and sugar.
But other foods tend to slip under the radar. Because of the popularity of a “Mediterranean Diet” vegetable oils are often consider health foods.
A Mediterranean-style diet may be healthier than a standard western diet, but that doesn’t make olive oil a health food.
The fibre and much of the nutrients have been completely removed.
Similar to processed sugar and protein powders, oils only have one macro-nutrient. When, in fact, whole plants have carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to varying degrees. Not just one of them.
In reality vegetable oils are just that. The oil from plant foods.
Olive oil too, is just 100% fat.
So despite what you may have been led to believe, vegetable oils aren’t part of a healthy diet. And if you do partake of them, you’ll want to keep it to a minimum.
The majority of your calories should come from plant foods in their whole form, complete with fibre and micro-nutrients.
Overall, the refined and processed foods you’ll most want to avoid or limit are: white flours, added sugars, salt, added oils, preservatives, and additives.
They’re not whole foods. At the very least you should be able to pronounce and identify all of the ingredients in your food.
Ideally there won’t be a list of ingredients at all. Just “carrots”, “bananas”, or “black beans”.
Go for whole foods as often as you can. But when you do reach for packaged foods, choose those with the fewest and simplest ingredients.
For example corn and quinoa pasta made with, well, corn and quinoa flour.
As for canned foods, choose salt-free beans or tomatoes when you can.
To accommodate busy lifestyles, foods that make meal preparation quicker are always welcome. It’s understandable you won’t always have the time to pre-soak dried beans or make sauces from scratch.
So familiarise yourself with healthy options available to you including brands and products like salt-free beans or tomato sauce and oil-free whole grain crackers.
And when options run low, choose packaged foods with lower salt content and as minimally processed ingredients as possible.
As interest in plant-based living continues to grow, there are more options becoming available. So keep your eye out for new products and brands.
What can you eat?
Okay great. So there’s a long list of foods you can’t eat. But what are some foods you can eat?
Well, pretty much any whole plant food you’ll find in grocery stores or at your local farmer’s market.
Below are a bunch of examples of plant foods you’ll want to seek out.
These are only some of the more common foods you’ll see in stores.
But there is so much more variety provided by nature than just what you see in the grocery store. So don’t stop trying new foods.
Sample list of whole plant foods
Fruit: apples, bananas, oranges, mangoes, dates, frozen (or fresh) berries
Non-sweet fruit and vegetables (non-starchy): cucumber, zucchini, lettuce, kale, broccoli, tomato
Fatty fruits: avocado, olives, coconut
Roots & tubers: carrots, beets, sweet potato, potato, turnip, parsnip
Winter squash: butternut, carnival, spaghetti, kabocha, acorn, pumpkin
Grains & cereals: brown rice, quinoa, corn, buckwheat, wild rice, oats
Beans & legumes: chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, adzuki beans, lentils, split peas
Nuts & seeds: chestnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, pecans, almonds
As you venture down the plant-based path there will be many foods you are familiar and some you hadn’t yet heard of.
You’ll soon realise just how much abundance there is.
So test out foods from each “food group” and find some you like. Make those your staples.
Beyond whole foods as you’ll find them in nature, minimally processed plant foods can also make up part of your diet. These can include dried fruits, plant-based milks, whole grain pastas, and the like.
And along with your plant-based meals, hydration is also important. Drinking water throughout the day and eating fresh fruits and vegetables will help ensure you stay hydrated.
Eating healthy doesn’t need to be complex. Just focus on eating predominantly whole plant foods.
Healthy, plant-based meals ideas
So once you’ve stocked up your cupboards and refrigerator with plant foods, what do you do with them?
You may want to start with meals you’re more familiar with, made plant-based. Many meals only need a few substitutions to make them completely plant-based.
Try things out and see what you like.
Some meal ideas are burrito bowls, tacos, quinoa salad, rice and vegetable stir-fry, mashed sweet potatoes, overnight oatmeal, stuffed winter squash, and veggie wraps.
Dishes such as casseroles, slower cooker, or instant pot recipes can simplify the food preparation. And that’s always a good thing. They’re often simple enough. You just load the ingredients, set the timer, and turn it on.
Smoothies, salads, and snacking on raw fruits and vegetables will ensure you’re getting plenty of nutrients. The more colour in your diet, the more nutritious it’ll be.
When it comes to baking, you don’t have to go without. There are healthier versions of dinner rolls, muffins, desserts, and more.
Trying to pick out salt, oil, and sugar-free (SOS-free) recipes is ideal.
A good place to begin is to learn how to cook without oil. It may seem like you’ll be sacrificing taste or texture, but most recipes really don’t need it.
And you’ll feel a lot better without it.
That pure fat content tends to wreak havoc on blood sugar. So get ready to say goodbye to that post-lunch drowsiness.
Having a well-stocked supply of whole food, plant-based recipes is always good to have. With that in mind, these cookbooks are a good place to start.
Of course you can enjoy a wide variety of plant-based meals and snacks. Everything from muffins to wraps to pies can be made plant-based.
That said, the more the focus is on eating plant foods as close to their natural, whole form as possible, the better.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple.
Salads, steamed and boiled vegetables, fruit, beans, and other whole foods should make up the majority of your meals.
The less cooking the better. So steamed over boiled, boiled over baked, and eat plenty of raw fruit and vegetables too.
But this is just what to aim for. Your diet doesn’t need to be perfect.
The more whole plant foods you incorporate into your meals rather than processed foods, the healthier you’ll be.
How to start a whole food, plant-based diet
So how do you begin?
With health in mind, you’re going for a long-term approach. You don’t want your trip to “Health Island” to be a one-off, flash-in-the-pan kind of event.
Whether you’d rather go 100% all-in right from the get go or would prefer a slower, more measured approach. It’s up to you. Find whatever works for you.
And most importantly, don’t stress it.
Just take it one step at a time.
Familiarise yourself with whole plant foods and fill your pantry.
Then stock up on recipes.
When it comes to your meals, don’t over complicate things. Keep it simple.
Take your typical go-to recipes and make them plant-based. Your morning oatmeal can be enjoyed with a plant-based milk and topped with plenty of fresh fruit.
It may not look like your usual breakfast, but it’s clean, whole plant-based energy that’ll keep you going through the morning. Besides, you’ll likely come to prefer it.
And while you start making changes in the kitchen, don’t forget to continue educating yourself. Or rather, re-educating yourself about nutrition and health. As first you’ll have to unlearn all that widely spread misinformation from mainstream society.
As you incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet, your taste-buds will change. You’ll acquire a taste for healthy, whole foods. And what you ate before may no longer be appealing.
But making sustainable changes to your life will take a bit of time and likely some amount of trial and error.
So make an effort to plan ahead. Having healthy snacks always on hand helps a lot, especially at first.
Over time you’ll have established new habits. Created a new “norm”. And whole plant foods will be your go-to.
It’s just a matter of time and consistency.
For a healthy whole food, plant-based diet focus on:
- eating whole plant foods (as close to their natural form as possible)
- limiting processed foods (choose minimally processed when necessary)
- avoiding added oils
- limiting salt and sugar
- eating leafy greens
- adding plenty of raw fruits and vegetables to your snacks and meals
And don’t forget it’s a lifestyle, not a diet. So don’t think of these changes as temporary quick-fixes.
Healthy living is about sustainable change you can maintain over the long-haul.
As you go forward and the more information you come across, the more you’ll likely want to know.
Find your questions and concerns about plant-based nutrition and living answered in the Plant-Based Directory, along with endless oil-free recipe resources.
The idea that plants can provide everything you need for optimal health may take a while to get used to. But it’s worth it.
Commit to eating a whole food, plant-based diet, and stick with it for at least a month. Chances are the “trial period” will come and go and you won’t want to go back to the way you were eating before.
There’s no better time to get started than today. So make your next meal one that’s based around whole plant foods. You won’t regret it.