First, some definitions so that we’re on the same page.
Whole Food: unprocessed, unrefined. examples include whole grains, starches, beans, nuts seeds, legumes, and whole animal products.
Plant-Based: centering your diet around plant foods, while avoiding animal products.
Processed Food: my favorite definition for processed foods comes from Dr. Greger. Nothing bad added, nothing good taken away.
Fortified: adding vitamins, minerals, and/or nutrients to foods.
Exclude: these foods are absolutely not part of a whole food, plant-based diet
Avoid: these foods should not be eaten while following a whole food, plant-based diet, but some will choose to eat them from time to time, sparingly.
The foods you eat have a direct impact on your health. The processed food industry has made our lives simple and convenient but has had devastating consequences including increased incidence of heart disease, type two diabetes, and cancer.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 42.4 percent of Americans are obese, and 71.6 percent of Americans over 20 are overweight. Obesity-related medical costs exceed 147 billion dollars each year and are expected to rise by48 to 66 billion dollars per year by 2030! (1, 2)
Enter dieting! It seems like every week there is a new diet trend to follow, with loads of reasons to give them a shot. If you’ve tried any of these (Paleo, Keto, Atkins, South Beach, etc.), I commend you! I’m proud of you for wanting to take your health in your own hands and make a change.
The Whole Food, Plant-Based diet has been clinically shown time and time again to treat, slow the progression of, and even reverse the lifestyle-related diseases mentioned above. it’s also extremely effective for sustained weight loss. No more yo-yo dieting! Unlike most diets, however, there is no clear definition for a whole food, plant-based diet, and there can be a lot of misinformation as to what you should include or exclude.
Follow along and I’ll set the record straight.
|The general principles of a whole-food, plant-based diet are:
~ Eat mostly whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy, nuts, and seeds
~ Exclude processed and refined foods, such as added sugars, white flour, and processed oils
~ Avoid animal products
Table of Contents
- Foods to Eat on the WFPB Diet
- Foods To Avoid or Exclude on the WFPB Diet
- If you follow the WFPB diet, are you vegan?
- What Are The Health Benefits of a WFPB Diet?
- I’ve Also Heard of WFPBNO. What’s That?
- Debunking Some Common Myths
- Conclusion: Everything You Need to Know About the WFPB Diet
Foods to Eat on the WFPB Diet
The following foods make up the bulk of a whole food, plant-based diet:
- Whole foods: generally speaking whole foods only have one name and don’t need an ingredient label. If it’s from the Earth, you’re good to go.
- Whole grains: wild rice, quinoa, oatmeal, sorghum, millet, barley
- Fruit: all of your favorites, including, bananas, berries, melons, apples, pineapple, and exotics like dragon fruit and mango
- Vegetables: all of ‘em! Green leafy vegetables, broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, and an endless list of other
- Tubers (roots): all forms of potatoes (white, yellow, red, sweet, and yams), carrots, beets, and radishes
- Legumes: beans (kidney, black, pinto, etc.), peas (yellow and green split peas), black-eyed peas, lentils, soybeans, and peanuts
- Nuts and Seeds: flaxmeal, hemp hearts, chia seeds, nuts (walnuts, pistachios, almonds, etc.)
- Nut and seed butters: choose all-natural brands where the only ingredient is the nut or seeds you are looking for. Avoid additives like sugar, salt, and hydrogenated oils.
- Healthy fats: avocados, coconut
- Unsweetened plant-based milks: this is up for debate as most have quite a few ingredients. Choose unsweetened versions with the fewest ingredients possible.
- Plant-based proteins: tofu and tempeh
Foods To Avoid or Exclude on the WFPB Diet
The following foods should be excluded or avoided on a whole food, plant-based diet:
- Refined and Processed Foods (exclude): exclude foods that have many ingredients or ingredients you can’t pronounce. Skip added sugar and oils, as well as refined flour and white rice.
- Dairy (avoid): milk, cheese, yogurt, whey and casein protein powders
- Meat (avoid): in all its forms! Beef, pork, fish, and poultry
- Eggs (avoid): egg whites, yolks, doesn’t matter…avoid them
If you follow the WFPB diet, are you vegan?
Not necessarily. Many vegans do choose to follow a whole food, plant-based diet, but not as a rule. Veganism excludes all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and honey from their diet. Vegans also exclude these products from other areas of their life, avoiding animal products such as leather in clothing and choosing Cruelty Free health and beauty products.
There is a growing industry focused on processed foods that exclude animal products as the vegan diet and lifestyle continues to gain mainstream acceptance and popularity. These make it much easier for people to transition to eating a vegan or vegetarian diet, but they do not fit the guidelines of whole food, plant-based.
What Are The Health Benefits of a WFPB Diet?
The move to a whole food, plant-based diet is a move in the right direction for your health. Lifestyle-related diseases such as heart disease, type two diabetes, and some forms of cancer rank as the top killers worldwide. Whole plant foods have shown the ability to prevent, and even reverse, these chronic diseases.
In fact, “it is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” (3)
Nutrition Science Research Supports WFPB
Centenarian and longevity studies look at areas where people live the longest and research their dietary and lifestyle habits. There are five “Blue Zones,” recognized for having the highest percentages of centenarians (people who live to 100 years and older). Despite the fact that the Blue Zones are spread across the globe, ranging in location from Okinawa to Sardinia to Loma Linda, California, all Blue Zone diets share common patterns. They are 95 to 100 percent whole food, plant-based, rich in beans, whole grains, and root vegetables.
Epidemiological (observation) studies look for relationships between dietary and lifestyle choices and disease. The Adventist Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study, and the China Study all followed large groups of people who shared low rates of disease. WFPB diets were the common thread shared between them.
Population Migration Studies follow groups of people as they move to new areas. These have been very revealing! When people move they tend to adopt the lifestyle of their new location. Rates of chronic disease can increase by 10 times or more for the same ethnic group members living in the U.S. as compared to their traditional homelands (4). This suggests that diet and lifestyle far outweigh genetics as risk factors.
Clinical research and interventions test hypotheses in controlled, scientific environments. In randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled scientific research trials (The “Gold Standard” of scientific research), WFPB diets have repeatedly shown the ability to prevent, treat, and even reverse heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Some Specifics About Diet and Chronic Disease
“Given the right conditions, the body heals itself.” -Dr. Michael Greger
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity.” (5)
Heart disease continues to be the number one killer worldwide. A WFPB diet is the only diet clinically shown to arrest and reverse heart disease in the majority of patients. Doctors Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn have done incredible work in this field, and their results are incredible!
Dr. Ornish “reported a 91 percent reduction in angina attacks within just a few weeks in patients placed on a plant-based diet both with or without exercise (Greger, 2015, p. 25).”
Cholesterol, in particular, has been implicated as the main culprit necessary for the progression of atherosclerosis (6). WFPB dieting limits or restricts animal products, which is the only source of cholesterol in our diet.
However, while plant-based diets are recommended for heart disease prevention, not all plant foods are created equal. (7)
A study of nearly 210,000 men and women, resulting in more than 4,833,042 person-years of follow-up, concluded that “higher intake of a plant-based diet index (PDI) rich in healthier plant foods is associated with substantially lower CHD (coronary heart disease) risk.” (8)
This is why basing your diet around whole plant foods is so important for health.
Type 2 Diabetes
“Yeah, gotta check my blood sugar now.” How many times have you heard a loved one say that? Have you said that yourself? Type 2 Diabetes is viewed more and more as just a normal part of getting older. Please, this is not normal!
Diabetes is an epidemic in America. Over 80 million Americans are prediabetic, and a whopping 10 percent of the population have full-blown type 2 diabetes. Researchers have known for almost a century that whole plant foods have the power to reverse both of these conditions!
A study published in June 2016 in PLOS Medicine followed more than 200,000 men and women across the U.S. for more than 20 years. Health professionals had participants regularly complete questionnaires on diet, lifestyle, and new disease diagnoses. Researchers then evaluated participants’ diets using a plant-based diet index (PDI) in which plant and animal foods received a range of different scores. (9)
Researchers concluded that (10):
- Those who followed mostly plant-based diets developed type 2 diabetes 20 percent less often than those who did not.
- Those who followed the healthiest plant-based diets, primarily eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains, reduced type 2 diabetes by 34 percent.
- Those who followed mostly plant-based diets, but continued eating refined grains, processed foods, and sugar, developed type 2 diabetes 16 percent more often than those who made the healthier, whole food choices.
Type 2 diabetes doesn’t have to be something you live with! And, just imagine how much money you will save when you are T2D free and get off your medications! Not to mention how much better you’ll feel.
Digestive, blood, breast, and prostate cancers rank in the top 15 leading causes of mortality worldwide. Their effects are devastating, and a diagnosis is heart-wrenching. Nutrition’s role in fighting and preventing cancer is highly significant.
A 2020 review of various dietary interventions for cancer concluded that “vegan and vegetarian diets are protective against cancer, with a net 10%–12% reduction in overall cancer risk.” (11)
In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research itself states that “diets that revolve around whole plant foods – vegetables, whole grains, fruits and beans – cut the risk of many cancers, and other diseases as well.”
The protective properties of a whole foods, plant-based diet is not only due to the many benefits of plant foods, but also to the absence of animal foods.
Modern dairy cows are kept pregnant at all times so that they consistently produce milk. They continue to be milked while pregnant when estrogen levels are particularly high. Consumption of dairy milk has been shown to lower testosterone in men, cause early puberty in boys and girls, and has been linked to both prostate and breast cancers. (12)
Highly absorbable calcium found in animal foods has been linked to the higher incidence of prostate cancer among non-vegans. (13)
Eating just one egg a day appears to have twice the risk of prostate cancer progression in men, being topped only by eating chicken. (2017, Greger, p. 215)
The EPIC study found that regularly eating chicken was linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and leukemia. (14)
Cholesterol, which is found only in animal foods, appears to feed cancer cell growth, either by making estrogen or reinforcing tumor membranes so that the cancerous cells are more invasive. (15)
The research is consistent and clear. whole plant foods are protective while animal foods increase the risk of certain forms of cancer.
There is mounting evidence in favor of plant-centered dietary patterns for brain health and protection from age-related cognitive decline (ARCD). Plant-based diets that include a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, soy products, and whole grains are rich in antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins, and unsaturated fatty acids. These compounds reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. (16)
“Healthy meals can help heal the brain while less healthy foods can especially harm the brain,” says neurologist and cognitive decline researcher Dr. Ayesha Sherzai. She recommends a balanced, plant-centered diet including leafy greens, whole grains, seeds, beans, berries, nuts, crucifers, teas and herbs and spices.” (17)
Metabolic health is measured by checking blood sugar, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference. Only about 12 percent of Americans have ideal metabolic health metrics! Plant-based eaters have the best metabolic health on average.
WFPB eating is easy to stick to long term because the eating guidelines are very simple to follow. You don’t have to count calories to reach your goals, there are a ton of foods that meet the criteria, and meals fill you up without leaving you feeling sluggish.
WFPB diets are lower in caloric density and higher in nutrient density than traditional omnivorous diets. This makes it a great eating style for weight loss!
Calorie dense foods pack a lot of calories into small amounts of food. For example, think about oil. Oil has 120 calories in just two tablespoons! Oils are also loaded with fats, have no fiber, and are lacking in many nutrients that your body needs.
In fact, that is the case with all animal foods. They are void of dietary fiber and antioxidants while being high in calories and saturated fat.
With calorie-dense foods you basically have two options when it comes to weight loss; count your calories and consistently be hungry because you hit your calories goals without getting full, or eat until you’re full and blow way past your goal calories for the day. Either way, animal and processed foods can make it harder for you to lose and maintain weight loss.
Whole plant foods are lower in calories per serving than whole animal foods, are rich in fiber, and are nutrient dense (loaded with vital nutrients in small amounts of food).
Eating minimally processed, fiber-rich foods allows our natural satiety signals to work. You feel full when your stomach stretches, sending a signal to your brain that you’ve eaten enough. Whole plant foods fill your stomach with fewer calories than processed and animal foods.
Not only that, because whole plant foods contain fiber, some of the calories that you eat won’t absorb, putting you at an even further calorie deficit!
There are exceptions though, even with whole plant foods. Nuts and dried fruits are very calorie dense. They are incredibly healthy, but their calories can add up quickly.
Dried fruits have had their water removed, so you get a lot more calories in a much smaller package than if you eat the original piece of fruit. And one serving of nuts (walnuts, almonds, pistachios, etc.), which fits easily in the palm of your hand, will have about 200 calories. Eat them, enjoy them, but be aware of portion sizes.
Your body’s primary source of energy is glycogen. We are meant to run on carbs! However, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and tubers (like potatoes) are loaded with fiber, natural healthy sugars, and starch. Your body will convert the carbohydrates you eat into glycogen, some of which will be stored in your muscles, some in your liver, and the rest will be used for energy.
These foods are also low on the Glycemic Index (GI). Low GI foods give you long-term energy and don’t spike your insulin. This keeps your blood sugar and your energy levels stable, instead of the energy spike and crash we all know and love.
Whole plant foods are also low in saturated fat and higher in unsaturated fatty acids. Saturated fats are incredibly important, in moderation. They are used by our bodies for energy and as building materials for cell membranes. Too much saturated fat, however, is a problem, and is common with the typical western diet.
Simply put, saturated fatty acids easily align with each other and clump together. This makes them “sticky”. Couple these with additional animal-made fats, like the pro-inflammatory fat arachidonic acid, from meats, eggs, or dairy and we have an energy-zapping scenario. Too much of these cause your blood platelets to become sticky, so your circulatory system won’t work as efficiently as it can, which will make you feel more sluggish.
Again, the problem here is overconsumption of these fatty acids. We need them in our diet! Whole plant foods provide these in amounts that meet your body’s needs, give you energy, and don’t slow you down. Plants are also loaded with unsaturated fatty acids, like omega-3 fatty acids found in nuts and see, that are anti-inflammatory and are incredibly important for your brain.
Boost Athletic Performance
More and more athletes are recognizing the power of plants to boost athletic performance.
Tony Gonzalez played 17 years in the NFL as a tight end. He attributes his ability to play at a world-class, Hall of Fame level for so many years to following a vegetarian diet.
Carl Lewis made the switch to a vegan diet before the 1991 Olympics, performing at his highest level.
Venus Williams, Rich Roll, Colin Kaepernick, Kendrick Farris, Kyrie Irving, Hannah Teter, Kara Lang; the list of vegan athletes goes on and on.
Science is discovering and confirming what these incredible athletes know; you need the best fuel for powerhouse performance.
WFPB athletic benefits include:
- leaner body mass and composition which boosts metabolism and endurance
- easier glycogen/energy storage from plant foods rich in complex carbohydrates
- better blood circulation and oxygenation
- reduced oxidative stress
- reduced inflammation
|Summary: the benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet include:
reduced inflammation, a healthy gut microbiome, lowered cholesterol, improved circulation, a healthy immune system, increased energy, improved cognitive function, and boosted athletic performance.
I’ve Also Heard of WFPBNO. What’s That?
WFPBNO is another acronym you may run into. The NO stands for No Oil.
Choosing to eat a whole food, plant-based diet is a commitment to your health. But what’s so wrong with oil?
- Oil is extremely calorie dense, coming in at a whopping 120 calories per tablespoon!
- Some oils can also cause blood vessels to constrict. This makes it harder for blood to flow and can injure the inner lining of the blood vessels, called the endothelium. This can lead to heart disease over time.
- Saturated fats from some oils can increase insulin resistance.
So, there are those that choose to exclude all oils as part of their WFPB diet. No Oil is not, however, a requirement. Most choose to simply limit it.
Additionally, while No Oil is fine for adults, this is not a healthy practice for growing children and toddlers. Adults should consume 20-30 percent of their calories from fat. Children, however, need to eat around 40 percent for normal, healthy growth. Extra virgin olive, linseed (flax oil), avocado, coconut, and canola oils are healthy additions to kids’ meals and provide much-needed fats and calories.
In a Nutshell…
The longer you eat a whole food, plant-based diet, the healthier you will be. You’ll have a ton of energy stored in your muscles and liver for any activity at any time. Your blood will circulate better through cleaner arteries. Antioxidants will work after each meal to clean up inflammation. You’ll reach your goals without meticulously counting calories. And you’ll feel refreshed and ready to go after each meal.
Want help with how to easily design your meals to meet the WFPB criteria? Check out my article The Whole Food, Plant-Based Plate.
Questions? Experiences? Please toss them in the Comments section and keep the conversation going.
Debunking Some Common Myths
Myth: WFPB dieters suffer from nutritional deficiencies
Protein deficiency has only been shown to occur in the chronically starved and malnourished. There are zero incidences of protein deficiency in anyone who was meeting their daily caloric needs. Plant proteins are complete and are abundant in a whole foods, plant-based diet.
Iron deficiency is the number one nutritional deficiency worldwide. It occurs regardless of dietary patterns. Those following WFPB and plant-exclusive diets do not have higher rates of iron deficiency than those following traditional diets.
B12 is, however, essential for anyone consuming a plant-exclusive diet. If your whole foods, plant-based diet includes small amounts of animal products, you may reach your B12 needs. B12 deficiency is also a concern for those following standard diets, however. Vegans must take a B12 supplement (2,000mcg weekly, 1,000mcg daily for those over age 65), but these are good recommendations for all people, especially those over age 65.
For more information on what nutrients you should pay attention to while following a whole food, plant-based or vegan diet, check out my article Essential Vegan Nutrients.
Myth: WFPB diets are too expensive
Any diet is expensive if you choose to purchase expensive foods.
You may choose to eat organic foods, which are more expensive, but non-organic plant foods are also whole plant foods and are less expensive. Wash any produce you purchase well, whether it’s organic or not.
Pasta, rice, oatmeal, beans, tofu, and common, in-season fruits, can feed a family easily for less than a meal based around chicken, beef, or fish.
Shop your favorite grocery store’s produce section or local farmer’s market for the best deals.
WFPB veterans, what tips and advice do you have for people who are new to WFPB to ensure long-term adherence and success in eating this way?
Know your Why. If your reasoning is rooted in something significant, sticking to a whole foods, plant-based diet is pretty easy.
Start slow. Begin with one meal, say dinner, and find recipes that are simple and you enjoy. And don’t approach this with a “this as a life-long, I’m never going to eat that again” mindset. Instead of thinking about foods that you are giving up, focus on the amazing foods you get to eat! And take it one day at a time.
Give it a month. Make a commitment to one month and see how you feel. People tend to make this a lifelong change because of how amazing they feel!
Will WFPB really change my taste preferences?
Yes. It takes around two weeks for your taste preferences to change, on average. Start with foods you already like, and then experiment by trying new and amazing foods that fit the guidelines. Finally, start removing salt and adding in new herbs and spices. Given enough time, your taste preferences will change.
What are some foods that initially gave you trouble when switching to a WFPB diet?
Fiber. If a plant-based diet is new for you, increasing your fiber dramatically can cause some digestive distress. Go slow! Especially with foods like beans, chickpeas, whole wheat, broccoli, and cabbage. Start with fewer servings and build up over time as your gut bacteria adjust to help you process these foods.
Does anyone else feel “hungover” for lack of a better term, when you don’t eat a WFPB meal?
Yep. Whole plant foods have a positive effect on your gut microbiome, are anti-inflammatory, and help your circulatory system run smoothly and efficiently. This is an easy eating style for many to follow just because of how good they feel when they are eating WFPB. Eat a large meal full of processed, refined foods and sugars, and you’re definitely going to feel it, in a bad way. Funny thing is, that horrible feeling is how your body was feeling most of the time before eating a whole foods, plant-based diet! But, because that was your norm, you didn’t notice it. Now you do.
Confused why I’m gaining weight after starting WFPB
There can be a number of reasons why you may be gaining weight. How long have you been eating WFPB, how active are you, how many calories are you eating? Whole plant foods are nutrient-dense and lower in calories. Essentially, you can fill up on fiber without eating a ton of calories. My best, professional advice is to track how much fiber you are eating for a few days. If you are eating WFPB but adding a lot of oils and animal foods, you may still be low in fiber and loading up on calories that you weren’t expecting.
Is tofu considered WFPB?
Yes. Consider our definition of “processed.” Nothing bad added, nothing good taken away. Tofu is made by blending, for lack of a better term, whole soybeans into a paste and then creating a block (nothing good taken away). It is often fortified with additional nutrients like calcium, iron, and B12 (nothing bad added) as well.
Conclusion: Everything You Need to Know About the WFPB Diet
Know your Why. If your reasoning is rooted in something significant, sticking to a whole food, plant-based diet is pretty easy. Start slow. Begin with one meal, say dinner, and find recipes that are simple and you enjoy. And don’t approach this with a ‘this as a life-long I’m never going to eat that again’ mindset. Instead of thinking about foods that you’re giving up focus on the amazing foods you get to eat! Give it a month and see how you feel. People tend to make lifelong changes when they feel great!
WFPB veterans, what tips and advice do you have for people who are new to WFPB to ensure long-term adherence and success in eating this way?