The Whole Food, Plant-Based Plate: Your Guide to Health and Longevity

Updated

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The Whole Food, Plant-Based Plate is a simple guide for making healthy food choices, and represents current scientific knowledge regarding nutrition and health.

What is the Food Plate?

The Food Plate, sometimes called The Plate Method, is an upgrade over the traditional Food Guide Pyramid (remember elementary P.E.?!). It was created by a team of nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health, and was adopted by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in June 2011. [1] The Plate provides a simple graphic for how to portion the major food groups on your plate, making it much more user-friendly than the Food Guide Pyramid.

I’ll show you how to use The Food Plate to portion your whole food, plant-based vegan meals to meet your goals.

The Benefits of Eating a Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet

A whole-food, plant-based diet has many advantages, backed by current research in nutrition science. 

Easy weight control: every 14 grams of fiber you eat cuts about 10 percent off your overall calorie intake. Meaning that a person consuming a 2,000 calorie diet who adds an extra 14 grams of fiber will tend to feel full after eating only 1,800 calories. [2] Whole plant foods also increase your “after-meal calorie burn.” [2] Imagine losing weight by simply adding fiber; no more counting calories!

Athletic performance: whole food, plant-based eating provides essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to help you recover from workouts. It also reduces blood viscosity (makes your blood less “sticky”), helping you transfer oxygen to your working muscles more effectively. [3, 4]

Disease prevention: chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, can be prevented, slowed, or even reversed with a whole-food, plant-based diet. [2, 5, 6, 7]

Better for the environment: a plant-based diet has a lower environmental impact and will help you reduce your carbon footprint. [8, 9, 10]

What should be on your plate – The Five Food Groups

Fruits and Vegetables – 1/2 of the Plant-Based Plate

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are an important source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Diversity is key! Each fruit and vegetable has its own assortment of vitamins, minerals, and combinations of soluble and insoluble fiber. The wider variety you eat, the better! Shoot for 4-6 servings of vegetables each day, and 3-4 servings of fruit.

My favorite vegetable combination at any meal is Geen + Orange. Green vegetables (broccoli, asparagus, kale, etc.) are packed with iron and highly available calcium, while orange veggies (carrots, squash, and yams) are loaded with beta-carotene. From squash and broccoli to peas and carrots, this color combination is amazing.

Sources: any and all fruits and vegetables! If you like ‘em, eat ‘em! Choose locally grown and in season when available, and try to eat as many different colors as possible. Eat the rainbow!

Fresh or frozen? both! Freezing fruits prevents the loss of vitamins and minerals, so they may actually be more nutrient-dense than fresh fruit. Add frozen berries to oatmeal, smoothies, and yogurt for a delicious crunch.

Grains and Tubers – 1/4 of the Plant-Based Plate

Grains and Tubers

Research consistently shows a link between whole grains and health, making them a vital portion of your plate.  [11, 12] They are loaded with fiber, have very little fat, no cholesterol, and provide a sustained source of energy in the form of complex carbohydrates. In a nutshell, they fill you up and give you energy throughout your day. This group will also give you essential vitamins and minerals including vitamin B, iron, zinc, and magnesium. Grains include cereals such as oats, rice, rye, spelt, wheat, barley, millet, sorghum, and kamut,  pseudocereals like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat, and tubers (my favorite!), including all forms of potatoes, yams, squashes, and beets.

Pro tip: aim for half of your grains to be whole grains. Refined grains (white bread, white rice, etc.) have a much higher Glycemic Index due to the removal of fiber, and many of their nutrients are lost during processing. The grains are often fortified with vitamins and minerals, but the majority of these are washed away when you rinse your grains before cooking.

*The higher the Glycemic Index (GI) the more effect it will have on your blood sugar. Choose foods that have a low GI, especially if you have pre-diabetes or diabetes.

Protein from Plants – 1/4 of the Plant-Based Plate

Plant Proteins

All protein is initially made by plants. Only plants have the ability to take nitrogen from the soil, break those molecules apart, and restructure them into amino acids to make protein. Vegan sources of protein include legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), an ever-increasing assortment of soy products including tofu, tempeh, and miso, and delicious “mock meats.” I love the Beyond Meat products! Legumes are filling, low Glycemic Index (GI), and loaded with calcium, iron, folate, potassium, zinc, and cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber!

If you are new to eating legumes and bean dishes, start slowly. Just as you wouldn’t run a marathon after one week of training, give your body a chance to adjust to digesting beans and legumes. Keep portions small and cook them thoroughly as they are likely to cause some bloating and gassiness until your digestive tract adapts to processing them. 

Pro tip: consume vitamin C with iron-rich foods (quinoa, wholewheat products, nuts and seeds, and beans) to increase iron absorption.

Healthy Fats – in Moderation

Healthy Plant-Based Fats

Healthy fats are an important part of a vegan diet. Choose foods with unsaturated fats (the primary source of fat in the plant world), limit foods that are high in saturated fat, and avoid trans fats. Aim to keep your total fat consumption to less than 30 percent of your total daily calories; 20 percent is ideal. Great sources of unsaturated fats include nuts, seeds, and avocados. While cold-pressed oils, including olive, rapeseed, and avocado, are also sources of unsaturated fatty acids, they should be consumed in moderation. Get the majority of your fats from whole plant foods. They are less calories dense than their oil-concentrated versions, and include fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals including magnesium, potassium, and Vitamin B6. 

Pay attention to omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in particular. These are polyunsaturated fatty acids and are essential for brain and eye function. My favorite sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are walnuts, chia seeds, hemp hearts, and ground flax meal. Add them to smoothies, salads, or oatmeal for a bit of flavor and texture!

While fats do not take up a dedicated portion of your plate, they are easy to include. Add seeds to smoothies, protein shakes, and oatmeal, nuts to salads or as stand-alone snacks, and use small amounts of oil as salad dressings. Nut butters make great sandwiches and dips for fruit, and avocados are amazing pretty much everywhere!

Pro tip: If you are looking to lose weight keep fat to less than 20% of your total daily calorie intake. Looking to put on muscle or already have a very low body fat percentage, increase your intake of nuts and seeds to up your calories.

Water – 2 – 2.5 liters per day

Water

Start your morning off with 16 ounces of room temperature water, first thing after waking. You haven’t had any water in about eight hours, and we often mistake mild dehydration for hunger. This simple habit will rehydrate your body, jumpstart your metabolism, and get your digestive system primed for the day. Search the internet and you will find an endlessly confusing list of water intake recommendations. Two to two-and-a-half liters a day will build the base for overall general health, and you can adjust from here as needed. For example, you may need to increase the amount you drink on particularly hot days or around times you exercise.

Pro tip: don’t count water you drink during or immediately after you workout as part of your daily goal. This will automatically increase your water intake on the days you workout to account for your body’s additional need.

The Bottom Line

Evenly divide your plate into the four food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains or tubers, and legumes), then top or side with a small amount of healthy fat like walnuts, hemp hearts, or avocado.

Essential Nutrients for a Healthy Vegan Diet

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 - Essential Vegan Nutrient

Everyone needs to be making sure they are meeting B12 requirements, but those following a vegan diet need to pay special attention. Vitamin B12 is “required for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis (13).” It is also vital to the development of brain and nerve cells. Many plant-based foods, including most soy products, mock meats, nut milks, and cereals, are fortified with vitamin B12. Supplementing with a chewable or sublingual, however, is essential.

*B12 is best taken as a chewable or sublingual (a drop under your tongue). The B12 will bind with proteins while in your mouth, which will help it get past your stomach and into your digestive tract to be absorbed and used. 

Recommendation: 150mcg tablet each day, or 2,000mcg tablet once a week for the general population.

Nature’s Bounty B-12 is my favorite B12 supplement (and it’s cheap!)

Calcium

Calcium

I’m sure you’ve heard of the importance of calcium. Walk down any supplement aisle and you’re likely to notice an endless array of calcium supplements. Calcium is critical to the growth and maintenance of bone. It is also essential for the movement of muscles and helps nerves carry signals from your brain to every part of your body? Add dark green vegetables, citrus fruits, nuts (especially almonds), seeds (especially chia), and calcium-fortified products such as tofu and plant milks to cover your calcium needs. No supplementation necessary!

Recommendation: at least 2 servings of calcium-fortified products or the above-mentioned fruits and vegetables each day.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D

20 minutes of full sun exposure a day and you are covered. However, there may be times throughout the year, depending on where you live, that you don’t get sufficient time in the sun. These are days where you want to supplement with a good Vitamin D3 product. 

Recommendation: 2,000 IU per day if you do not get at least 20 minutes of mid-day sun exposure.

I take the Doctors Choice Vegan D-3. It’s inexpensive and certified vegan.

A Note on Serving Sizes

The Whole Food, Plant-Based Plate gives you the relative proportions of plant proteins, grains, vegetables, fruits, and fats on your plate or bowl. It will not tell you how much to eat. How large your portions are will depend on your goals.

My wife eats about 2,000 calories a day, while I eat around 3,500. We divide our plates the same way, but my portions are larger. Here is an example of a typical dinner we eat, and how our plates will differ.

Tiana

Quinoa – 1 serving (1/2 cup cooked)

Tofu – 1 serving (3 oz)

Asparagus – 2 servings

Medium salad (mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumber, mushrooms, green peppers, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing)

Baked apple with cinnamon and blueberries for dessert

Matt

Quinoa – 2 serving (1 cup cooked)

Tofu – 2.5 serving (7.5 oz)

Asparagus – 4 servings

Large salad (mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumber, mushrooms, green peppers, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing)

Baked apple with cinnamon and blueberries for dessert

We cook and eat dinner together, eating the same foods. My plate is simply larger to match my goals.

Real-World Examples of the Whole Food, Plant-Based Plate

Tofu Scramble

Tofu Scramble Recipe Herbivore Muscle

Tofu scramble, cooked with red and yellow peppers, spinach, tomatoes, and mushrooms – plant protein and veggies

Wholegrain toast with peanut butter – whole grains and healthy fats

Fresh fruit – fruit

Directions:

  • Break a block of tofu into small chunks and toss in a non-stick skillet. Drain the tofu, but do not press. The water in the tofu will evaporate when cooking, but will also allow you to cook without additional oil.
  • Sprinkle tofu with onion powder, garlic powder, turmeric, and nutritional yeast
  • Add chopped veggies, and scramble until cooked to your liking
  • Add 1-2 servings of the scramble to your plate along with peanut butter toast, and side with a cup of fresh fruit, banana, or half a grapefruit.

Protein Smoothie

Protein Smoothie Recipe Herbivore Muscle

1 serving vanilla vegan protein powder

1 cup nut milk of choice

1 Tbsp chia seeds

1 medium banana

1 cup frozen strawberries

1 cup fresh spinach

Put all ingredients into a blender until mixed to a consistency you like. Add water if the mixture is too thick, or ice cubes for a bit of extra chunkiness.

References

  1. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/ [02/26/2021]
  2. Barnard, Neal. Reversing Diabetes: The Scientifically Proven System for Reversing Diabetes without Drugs. Hodder & Stoughton, 2020.
  3. Barnard, Neal D et al. “Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports.” Nutrients vol. 11,1 130. 10 Jan. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11010130, accessed 3,3,2021
  4. Wang F., Zheng J., Yang B., Jiang J., Fu Y., Li D. Effects of vegetarian diets on blood lipids: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J. Am. Heart. Assoc. 2015;4:e002408. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.115.002408.
  5. Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, Brown SE, Gould KL, Merritt TA, Sparler S, Armstrong WT, Ports TA, Kirkeeide RL, Hogeboom C, Brand RJ. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA. 1998 Dec 16;280(23):2001-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.280.23.2001. Erratum in: JAMA 1999 Apr 21;281(15):1380. PMID: 9863851, accessed 2,7,21
  6. Strong J.P., Malcom G.T., Newman W.P., Oalmann M.C. Early lesions of atherosclerosis in childhood and youth: Natural history and risk factors. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 1992;11:51S–54S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.1992.10737984. 
  7. Kahleova H., Tura A., Hill M., Holubkov R., Barnard N.D. A plant-based dietary intervention improves beta-cell function and insulin resistance in overweight adults: A 16-week randomized clinical trial. Nutrients. 2018;10:189. doi: 10.3390/nu10020189. 
  8. Jalava M, Kummu M, Porkka M, Siebert S, and Varis O (2014).  Diet Change–a solution to reduce water use? Environ. Res. lett. 9(7):1-14.
  9. Lynch, Heidi et al. “Plant-Based Diets: Considerations for Environmental Impact, Protein Quality, and Exercise Performance.” Nutrients vol. 10,12 1841. 1 Dec. 2018, doi:10.3390/nu10121841
  10. Lacour, Camille et al. “Environmental Impacts of Plant-Based Diets: How Does Organic Food Consumption Contribute to Environmental Sustainability?.” Frontiers in nutrition vol. 5 8. 9 Feb. 2018, doi:10.3389/fnut.2018.00008
  11. Kyrø, Cecilie, and Anne Tjønneland. “Whole grains and public health.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 353 i3046. 14 Jun. 2016, doi:10.1136/bmj.i3046
  12. Aune Dagfinn, Keum NaNa, Giovannucci Edward, Fadnes Lars T, Boffetta Paolo, Greenwood Darren C et al. Whole grain consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and all cause and cause specific mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies BMJ 2016; 353 :i2716
  13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/ Accessed 1/21/21.

*Author's Note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The content of our articles is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It's always best to speak with your doctor or a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet, or exercise routine, or trying a new supplement.

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AUTHOR
Matt Walter, CHN, M.A.T
I studied Food Science and Human Nutrition at Washington State University and interned as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for the WSU football team. I am a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and former personal trainer and competitive CrossFit athlete. My mission is to make embracing and adopting a healthy vegan lifestyle simple and fun!