Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet [A Comprehensive Guide]: Health Benefits, Risks, Recipes and Meal Plans
Definitions | Weight Loss | Breast Cancer | Health Benefits | Enviromental Benefits | Side Effect/Health Risks | Foods to eat| Foods to Avoid | How To Get Started | Sample Meal plan | 5 Best Plant-based diets | Bottom line
If you follow arguments about diets, you will not fail to notice the numerous differences among people regarding what the best diet is. A high percentage argues in support of a whole-foods plant-based diet, which emphasizes consuming whole foods for overall wellness. It is urged that a plant-based diet is one of the best steps to boost your health, prevent chronic diseases, improve energy levels and help the environment. This article entails everything you should know about whole food, plant-based diet, with references to scientific (Research) evidence where possible.
Definitions of Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet
There has been a lot of confusion distinguishing between plant-based, Mediterranean, and vegetarian diets. The differences are not so straight forward, but lets try to take a bite on these various diet types.
Eating a plant-based diet simply means focusing on plant-based foods. The diet is flexible meaning animal products are not entirely off limits. Some plant-based dieters eliminate all animal products from their diet while others may eat small amounts of fish, dairy, eggs, meat or seafood. The Whole-Foods Plant-based diet emphasized the minimal intake of processed foods.
The Mediterranean is a plant-based diet but which includes fish, vegetables, fruits, poultry, whole grains, brown rice, pasta, and limited unhealthy fats.
Vegetarian generally means meatless. However, some vegetarians retain animal by-products such as eggs and milk in their diet. The vegetarian diet comes in various versions depending on what works for you. Listed are the various variations
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian – diet includes dairy and eggs but no seafood, fish, meat or fish
- Pescatarian– diet includes fish and seafood but no poultry or meat
- Vegan– eliminates all animal foods. Vegans eliminate animal products from their overall lifestyle including skincare, wardrobe and beyond.
Major Food Categories in whole –foods, Plant-based (WFPD)
The whole –foods, Plant-based (WFPD) diet is more like a lifestyle with emphasis on eating natural foods and minimally refined ingredients to meet your daily nutritional needs. The major food categories of the WFPD include:
- Vegetables – Lots of veggies such as carrots, spinach, peppers, lettuce, collards, peas, kales, avocados, and corn.
- Fruits – including watermelon, pineapple, grapes, strawberries, bananas, apples, oranges, mango, and lemon.
- Whole grains and cereals and whole-form starches – such as brown rice, quinoa, whole oats, wheat, millet, and barley
- Tubers – such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, parsnips, and beets.
- Legumes – including pulses, beans, and lentils
- Seeds – such as flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds, etc
Potential Health Benefits of a Whole- Foods, Plant-Based Diet (WFPBD)
According to research studies, a Whole Food Plant-based diet is rich in nutrients which have numerous health benefits. Additionally, the WFPBD has proven to be extremely beneficial to people suffering from diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, and obesity which are the leading cause of death today 1.
A Plant-based diet Can Help You With Weight Loss
Obesity in both adults and children has prevailed over the years. 69% of the adult population in the United States is overweight 2. Fortunately, changing your diet and lifestyle has an impact on your health and weight. Research shows that a Whole Food Plant-based diet facilitates weight loss. The diet has a high fiber and water content which keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Excluding processed foods helps you avoid foods that are packed with unhealthy fats and excess calories. A study involving 65 obese adults indicated that individuals following a WFPD managed to lose more weight than those who did not 1. They also sustained a weight loss of up to 42.3kg/9.25 pounds over a period of one year.
Therefore, shifting to a Whole Food Plant-based diet will give you a smaller waistline. Most plant-based foods have fewer calories than an equal amount of animal-based food. Whole foods contain large amounts of fiber that help you eat less by giving you a feeling of fullness.
The body mass index for plant-based dieters is lower than for meat eaters. A research of 38,000 healthy individuals showed that the BMI of those on plant-based diets was close to 2 points less than that of meat eaters. The study also suggests that fiber intake is inversely proportional to BMI. The higher the intake of fiber, the lower the BMI 3.
A new study says that fiber fermentation in the gastrointestinal tract has additional benefits 4 . Your gut uses bacteria to break down fiber to produce fatty acids which decrease secretion of triglycerides in the liver and influence fullness/hunger hormones to increase satiety.
Study conduct over a period of 18 weeks including overweight employees diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes found that a low-fat vegan diet can improve cholesterol levels, body weight and blood-sugar control 5.
Even while consuming as much food as desired, the participants lost an average of six pounds on the plant-based diet. They also experienced lower LDL cholesterol levels as well as HBA1c, which marks diabetes management.
Long-term research reveals that people on plant-based diets manage to maintain a healthy weight for more than one year. A Plant-based diet weight loss is the most nourishing and sustainable solution to lose weight.
A diet that contains large amounts of vegetables and fruits helps you prevent and reduce the symptoms of various chronic diseases including:
Plant-based diet and Cancer
The World Health organisation (WHO) classifies processed meat as carcinogenic to humans and is categorized at same level as cigarettes in causing cancer. Also, several reports by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization show that eating more cooked red and processed meats increases odds of cancer 6 .
This is because of 2 reasons:
1. Animal proteins regardless of source (meat, eggs and dairy products) increase levels of IGF-1 hormone circulating in your blood. This hormone is crucial for cancer cell growth. The more IGF-1 present in the blood, the higher one’s risk of cancer development.
2. When we cook animal meat like beef, pork, fish and poultry at high temperatures, heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) are formed. The longer the meat is cooked, the more HCAs formed. These substances damage DNA and lead to increased risk of cancer 6–8 .
So, what are the recommendations?
There are 10 recommendations by the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR). The most important three are:
- Maintaining a normal body weight.
- Limiting alcohol
- And a well planned breast cancer diet, eating mostly plant based breast cancer fighting food 9 .
Several research shows that a WFPBD might lower your risk of some types of cancer.The reason is because:
- Plant foods do not stimulate production of IGF-1 hormone.
- Also plant foods do not produce HCAs even when cooked at high temperatures. Therefore, with a full plant-based breast cancer diet, you reduce or eliminate risk of cancer development such as breast cancer.
For example research carried out in more than 69000 individuals showed that plant-based diets reduced the risk of cancers of the gut especially for the Lacto-ovo vegetarian 10.
A different study in over 77000 people found that plant-based dieters were less likely to develop colorectal cancer by 22% as compared to non-plant-based dieters. Pescatarians have the lowest risk of suffering from colorectal cancer 11.
Another Study showed that women consuming 6g or more of soluble dietary fiber a day (equivalent to a cup of black beans), resulted into a reduction of 62% breast cancer risk.
- Heart Disease
Heart disease is linked to unhealthy eating patterns. Whole foods are packed with fiber and plant-based foods are rich in potassium which promotes heart health. A study in a population of more than 200,000 people indicated that people who consumed a whole Food Plant-based diet had a lower risk of suffering from heart disease than people who followed a non-plant-based diet 12 .
The WFPD displaces refined carbs which increase blood sugar levels. Adopting to the WFPD is an effective tool to prevent diabetes. A research carried out in over 200,000 individuals indicated that those who followed a plant-based diet has a 34% reduced risk than people following an unhealthy diet 13 .
Another research linked Lacto-ovo vegetarian and vegan diets to a 50% lower risk of suffering from type 2 diabetes compared to the non-vegetarian diet 10.
Plant-based diets aid in blood sugar control 14 in those diagnosed with diabetes.
- Cognitive Decline
Research suggests that a high intake of fruits and vegetables may slow cognitive decline as well as Alzheimer’s disease. Whole Food Plant-based diets are loaded with antioxidants and compounds that may reverse cognitive deficits and slow Alzheimer’s progression.
A study including more than 31,000 people confirmed that a high intake of vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of cognitive impairment development by 20% 15 .
Enviromental Impact of Plant-Based Diet
Eating a Whole Food Plant-based diet benefits the planet. Your food choice is one of the determinants of your personal impact on the environment. Sticking to plant-based diet lowers pollution, reduces land and water use, and reduces deforestation. A positive impact not only involves a change in eating habits but also on how you grow your food.
The use of synthetic chemical pesticides on food is toxic to the ecosystem and has adverse effects on human health 16. Animal-based agriculture and greenhouse emissions contribute to the earth’s woes. Here’s how a plant-based diet paves the way to a greener and brighter environment.
- Conserving water
Study shows that producing a gallon of milk requires 1000 gallons of water. Consumption of animal products increases fresh water usage. Research indicates that 20 to 33 percent of all fresh water consumption in the world is for animal agriculture 17. Cutting down on the intake of animal products will reduce water wastage.
- Reduced Carbon Footprint
Animal agriculture contributes to global warming. According to FAO, Livestock production contributes 14.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the globe 18.
Other studies suggest animal production contributes to up to 50% global greenhouse emissions. Manure and factory farm manure management produce methane in large quantities. Methane warms the planet 20 times faster compared to carbon dioxide.
Eating plant-based diets lowers the rate of global warming.
- Saving Plants and Animal Habitats
33% of the arable land worldwide is set aside for animal agriculture. Most of it feeds cattle, chicken, and pigs for human consumption. Animal production leads to desertification and deforestation. Livestock grazing causes destruction of indigenous vegetation and promotes soil erosion.
This has a great contribution to animal extinction of species like sloths, red pandas, and orang-utans. Research indicates that 33% of endangered plants and14% of endangered animals is as a result of livestock grazing 19.
- Cleaner air
Manure produces ammonia, a potent nitrogen form that causes algae blooms and smog, and kills fish. Factory farms release endotoxins, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, methane and particulate matter that result in air pollution.
- Saving Marine Ecosystem
Water pollution has led to ocean dead zones. Factory farms release untreated waste which is in-biodegradable. The manure finds its way to the rivers, and oceans which destroy the marine ecosystems. The waste causes oxygen depletion which kills marine life.
By eating plant-based diets you feed healthy crop resources to people instead of livestock and save water.
Plant-Based Diet Risks/Side Effects
Surprisingly, plant-based diets pose possible risks to human health. All organisms care about their survival including plants. Their top priority is not human health. You need to take precautions to prevent threats linked to plant-based diets.
1. Nutrient deficiency
A plant-based diet may lead to insufficient protein consumption and deficiency of minerals and vitamins. If a plant-based diet excludes foods like poultry, low-fat dairy or fish, it might be hard to obtain the required amount of protein. This may lead to loss of muscle resulting in decreased mobility and strength.
Plant-based dieters have a higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency which is only obtained from animal-based foods including eggs, meat, poultry, and dairy. Vegans should take the B12 supplement to prevent deficiency. Symptoms of inadequate vitamin B12 include:
- Memory problems
- Poor balance
- Extreme tingling and numbness
A plant-based diet has low amounts of readily-absorbable iron and calcium. If you follow a plant-based diet that excludes iron and calcium-fortified foods such as fish and poultry you risk deficiency of the minerals. Other minerals that have better absorption from animal-based foods include copper, selenium, and zinc.
2. Plant Poison
Humans eat different parts of plants such as stems, fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves. Each part has its own ‘poison’ that is the plant’s defense mechanism to deter predators. Like any other living organisms, plants fight for survival.
Plants have been in existence for about 500 million years. They evolved unique mechanisms to survive since they are immobile. Plants have evolutionary advantage on humans.
Some plants use camouflage to blend in the environment. They could grow in places that are difficult for their predators to reach.
They can release poisons and irritants that react to touch. The stems and leaves have sharp spines, thorns or prickles. The leaves can produce wax, resins, and saps to trap insects. Plants simply didn’t evolve to become food for animals.
Plants have cleverer ways to keep off predators. They can entice natural enemies of the herbivore predators by releasing chemicals to attract the protectors. 99.99% of the pesticides 20 in your diet is from the natural chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves from predators.
Plants undergo stress when they experience a pest attack. They could produce higher levels of natural pesticide which can be toxic and even deadly to the human body. Some toxins use enzymes to corrupt the metabolism, some enter the cell and kill mitochondria, and some can attack the DNA directly.
Here are some plant parts of the plant poison they produce:
- Seeds can contain antinutrients.
- Grains could have lectins such as wheat leaks.
- Fruits may contain cyanogenic glycosides, phenolics, and salicylates. Peach pit poison is a perfect example.
- Stems can contain glucosinolates e.g. broccoli bombs.
- Leaves might feature oxalates e.g. spinach leaf prick.
- Nuts could contain phytic acid including the ”walnuts phye back”.
- Roots can come with glycoalkaloids e.g. potato paralysis.
- Beans could contain saponins and endocrine disruptors and enzyme inhibitors. Think soybean sabotage.
3. “Unhealthy” foods
Almost everything in the human diet comes from animals or plants. Most of the unhealthy foods come from healthy plant-based foods. A whole grain becomes unhealthy when crushed into flour.
Take refined sugar for example. Most food contains sugar which comes from plants. Sucrose better known as table sugar is simply refined sugar cane juice which is well hidden by the plant.
How does healthy plant-based food become unhealthy? Plants are the masters of disguise. They not only hide our food but also their poisons.
Vegan, Plant-Based Diet Grocery List on a Budget
When you shift to a plant-based diet, whether for a certain period or for good, your kitchen set up should be all things vegetarian. Plant-based shopping is pretty easy. Here is a variety of the most nutritious foods to include in your shopping list and you can make delicious meals using one of the Air Fryers I review here.
You can never go wrong with fresh vegetables.
- Brussels Sprouts
- Acorn squash
- Artichoke hearts
- Spaghetti squash
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
- Bok choy
- Sweet potato
- Butternut squash
Plant-based proteins include:
Nuts and Seeds
- Brazil nuts
- Pine nuts
- Macadamia nuts
- Sesame seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp seeds
Beans and Legumes
Look for saltless or no-sodium beans if you buy the canned version. If you buy salted ones, ensure you rinse the beans thoroughly before use.
- White beans
- Black beans
- String beans
- Black-eyed peas
- Kidney beans
- Navy beans
- Pinto beans
- Adzuki beans
- Mung beans
- Split peas
- String beans
- Fava beans
Cereals and Grains
Stick to whole-grain options instead of the refined flours
- Brown rice
- Whole-wheat flour
Plant-based Fats and Oils
Vegans steer clear of butter. It is okay to use plant-based oils in moderation. Choose cold-pressed or expeller-pressed oils and avoid refined types.
- Olive oil
- Sesame oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Coconut oil
- Almond oil
- Macadamia oil
- Avocado oil
- Coconut butter
- Rice bran oil
- Canola oil
Herbs and spices
Use spices and tons add flavor to your food instead of using processed condiments
- Green onion
- Chilli powder
- Ground ginger
Approved plant-based forms of sugar include:
- Raw cane sugar
- Maple syrup
- Agave nectar
- Brown rice syrup
- Palm sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Beet sugar
If you crave something bubbly or smooth try the following drinks:
- Club soda
- Macadamia nut milk
- Cashew milk
- Almond milk
- Coconut milk
- Coconut water
For an extra boost of:
- Protein and Vitamin B12: nutritional yeast
- Gut-aiding bacteria: fermented foods such as natto, sauerkraut, miso paste, tempeh kimchi
- Absorption: sprouted foods including sprouted nuts, beans, lentils, and rice.
- Protein: seafood such as agar agar, kelp, and spirulina
Foods to Avoid When on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet
A Whole Food Plant-based diet simply means excluding heavily-processed foods. Foods to avoid include:
- Fast foods such as chicken nuggets, French fries, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, etc.
- Refined grains including white pasta, white rice, white bread, bagels, etc
- Sweets and ass sugars in the form of juice, soda, table sugar, cookies, pastries, sugary cereals, candy, etc.
- Processed animal products such as sausage, bacon, beef jerky, lunch meats, etc
- Packed convenience foods like cereal bars, frozen meals, chips, crackers, etc
- Artificial sweeteners including Sweet N Low, Splenda, etc.
- Processed ‘vegan-friendly’ foods such as faux cheese, Tofurkey, and vegan butter.
If the WFPD includes healthy animal-based foods you should consume the listed products in low amounts:
- Low-fat dairy
- Game Meats
How to Get Started with a Plant-Based Diet [For a Beginner]
Eating a plant-based diet is among the best things for better health as well as the environment. It is important to know how your food was raised 21. Eat local foods which are organic by eating the foods in the season.
Michael Pollan, well known for “In Defense of Food Vs. The Omnivore’s Dilemma” warns people to avoid products with ingredients that your grandmother would never recognize. His advice simply helps you avoid transfats, genetically modified foods and chemicals that are harmful to your health.
Research from other studies support the philosophy of eating by supporting your farmers market, limit meat consumption to just grass-fed meats .
A plant-based diet for beginners
Here are some tips to getting started with a Whole-meal plant-based Diet
Include healthier meats in your diet.
Wheat gluten (seitan), tempeh, tofu, and edamame beans are great sources of protein and fiber. Ensure you confirm the soy products are organic. There are many genetically engineered soybeans to feed cattle.
Eat fermented soy products like tempeh instead of frozen soy nuggets. Marinate in ginger, tamari, sesame oil for more flavor. The texture is an excellent substitute for meat.
If you like soups, miso paste might come in handy in plant-based diet soup recipes. It contains live cultures that promote your gut health. It is an excellent chicken soup substitute.
Food: Add three slices of smoky tempeh strips to your sandwich or salad and enjoy!
Mix it Up
Smoothies are equally healthy to a heavy, egg-based breakfast. The drink contains healthy fats, antioxidants, fiber, and protein. Here’s a simple Whole Meal Plant-based diet recipe for a protein smooth 22.
Food: Blend one handful of kale, one cup frozen ripe banana, one fresh fruit of choice, almond milk, apple juice, a tablespoon of hemp protein, and one for almond butter. Add dry dates, maple or agave nectar for extra sweetness.
Eat more Legumes
Legumes are high in protein, carbs, and fiber. They give a feeling of satiety, boost energy, balance blood sugar and maintain a healthy weight.
Food: French lentils over dark leafy greens, with cherry tomatoes, avocado, basmalic vinegar, and olive oil taste great.
Eat healthy fish
Focus on fish that is at the lower end of the food chain like sardines and anchovies which reproduce quickly. They have a lower chance of containing mercury. They are also enriched with omega fatty acids.
Farmed fish is not recommended. Limit your intake of fish with high mercury content such as tuna to twice or once every month. Stick to the wild varieties of fish such as wild salmon.
Avoid shrimp which is a bottom feeder. It can contain high amounts of contaminants.
Know your Meat Sources and Labels
Choose free-range, organic beef, chicken and eggs. Check if there is a humanely-raised label before you make a purchase. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) grow animals in cruel conditions, pollute the environment with runoff and methane emissions and contain antibiotics and hormones.
- Eat fruits for dessert
Choose ripe juicy fruits like watermelon, peach or apples when you crave for something sweet after a meal
Eat more vegetables
Build your meals around salads. Include plenty of colors. Add fresh herbs.
Add whole grains in your breakfast meal
Buckwheat, oats, quinoa, and barley are good to start the day. Include some seeds or nuts with fruit.
Sample Plant-Based Diet Meal Plan
To help shift to a Whole Food Plant-based diet, the meal plan below can get you rolling for a week. It features small amounts of animal-based products. You can adjust the animal products to suit your requirements.
Breakfast: Walnuts and oatmeal with coconut milk and berries.
Lunch: Fresh vegetables, avocado, chickpeas, goat cheese and pumpkin seeds salad.
Dinner: pumpkin curry
Breakfast: Peanut-butter, unsweetened coconut milk, unsweetened plant-based protein-rich powder, and berries smoothie
Lunch: Veggie wrap and hummus
Dinner: Roasted sweet potatoes, broccoli, and grilled fish
Breakfast: Full-fat natural yogurt with sliced strawberries, pumpkin seeds, and unsweetened coconut topping.
Lunch: feta, veggie, quinoa salad.
Dinner: Large salad topped with black beans burgers and sliced avocado
Breakfast: Eggs and vegetable omelet
Lunch: Roasted Portobello fajitas
Dinner: Large green salad, eggplant lasagna with cheese
Breakfast: Cashew butter, kale, coconut, and blackberry smoothie
Lunch: Tahini quinoa bowl and roasted vegetable
Dinner: Brown rice, avocado, vegetable, and sushi with seaweed salad
Breakfast: Black beans, salsa, oatmeal with avocado.
Lunch: Chicken meatballs with zucchini noodles dipped in pesto
Dinner: Veggie wrap and Hummus
Breakfast: Vegetable frittata and Tofu
Lunch: Grilled shrimp and a large salad
Dinner: Meatless Chili
5 Best Plant-Based Diets
Plant-based diets focus on minimally processed foods sourced from plants, with moderate consumption of low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish, and red meat sparingly. Below is a list of the best plant diets that experts ranked based on the safety, ability to provide nutrients and promote weight loss.
#1: Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean ranks as the best diet overall 23. It is popular in the countries that border the Meditteranean Sea. These folks have lower mortality and are less likely to suffer from cardiovascular ailments and cancer than Americans.
The diet is effective in weight control active lifestyle, minimal consumption of saturated fats, sugar, and red meat and more intakes of healthy foods. The diet has numerous health benefits including cancer prevention, weight loss, diabetes control and prevention, brain and heart health.
The Mediterranean diet encourages you to:
- Eat plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits whole nuts, legumes and grains
- Eat poultry and fish at least two times each week
- Replace salt with spices and herbs
- Use healthy fats like olive oil instead of butter
- Drink red wine moderately
- Limit consumption of red meat to a few times each month
#2: The Flexitarian Diet
The term flexitarian is a union of the words vegetarian and flexible. It is not necessary to eliminate meat from your diet to reap the benefits of vegetarianism 24. You just need to eat less meat and more plants. The flexitarian diet not only improves your health but also help you lose weight and lower your risk of chronic diseases thus increasing mortality.
The flexitarian diet emphasizes on:
- Eat whole grains, lots of fruits, and veggies
- Including five groups of food to your diet which are not meat such as beans, eggs, peas.
- Do a 30-minute moderate workout for five days each week
- Alcohol is allowed
- You can still eat steak and a burger when you crave it
- Eat healthy meals if you eat out.
#3: Nordic Diet
The diet features some Scandinavian culture and tradition. The Nordic diet was aimed at revolutionizing the Nordic cuisine and to improve health.
The Nordic diet emphasizes on:
- Eat numerous vegetables and fruits each day
- Eat whole grains
- Add foods from lakes and seas
- Eat less meat; choose good quality meat
- Eat food from the wild
- Avoid food additives
- Use organ produce if you can
- Produce less waste
- Eat the foods in season
- Eat home-cooked food and enjoy with family
#4: Ornish Diet
Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of Preventative Medicine Research Institute and a clinical professor, created the Ornish diet to help people live longer, feel better, gain health and lose weight . The diet contains low fat, animal protein, and refined carbohydrates. The diet also promotes stress management, exercising and relationships.
In the Ornish diet, Dr. Dean emphasizes on:
- Avoid any processed foods and animal products
- Go for whole grain options instead of refined carbohydrates
- Substitute full-fat dairy with low-fat versions
- Exercising- Flexibility, aerobic activities and resistance training are recommended
- Practice yoga, deep breathing, and meditation to manage stress
- Spend time with loved ones
#5: Vegetarian Diet
As discussed earlier, there are various versions of vegetarians. Most vegetarians choose the Lacto-ovo approach which eliminates poultry, meat, fish and include eggs and dairy in their diet. The vegetarian diet improves health, including heart health and provides nutritional completeness.
The vegetarian diet emphasizes on:
- Eat more plant-based foods
- Eat whole grains and cereal
- Use eggs and dairy in moderation if you use
- Take sufficient vitamin B12 and vitamin D
Embracing a Whole-Foods Plant-based diet cuts out unhealthy foods and lay emphasis on whole plant-based foods. The WFPD is good for your overall wellbeing and promotes environmental conservation in whichever version.
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