How to Transition to a Whole Foods Plant Based Lifestyle.
Updated: May 17
There are so many arguments about which diets are the best. Nevertheless, health and wellness communities agree that diets which emphasize fresh, whole ingredients and minimize processed foods are better for overall wellness.
What exactly is a Whole Foods Plant Based Diet?
Firstly, what is a whole foods plant based diet? Simply put, a whole food plant based diet focuses on natural, minimally processed plant foods and is based on the two following principles:
Whole foods: natural foods that are not heavily processed. That means whole, unrefined, or minimally refined ingredients.
Plant based: foods that come from plants, this does NOT include animal ingredients like meat, milk, eggs, or honey.
However, the diet is not necessarily a set diet but rather more of a lifestyle. This is because plant based diets can vary greatly depending on the extent to which a person includes animal product in their diet. Usually the diet pays special attention to food quality, with many people sourcing their food locally or organically whenever possible.
For this reason, this diet often gets confused with vegan or vegetarian diets, which they are similar but they differ in several ways. First whole foods plant based doesn't completely put animal products off limits.
The Five Food Groups
In a whole foods plant based diet, there are five major food groups:
Fruits: any type of fruits, for example, apples, bananas, grapes, strawberries, etc
Vegetables: any type of veggies like peppers, corn, spinach, kale, sprouts, zucchini, etc.
Tubers: tubers are root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, beets, etc.
Whole grains: grains, cereals, and other starches in their WHOLE form like quinoa, brown rice, millet, whole wheat, oats, barley, even popcorn.
Legumes: any type of beans or lentils.
There are many other types of foods you can eat, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, tofu, tempeh, breads, plant based milks, etc. However it is recommended to eat these in moderation as they tend to be calorie dense.
Foods to Avoid or Minimize:
Highly processed foods: fast food & fried food, cheeseburgers, etc.
Added oil: olive oils, coconut oil, etc because it is almost 100% fat and highly calorie dense
Added sugars: soda, cereals, baked foods, etc.
All animal products: meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, honey, etc.
One of the biggest concerns about whole food plant based diets is protein. Amino acids are the building blocks that make up protein and originally come from the plant kingdom. They are essential and help maintain muscle and bone mass as well as support the immune system.
Amino acids can be obtained from various sources throughout the day and does not need to come from one "complete protein" based meal. Currently, the average adult is recommended to consume 0.8g protein per kilogram of body weight (on average for a person with a healthy weight, this would be about 50-60 grams daily).
Many plants, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains contain protein. Here is a list of some high-protein plant based foods:
Grains: seitan, amaranth, quinoa, whole grain spaghetti
Legumes: tempeh, peanuts, tofu, soy milk, lentils, beans
Nuts & Seeds: pumpkin seeds, almonds
The Benefits of a Whole Food Plant Based Diet
Plant based diets have been chosen to improve people's health, boost energy levels, and prevent chronic diseases. There's a lot of scientific evidence that many chronic diseases can be prevented, controlled or even reversed with a whole food plant based diet. Scientific research has shown that a plant based diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and other major illnesses. Many people also report having more energy, reduced inflammation, and better fitness payoffs after switching.
Many studies have shown that plant based diets are beneficial for weight loss and the high fiber content without processed foods creates a winning combination for helping people loose weight. A review of 12 studies, which included more than 1,100 people, found that people on a plant based diet lost approximately 4.5 pounds on an average of 18 weeks than those on non-vegetarian diets.
Additionally eating a healthy plant based diet can also help keep weight off in the long run. A study of 65 overweight & obese adults found that those assigned a whole foods plant based diet lost significantly more weight than a control group and were able to keep off a weight loss of 9.25 pounds for over one year.
Whole based plant food diets are incredibly heart healthy and could reduce the risk of heart disease. One large study in over 200,000 people found that people who followed a healthy plant based diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts had a significantly lower risk of developing heart disease than those on non plant based diets. Unhealthy plant based diets that included sugary drinks, fruit juices and refined grains were associated with a slightly increased risk of heart disease.
Several studies suggest that following a plant based diet may reduce your risk of certain types of cancer. A study in over 69,000 people found that vegetarian diets were associated with a significantly lower risk of gastrointestinal cancer, while another large study in more than 77,000 people showed that those who followed vegetarian diets had a 22% lower risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Adopting a plant based diet could effectively manage or reduce your risk of developing diabetes. A study of more than 200,000 people found that those who stuck to a healthy plant based diet had a 34% lower risk of developing diabetes than those who followed unhealthy, non plant based diets. Additionally, plant based diets have been shown to improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes.
Some studies have suggested that diets rich in vegetables and fruits may help slow or prevent cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease in older adults. Plant based diets have a higher number of plant compounds and antioxidants which have been shown to slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease and reverse cognitive deficits.
Critical Nutrients & Calories on a Whole Food Plant Based Diet
Every diet has its caveats and because the whole food plant based diet lacks animal based foods, you may lack some vitamin B12. In general, it is healthy to consume all your vitamins and thankfully this diet gets a lot of them.
Calcium: green veggies, oranges, tahini, calcium fortified soy milk & tofu
Iron: oats, spinach, dried figs, lentils, tahini, chickpeas
Zinc: whole grains, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, pumpkin seeds, almonds
Iodine: nori or dulse seaweed, iodized salt
Omega-3: flax seeds, basil seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts
Vitamin B12: fortified food, supplements
On a whole food plants based diet it can be easy to accidentally undereat. The current trend of eating small portions is not necessarily applicable on a whole food plant based diet due to the lack of calories & nutrients in a small amount of veggies.
If you have ever restricted your diet for carbohydrates, small portions or whatever reason, then a large portion of vegetables may look like over eating, however it contains very few calories. Intentionally or not, undereating calories can lead to malnutrition as well as feeling constantly hungry and low in energy.
Therefore it is a good idea to track your food intake if you start a whole food plant based diet to make sure you are meeting all of your nutritional needs for the day.
Eating Whole Foods Plant Based is Good for the Planet
Not only does eating whole food plant based help your health, it helps protect the environment. This is because it reduces your environmental footprint.
Adopting sustainable eating habits helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and land used for factory farming. These are all major factors in global warming and environmental degradation. A review of 63 studies showed that the largest environmental benefits were seen from diets containing the least amount of animal based foods, i.e. vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian diets.
The study reported that a 70% of reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and land use plus 50% less water use could be achieved by shifting western diet patterns to more sustainable, plant based dietary patterns. Additionally, reducing the number of animal products in your diet and purchasing more local, sustainable produce helps drive the local economy and reduces reliance on factory farming, which is an unsustainable method of food production.
How to Transition to a Whole Food Plant Based Diet
How to Stock a Plant Based Kitchen
This is the fun and creative part! There are several plant based staple foods you may already have at home or can get the next time you are at the store. They're very versatile, nutritious and easy to find.
Whole Grain Pasta
Plant Based Milk i.e. coconut or almond milk
These staples can be used for many sweet, savory, cold or warm dishes. You can also make things easier for your transition by getting rid of or cleaning out your pantry of as many refined and animal based foods as possible.
Is it Expensive?
This depends mostly on the actual foods you choose to eat. Eating fancy avocado toast daily will lead to a high grocery bill, however there are many diet staples that are budget friendly. Especially when you think about the amount of essential micronutrients you get for the money spent, whole based foods are the better option.
Green vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are all rich in minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. When they are bought in season and in bulk, they can be very affordable. Here are some tips to save money while eating a plant based whole food diet:
• eat seasonal produce
• buy in large quantities
• cook some items from scratch
• use frozen fruits and veggies
• shop your local farmer's market
• freeze leftover produce to avoid food waste
• plan your meals to use everything
• stick to your grocery list/no impulse shopping
• grow some of your own food
• avoid eating out if possible
Meal Prepping & Planning
Meal prepping and planning is a great way to stay on track with your diet and make your week easier. Prepping means less time spent in the kitchen during the week and less inclination to eat out during the week. Additionally, it leads to less food waste or spending.
When you first begin prepping and planning, it is suggested to keep a food journal to track which meals you make and enjoy as well as how much work or time they require so you can know if and when to include them in your next meal plan.
Since you are cooking for a large amount of time, cooking single ingredients for fast meals will help ease the time constraint. For example, cooking beans which could be eaten with rice, in a soup, salad, or purred or grains which could be used in stir-fries, salads, stews, bowls, and breakfast porridge.
There are several ways to go about transitioning to a whole food plant based diet and it depends on your personality too. Generally speaking, a gradual approach works best and here are some tips to help you get started:
• start each day with a plant based breakfast
• get in touch with your reasons for choosing this lifestyle
• increase the amount of plant based protein in your diet
• eat enough food to avoid getting hangry or junk food cravings
• make healthy plant based snacks to stay on track
• prepare easy meals like soups and stews in bulk
• watch documentaries to get educated and inspired
• get in touch with like-minded people for support
• be easy on yourself and just keep improving
Although there are many benefits associated with a plant based diet, like any change or transition and with every diet, there may be some potential problems or pitfalls that arise. Some people may experience:
• digestive discomfort like diarrhea or bloating
• blood sugar getting too low if on insulin medication
• unwanted weight loss due to a lack of calories
• constant hunger and low energy
• increased cravings for heavily processed food
• having a hard time eating out
• spending a lot of time cooking and prepping food
• planning to make sure you meet all of your nutrients
These possible side effects do not mean that you cannot successfully transition to a plant based diet, but if you are concerned about weight loss or blood sugar, consult your doctor before making drastic changes to your diet.
Whole food plant based diets have been proven to help aid in weight loss, reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. It can reduce inflammation and improve your overall health. Although further studies need to be done and everything is done best in moderation. We always recommend consulting your doctor before starting any new diet. Transitioning into a whole food plant based life style includes making a lot of changes to not only your eating habits but lifestyle. Thankfully there is a large community of support and resources.
Have you tried a whole food plant based diet? What was your experience & do you have any tips or recommendations for people wanting to try it?