Plant-based diets have been on the rise now for quite some time, with most of us being familiar with the terms ‘Vegetarian’ or ‘Vegan’. But what do you know about a ‘whole food plant-based diet’?
The term, and lifestyle itself, is gaining increasing popularity due to it’s long list of health promoting benefits. However, many of us still don’t know exactly what’s involved or where to even start when it comes to making the transition.
At Conscious Panda, we’re huge fans and promoters of the Whole Food Plant-Based (WFPB) Diet, simply because we’ve seen the numerous benefits it brings to people time and time again.
As many people still might not be familiar with WFPB, we’ve created this article to give you an overview and answer some of the most common questions about this lifestyle;
- What is a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
- Why Should I Choose A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
- What Exactly Can I Eat on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
- Are There Any Dangers to Being on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
- Is Making the Transition to a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Difficult?
So, whether you’ve been wondering for a while, or just come across the term, by the end of this article you will have a much better understanding of the WFPB lifestyle, if it’s for you, and what steps you can take to make the transition if you’re sold on the (many) benefits.
What is a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
A whole-food plant-based diet (WFPB) is a style of eating that encourages the consumption of more unrefined plant foods.
These include foods like fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Additionally, this way of eating discourages the consumption of meat, dairy products, eggs and processed foods.
Nutrition is a key component to your health which makes sense. Your body effectively runs on the fuel you put into it and the higher quality the food, the better your body will run.
However, even though a WFPB diet is great for your health, it also has hugely other positive impacts in other areas such as the environment and animal welfare.
People will choose a WFPB diet for a number of reasons, overall health being the primary one but weight management is also a key goal of a lot of people.
The reason a WFPB diet is popular in this regard is we don’t look at calorie restriction, which is a major deterrent for people looking to get on top of managing their weight. However, this article is primarily focussed on defining a WFPB diet, we’ll look at other issues in more detail on other articles.
For now, we’re going to answer the most common questions people ask when they’re thinking of making the transition to a WFPB diet.
Why Should I Choose A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
There are many reasons to choose a plant-based diet. Some people opt in for the health benefits, others want to limit their impact on the environment, and some want to advocate for the rights of animals. There are many more reasons people chooses a plant-based lifestyle, and only you will know the reasons that motivate you.
In this particular section, we’ll look at the many health benefits associated with a plant-based diet, in particular, a whole food plant-based diet.
Thankfully, much research has been done in this area with the benefit of certain populations who have been studied over longer periods of time. We find these people in locations known as ‘Blue Zones’. But what exactly is a blue zone?
Blue Zones are regions of the world where author Dan Buettner claims people live much longer than average. The term first appeared in 2005 in the National Geographic magazine cover story “The Secrets of a Long Life” before Buettner went on to publish several books on the subject. 1.
Buettner identified five areas he considered “Blue Zones”:
- Okinawa (Japan)
- Sardinia (Italy)
- Nicoya (Costa Rica)
- Icaria (Greece)
- among the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
In his book, Buettner provides a list of nine lessons, covering the lifestyle of blue zones people:
- Moderate, regular physical activity.
- Life purpose.
- Stress reduction.
- Moderate caloric intake.
- Plant-based diet.
- Engagement in social life.
- Moderate alcohol intake, especially wine.
- Engagement in spirituality or religion.
- Engagement in family life.
Buettner isn’t the only one who has uncovered a plant-based diet as part of the key to longevity. Through much research we can see why a WFPB diet benefits our bodies and help us to live longer and healthier lives.
Benefits of a WFPB Diet
For example, in one such study, plant-based diets are associated with improved plasma lipids, diabetes control, coronary artery disease and a reduction in mortality. 2
Another study found diets rich in whole and unrefined foods, like whole grains, dark green and yellow/orange-fleshed vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, contain high concentrations of antioxidant phenolics, fibers and numerous other phytochemicals may be protective against chronic diseases. 3
To get an idea of where a WFPB diet makes an impact, here’s just a few more benefits this lifestyle provides:
- Significantly lower risk of coronary artery disease and stroke. 4
- Lower body mass index, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and cholesterol levels. 5
- Lowers risk and fights progression of breast cancer. 6
- Lowers risk and fights progression of prostate cancer. 7
- Lowers risk of colorectal cancer. 8
- Lowers risk of developing other forms of cancer. 9
- Lowers plasma cholesterol and prevents the onset of many chronic diseases. 10
What Exactly Can I Eat on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
According to the Center for Nutrition Studies, the term “whole” describes foods that are minimally processed. So eat as many whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes as you want. Foods to eat in moderation include: nuts, seeds, avocados, natural sweeteners, and certain soy or wheat products that don’t contain added fat.
Thomas Colin Campbell, who is an American biochemist and one of the authors of “The China Study”, emphasises that the WFPB diet should not include heavily processed foods. Highly refined grain products, such as white rice and white flour, should be avoided, along with other foods that contain added sugars or artificial sweeteners and added fat, even olive oil.
You might be surprised to learn that oil’s are not recommended on a WFPB diet. This is because oils themselves are heavily refined. Oils are liquid fats that have been extracted from whole plant foods. This means you miss out on the added benefits of fibre, amino acids, vitamins and minerals if you’re not consuming them in their original form.
It can take a bit of getting used to when learning to cook without oil. However, you’ll still be able to make delicious and healthy meals without it and consume the original foods while reaping the health benefits.
Restricting Animal Products
As the term plant-based suggests, we also want to eliminate, or severely limit, animal based foods such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs.
Why the avoidance of animal products in your diet? Well, a lot of research carried out has shown plant foods are optimal for our health, where as meat protein can be detrimental. 11 Especially when we consume it in the quantities we do today.
But what about fish, eggs and dairy?
Cholesterol is present in every cell in the body. However, the body makes between 800-1000 mg of per day, so there’s no need for us to consume dietary cholesterol. You’ll find trace amounts in plant foods, but the majority of dietary cholesterol comes from animal products—concentrated in eggs and organ meats. High intakes may increase the risk of chronic diseases especially those of the heart and blood vessels. 12
Studies have found high levels of egg consumption (daily) are associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in men and women. 13 and it’s also positively related to mortality, more strongly so in diabetic subjects. 14
Finally, a recent cohort study into the impact of protein consumption on longevity found plant-derived proteins are associated with lower mortality than animal-derived proteins. The same study also found that a high animal protein diet increased IGF-1 levels and is linked to increased cancer, diabetes, and overall mortality. 15
With that being said, it can be easy to think of all the foods you’ll be giving up, when in fact there are still a huge range of delicious and healthy foods available to you.
To check out our full guide on what you can eat, check out our whole food plant-based diet food list.
Is a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Dangerous?
There are a lot of unfounded reasons that turn people off adopting a whole food plant-based lifestyle. They worry they might become nutrient deficient, they can’t be big and strong, or they fear a person can’t survive without the consumption of animal products.
Thankfully, this is all far from the truth and we’re going to show you exactly why in this section.
When it comes to getting all the nutrients your body needs, this will always come down to eating a balanced diet. The good news with the WFPB diet is eating foods in whole forms maximizes the vitamins and nutrients available to you. But don’t just take it from us:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association, that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment in certain diseases.” 16
In fact, plant-based diets are recommended in a 2013 nutritional update for physicians. 17 This paper found the major benefits for patients who decide to start a plant-based diet are the possibility of reducing the number of medications they take to treat a variety of chronic conditions, lower body weight, decreased risk of cancer, and a reduction in their risk of death from ischemic heart disease.
There is also a common misconception of people on a plant-based diet being weaker or frailer than people who consume meat. Yet, everyday we see examples where this isn’t the case at all. Think of your favourite sport and I can guarantee you’ll find an athlete on a plant based diet.
Don’t believe us? Here are just a few examples of plant-based athletes who perform at the top of their game.
- Kendrick Farris, the only American male weightlifter who competed in the Rio Olympics, is 100% plant-based.
- Nate Diaz, who famously beat Conor McGregor is also 100% Plant based. Other MMA fighters such as Jake Shields and Mac Danzig are also plant-based advocates.
- Lewis Hamilton, the 5-time Formula 1 champion, switched to a plant based diet, saying he performs better, feels better and could never go back to his meat-eating days.
- Tennis superstars Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams are all on plant based diets.
- Tom Brady, the NFL giant is on an 80/20 plant-based diet which he attributes to his success. On top of that, 15 (and growing) of the the Tennessee Titans are also plant-based.
Where every inch of performance matters, athletes are adopting a plant-based diet and improving. However, be prepared for the infamous question “Where do you get your protein from?”. To help you with your answer, make sure you look at our article on Plant-Based sources of protein.
Is Making the Transition to a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Difficult?
Any major lifestyle changes will take time to get used to. The key is to do your research, know what changes you need to make, and plan accordingly.
One of the biggest reasons people fail at adopting a plant-based diet is they jump in before they really know what they’re doing. It’s no wonder people find it hard to stick to when all they eat is bananas, nuts and spinach because they didn’t research and prepare some delicious meals to have at hand.
The truth is, this lifestyle does take work. It takes planning and preparation which seems overwhelming at first, but becomes second nature before long.
In some cases it’s best to make a gradual transition rather than jumping in head first. Maybe start with cutting eggs and dairy from your diet, followed by red meat, and lastly white meats and fish as you get used to the changes.
These gradual changes allow you to get used to adding whole foods to your meals without the feeling of restriction. As you get more confident making these dishes, you’ll pick up loads of great tasting plant-based meals that will leave you feeling satisfied and not like you’re missing out.
However, it’s not just omitting animal products that might cause the transition to be difficult. In standard diets, high levels of fats, sugars, and salt are added to keep us coming back for more. Sugar withdrawals for instance, can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches.
In fact a recent study titled ‘Evidence for Sugar Addiction’ found reviewed evidence supports the theory that, in some circumstances, intermittent access to sugar can lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of substance abuse. 18
The fact is, it’s hard to break a bad habit. However, keep in mind why you wanted to make this change in the first place. You want to be healthier right? Every day you stick to the transition it gets a little bit easier and the great news is there are plant-based alternatives to almost all of your favourite meals.
Any change is easier to make with the support of loved ones. This can be difficult when you’re adopting what some people might see as a ‘drastic’ lifestyle change. The key here is to do your research, educate the people around you and reassure them.
As time goes on they will begin to see the benefits with their own eyes. Your skin will glow, you’ll be on top of weight management, you’ll have loads more energy, and you’ll sleep so much better. These are just some of many of the benefits that will be apparent to everyone.
Always remember you can make this change yourself. You don’t need to do this with the whole family or convince a friend to be able to do it yourself. In fact, we’ve found once people see the changes in you they’ll be more inclined to try it themselves. Don’t be afraid to be the person who goes first!
Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself
What you eat occasionally is not the same as what you eat day-in and day-out. All this is for your own benefit at the end of the day and getting mad at yourself if you have a little lapse is only going to make it harder on you.
One of my favourite treats is ice-cream. So, I pick up a dairy free alternative every now and then to indulge. This is not classified as a ‘whole-food’ but by no means makes up the majority of my diet.
Complete restriction is hard to stick to, especially when you’re out with friends grabbing a bite. Even if you’re in a vegan restaurant it’s going to be nigh on impossible to find a meal that’s oil free. So indulge and know this is a minority part of your diet.
Moderation is still key here and as long as you prepare well, you’ll be able to stick to a whole-food plant based diet the majority of the time.
A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet: The Bottom Line
A whole food plant-based diet is not only the best diet for your health but also has positive effects on the environment and animal welfare.
In numerous studies it’s been shown to reduce the prevalence of chronic illnesses and allow us to perform and operate at the highest levels.
Try not to get caught up on what you can’t eat and instead focus on the multitude of foods you can eat. One of the most amazing parts of adopting a WFPB diet is learning how to use the various flavours of plant foods to create delicious dishes. I’d recommend keeping a journal of meals you attempt, tweaks you’ve made, and what tastes amazing and before you know it you’ll have your very own WFPB recipe book.
If you are thinking of making the transition to a WFPB diet, make sure you do the basics to make the change as easy as possible for you. Do your research, plan a variety of meals that’ll will give you all the nutrients you need and keep friend and family updated on the positive changes you’re experiencing.
It can seem hard at first but the benefits far outweigh the struggle of transition. If you stick with it you won’t be able to think of going back to the way you were eating before. After all, this is your health we’re talking about, and a whole food plant-based diet is the best way to both protect and optimise it.
- Buettner, D. (2012). The blue zones: 9 lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest. National Geographic Books.
- Massera, D., Zaman, T., Farren, G. E., & Ostfeld, R. J. (2015). A whole-food plant-based diet reversed angina without medications or procedures. Case reports in cardiology, 2015.
- Bruce, B., Spiller, G. A., Klevay, L. M., & Gallagher, S. K. (2000). A diet high in whole and unrefined foods favorably alters lipids, antioxidant defenses, and colon function. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 19(1), 61-67.
- Hu, F. B. (2003). Plant-based foods and prevention of cardiovascular disease: an overview. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 78(3), 544S-551S.
- Tuso, P. J., Ismail, M. H., Ha, B. P., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. The Permanente Journal, 17(2), 61.
- Mattisson, I., Wirfält, E., Johansson, U., Gullberg, B., Olsson, H., & Berglund, G. (2004). Intakes of plant foods, fibre and fat and risk of breast cancer–a prospective study in the Malmö Diet and Cancer cohort. British journal of cancer, 90(1), 122.
- Ornish, D., Weidner, G., Fair, W. R., Marlin, R., Pettengill, E. B., Raisin, C. J., … & Aronson, W. J. (2005). Intensive lifestyle changes may affect the progression of prostate cancer. The Journal of urology, 174(3), 1065-1070.
- Jansen, M. C., Bueno‐de‐Mesquita, H. B., Buzina, R., Fidanza, F., Menotti, A., Blackburn, H., … & Kromhout, D. (1999). Dietary fiber and plant foods in relation to colorectal cancer mortality: the Seven Countries Study. International journal of cancer, 81(2), 174-179.
- Surh, Y. J. (2003). Cancer chemoprevention with dietary phytochemicals. Nature Reviews Cancer, 3(10), 768.
- Dunn‐Emke, S., Weidner, G., & Ornish, D. (2001). Benefits of a Low‐Fat Plant‐Based Diet. Obesity research, 9(11), 731-731.
- Bouvard, V., Loomis, D., Guyton, K. Z., Grosse, Y., El Ghissassi, F., Benbrahim-Tallaa, L., … & Straif, K. (2015). Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. The Lancet Oncology, 16(16), 1599-1600.
- Thomas, P. R., & Woteki, C. E. (Eds.). (1992). Eat for life: The food and nutrition board’s guide to reducing your risk of chronic disease. National Academies Press.
- Djoussé, L., Gaziano, J. M., Buring, J. E., & Lee, I. M. (2009). Egg consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes in men and women. Diabetes care, 32(2), 295-300.
- Djoussé, L., & Gaziano, J. M. (2008). Egg consumption in relation to cardiovascular disease and mortality: the Physicians’ Health Study–. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 87(4), 964-969.
- Levine, M. E., Suarez, J. A., Brandhorst, S., Balasubramanian, P., Cheng, C. W., Madia, F., … & Passarino, G. (2014). Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer, and overall mortality in the 65 and younger but not older population. Cell metabolism, 19(3), 407-417.
- Craig, W. J., & Mangels, A. R. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. Journal of the American dietetic association, 109(7), 1266-1282.
- Tuso, P. J., Ismail, M. H., Ha, B. P., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. The Permanente Journal, 17(2), 61.
- Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20-39.