What is a whole food plant-based diet?
A whole food plant-based diet is a way of eating which not only eliminates all animal products, but focuses on natural, minimally processed plant foods. This makes it different from a standard vegan diet in the sense that this predominantly focuses on excluding certain foods, while a whole food diet emphasises foods to add in.
What are whole foods?
‘Whole foods’ describes foods found as close to their natural form as possible. These include whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Refined grains and added sugar are minimised, or avoided, and some followers of a whole food plant-based diet also prefer to eliminate all oils, as they consider these to be a processed food. Others are happy to include cold pressed oils as they have been shown to have some health benefits, in particular extra virgin olive oil.
Benefits of eating a whole food plant-based diet?
There are many benefits of consuming predominantly whole foods. Such a diet has consistently been shown to be protective against a wide range of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes (1), cardiovascular disease (2), certain cancers (3), obesity (4), and Alzheimer’s disease (5). It can help to optimise both male and female fertility, improve sleep, reduce blood pressure, and aid weight loss without having to restrict calories. As whole foods are naturally lower in energy and saturated fat than animal products and processed foods, there is no need to worry about portion sizes or restriction, and this makes it an enjoyable, positive way of eating.
Important components of a whole food plant-based diet are herbs and spices, as they contain a variety of antioxidants, and phytonutrients which are beneficial to health. Turmeric contains curcumin, which has powerful antioxidant properties and can be enjoyed not only in main meals, but also in smoothies and added to porridge. There are spices known for their digestive properties, such as asafoetida, ginger, cumin, and fennel seeds, and herbs are an excellent source of nutrients, including vitamin K, with parsley being a particularly high source.
Tips on reducing gastrointestinal side effects of wind and bloating
A whole food plant-based diet is high in fibre, and while this has a range of benefits, particularly with regards to gut health, it can cause unwanted side effects if the fibre is increased too quickly.
- Increase beans, chickpeas and lentils slowly. Your gut bacteria need to get used to the increase in fibre and this can take around three months. Start off with small portions of around 1tbsp and increase by an extra portion no more than every three days
- If using dried legumes, soak them overnight in room temperature water and then discard the water before cooking. You can also sprout your dried lentils, beans and chickpeas which not only makes the minerals such as iron and calcium more available for absorption, it also makes the protein more digestible
- If using tinned legumes, drain and rinse well, as the water in the cans contain indigestible carbohydrates which can cause uncomfortable bloating and wind
Joys of eating plant-based
Following a whole food plant-based diet means consuming a variety of colourful, fibre-packed, nutrient dense foods. It is free of cholesterol, low in saturated fat, and packed with health promoting compounds. It is a sustainable diet, environmentally friendly and really is the best diet for optimising human health, promoting animal welfare, and protecting the planet.
By Lisa Simon, Registered Dietitian, Plant Based Health Online
- Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, Spiegelman D, Chiuve SE, Borgi L, et al. Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. PLoS Med. 2016;
- Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Spiegelman D, Chiuve SE, Manson JAE, Willett W, et al. Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017;
- Kane-Diallo A, Srour B, Sellem L, Deschasaux M, Latino-Martel P, Hercberg S, et al. Association between a pro plant-based dietary score and cancer risk in the prospective NutriNet-santé cohort. Int J Cancer. 2018;
- Satija A, Malik V, Rimm EB, Sacks F, Willett W, Hu FB. Changes in intake of plant-based diets and weight change: Results from 3 prospective cohort studies. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2019.
- World Health Organization. Risk reduction of cognitive decline and dementia: WHO guidelines. Who. 2019.