This article outlines everything you need to know about a Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB) Diet
A whole food, plant based diet is a diet that focuses on eating whole, unprocessed foods that are plants.
This means that the main aspect of the diet consists of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds.
There are some styles of eating WFBP that do include meat, dairy, eggs or fish. However these foods are consumed infrequently.
What is a WFPB diet?
A whole food plant based diet is based on the following principles:
- Whole food- it consists of unrefined, or minimally refined foods.
- Plant based : Food that comes solely or majority from plants and is free from or uses animal foods such as meat, milk, eggs, or honey minimally.
A whole food plant based diet aims to consume a wide variety of whole plant foods from different food groups including:
- roots/starchy vegetables – sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes
- vegetables – broccolli, cauliflower, kale, pumpkin, green beans
- fresh fruit – e.g. berries, apricots, peaches, apples, citrus fruits
- whole grains- e.g. rolled oats or steel cut oats, buckwheat, quinoa, red, black or brown rice
- nuts – e.g. almonds, walnuts,
- seeds – flaxseeds, chia seeds, sunflower and pumpkin seeds
- healthy fats – olives, olive oil, avocado, nuts
What is the difference between a whole food plant based diet and a vegan diet?
There is overlap between whole food plant based (WFPB) and vegan diets but there are also some key differences. A vegan diet can include highly processed imitation meats, cheeses, burgers, added sugars, artificial sweeteners and processed foods; a healthy plant based diet rejects these products in favor of whole or minimally refined ingredients close to nature foods.
Is a whole food plant based diet healthy?
A whole-food, plant-based diet is linked with many major health benefits. An increasing body of evidence supports plant based eating play an important role in disease prevention. Plant-based diets help to reduce the environmental impact of food consumption.
Whole foods are low in processed ingredients and this type of diet contains an abundance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fats, plant based protein and fiber. Below is a brief list of just some of the benefits of consuming a WFPB diet from a recent review in 2020:
- Weight loss
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower cholesterol
- Improved blood sugar control
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Reduced inflammation/inflammatory markers
- Reduced risk of heart disease
- Reduced risk of diabetes
- Reduced risk of cancer
- Reduced risk of asthma
- Better mental health
- reduced deterioration in renal function in kidney disease
WFPB diet and Diabetes
Diabetes is a global epidemic with 422 million people affected. The number of people with diabetes has quadrupled since 1980. 86 million adults aged 20-79 years have pre-diabetes. Diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in 2016.
A plant based diet is an effective nutritional intervention for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. Observational studies have consistently shown that vegetarians and vegans have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The Adventist Health Study is one of the largest prospective cohort studies of Seventh-day Adventists. Loma Linda University in California has been following 96,000 Adventists since 1976 and has found some interesting results about the effect of diet on health.
Adventists who consume a vegetarian diet have been shown to have a significantly lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In one study, vegetarians had a 58% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and vegans had an 87% lower risk.
A large systematic review and meta-analysis published in journal of American medical association 2019 found that greater adherence to plant based dietary patterns was inversely associated with type 2 diabetes.
One review article in 2017 came to this conclusion that the WFPB diet was beneficial for type 2 diabetes because it:
- reduces insulin resistance,
- promotes a healthy body weight,
- increases in fiber and phytonutrients,
- increases intake of complex carbohydrates
- Improves food-microbiome interactions,
- decreases in saturated fat,
- reduces advanced glycation end products,
- reduces nitrosamines and heme iron
A plant-based diet is an effective nutritional intervention for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes.
WFPB Diet and heart disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death globally. In the US, 1 in 4 deaths are due to heart disease. In 2010, there were 17.3 million deaths from cardiovascular disease globally.
Plant-based diets have consistently been shown to be protective against heart disease. In the Seventh-day Adventists study, mentioned above, vegetarians had a 40% lower risk of ischemic heart disease and a 32% lower risk of all-cause mortality.
A large meta-analysis of cross sectional and prospective cohort studies found that vegetarians had a 25% lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 20% lower risk of dying from ischemic heart disease.
A plant-based diet is an effective nutritional intervention for the prevention and treatment of heart disease. This is thought to be brought about by:
- reducing weight
- improving cholesterol status
- reducing fasting blood sugar
WFPB and cancer
Cancer is the second leading cause of death globally. In 2018, there were 18.1 million new cancer cases and 9.6 million cancer deaths worldwide.
Plant-based diets have been shown to be protective against cancer. The Adventist Health Study, vegans had a 16% lower risk of all cancers and a 34% lower risk of female – specific cancers.
A large prospective cohort study of over 61,000 British adults found that vegetarians had a 12% lower risk of all-cause mortality and a 19% lower risk of dying from cancer.
A large systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2017 found that greater adherence to vegetarian diets were was associated with a 8% lower risk of cancer, but vegan diets were associated with a 15 % reduction of cancer compared to standard animal product containing diets.
A whole food plant based diet is an effective nutritional intervention for the prevention and treatment of cancer. This is thought to be brought about by:
- reducing weight
- increasing fiber intake
- increasing intake of antioxidants
- reducing inflammation promoting foods
- improving gut microbiome
How do you lose weight on WFPB diet?
Obesity is a major public health problem. It is estimated that 650 million adults worldwide are obese. In the US, 38% of adults are obese.
A plant-based diet is an effective nutritional intervention for the prevention and treatment of obesity. This is thought to be due to:
- lower calorie density
- higher fiber content
- lower fat content
- higher dietary content of prebiotics and colonic foods that promote a diversified gut microbiome
Some of these benefits were demonstrate in a recent randomized control study published in Nature in 2017 – the BROAD study. The study modified the diets of obese and overweight patients and at least one of type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. The patients were randomized to a whole food plant diet. The researchers measured weight and relevant biomarkers at baseline, 6 and 12 months. The researchers concluded that the BROAD study;
“led to significant improvements in BMI, cholesterol and other risk factors. To the best of our knowledge, this research has achieved greater weight loss at 6 and 12 months than any other trial that does not limit energy intake or mandate regular exercise.”
One of the researchers, Dr Luke Wilson explained that the first noticeable effects of this diet was loss of weight and increased energy levels, which led to positive unintended consequences such as going to the gym regularly and activities that did in the past that they could not do while being over weight. Understandably this led to a positive feedback loop of losing weight and increased activity.
WFPB diet and kidney disease
There is increasing evidence that a WFPB diet offers benefits that slow the progression of CKD, decreases cardiovascular disease, decrease diabetes and obesity, and reduces inflammation and cholesterol, which in turn can ultimately delays progression of kidney failure.
Is a whole food plant based diet good for the microbiome?
It is becoming increasingly clear that the microbiome is key to good health. There are 10 times more microbial cells than human cells in our body and these microbes play a crucial role in our metabolism, immunity and nutrition. Many chronic diseases as associated by gut dysbiosis- reduced healthy gut bacteria, increased disease promoting bacteria and reduced overall diversity of healthful bacteria.
The composition of the gut microbiome is modulated by diet . A plant-based diet has been shown to increase the diversity of the gut microbiome and this is thought to be a good thing as greater diversity is associated with better health.
A whole food plant based diet is high in plant fibers, many of which act as prebiotics, foods which selectively feed beneficial bacteria in our gut. An example of a prebiotic in plant foods are fructooligosaccharides (FOS) which is found in;
- Jerusalem artichoke
Other prebiotics in plant foods include β-glucooligomers found in oats and raffinose found in beets and legume. Prebiotic-like foods include resistant starches found in some plant foods like:
- Uncooked plantain,
- Uncooked green bananas (as a banana ripens the starch changes to a regular starch)
- Beans, peas, and lentils (white beans and lentils are the highest in resistant starch)
- Whole grains including oats and barley
- Cooked and cooled rice
- Cooked and cooled potatoes
Studies have shown poor fiber intake among Western populations, less than 10% of people consume adequate levels of whole fruit and dietary fiber, and the typical fiber intake is about half of the recommended levels.
The more diverse plant foods people consume, the greater the consumption of prebiotic foods. Diverse plant food consumption increases microbiome diversity and increases beneficial bacteria that promote health by producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), including acetate, propionate, and butyrate and reduces bacteria that promote inflammation and are associated with the chronic conditions discussed above.
Consuming a plant based diet that avoids processed grains, highly processed foods and animal foods promotes a gut microbiome that supports the immune system and reduces chronic diseases.
Is a Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB) Diet Is Good for the Planet?
Our planet earth only has finite resources, and the way we are currently living is not sustainable. The world population is projected to increase from 7.9 billion in 2022 to 9.8 billion by 2050. The demand for food will increase by 50% while the demand for water will increase by 30%. We need to produce more food with less water and land.
The current way we are producing food is unsustainable. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the livestock sector is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while others put this number as high as 51%. Approximately one half of the world’s habitable land is used for food production, the majority of which is used to raise livestock for dairy products and meat.
In order to get cattle, pork and poultry to market there are essentially two methods. First, it is commonly called grass-fed, where animals graze on land where crops would normally be found. Examples of this are soy, cereals and corn. By eating plant based products the energy and resources needed to produced meat and dairy products would be vastly reduced. For grain fed animals, land has to be diverted to grow grains, not for human consumption but for animal consumption.
Some research suggest that everyone shifted to a WFPB diet would reduced global land use for farming by 75%. Under a hypothetical scenario in which the entire would adopted a WFPB diet some have argued that an estimated total agricultural land use would shrink from 4.1 billion hectares to 1 billion hectares. In other words, the land mass of North America and Brazil combined would not be needed. Surprisingly, land use reductions would be possible even without a fully vegan diet. Cutting out beef, mutton and dairy makes the biggest difference to agriculture land land use as it would free up the land for pastures.
There are some quick facts to consider when considering switching to a WFPB diet:
- Less than half of the world cereals are fed directly to humans
- Less cropland are needed for the WFPB diet
- Reduces greenhouse gas emissions
- Reduces deforestation
- Cuts down on water use
- Helps to preserve biodiversity
What foods should I eat on a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet
A whole-foods, plant-based diet consists of fruits, root vegetables, leafy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. These foods are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and are high in fiber.
The whole-foods, plant-based diet emphasizes whole, minimally processed foods.
The WFPB diet is more flexible than vegan or vegetarian diets and can include animal products in small amounts.
While one person following a WFPB diet may eat no animal products, another may eat small amounts of eggs, poultry, seafood, meat or dairy.
Fill your plate with plenty of plant foods in a variety of texture, flavors and colors including –
- root vegetables/starchy vegetables – full of nutrients and complex carbohydrates for long lasting energy: sweet potatoes, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot
- vegetables – broccoli, spinach, collard greens, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, pumpkin, green beans
- fresh fruit – a sweet treat full of antioxidants: berries, apricots, peaches, apples, citrus fruits
- whole grains – complex carbohydrates for energy: rolled oats or steel cut oats, buckwheat, quinoa, red, black or brown rice
- nuts – great for snacks and texture in meals: almonds, walnuts, brazil, hazelnut, pistachio, pecan
- seeds – snacks and add to salads- flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds
- healthy fats containing poly and monounsaturated fats- olives, olive oil, avocado, walnuts, peanuts, seeds
- Prebiotic containing foods to diversify your microbiome – onions, garlic, chicory, Jerusalem artichoke,
- Resistant starches to feed your microbiome – cooked, cooled rice salads, potatoes
- Herbs – amazing for adding flavor: parsley, cilantro, rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano
- Spices anti-inflammatory natural foods: ginger, cinnamon, cumin, chili, turmeric
- B12 supplement – if you avoid animal foods completely you must use a B12 supplement.
What foods can’t I eat on a WFPB diet?
Processed food to avoid includes:
- Fast food
- Desserts and sweetened beverages including drinks with artificial sweeteners
- Refined grains: white rice, white bread, refined pasta, etc.
- Heavily processed foods: cookies, chips, sugary cereals, etc.
- Processed meats: bacon, sausage, etc.
- Refined and processed oils such as margarine, vegetable oils, canola oil
Additionally any animal based foods are minimized. Some people exclude them completely, others consume them a few times per week. These foods include
- dairy products – such as cows milk, goats milk, cheeses, yoghurts, butter
- red meat – beef, lamb, venison
- poultry – chicken, turkey
- fish and seafood
Additionally foods such as fruit juices are a processed form of fruit and are much lower in complex carbohydrates than the whole fruit. A healthier choice for beverages includes, water or non-sweetened green tea, herbal or fruit tea.
How to switch to whole plant-based foods?
If you don’t know how to begin transitioning to a healthy diet, start with a food diary for at least a week. This will identify packaged and processed food, animal foods and existing whole plant foods in your diet.
Start by gradually replacing some of the animal based foods in your diet with plant-based foods. Simple substitutions you can make include:
- replacing beans, lentils and legumes in your cooking instead of using meat.
- replacing dairy milk with a plant substitute such as whole soy-bean milk (without added or artificial sweeteners). For those managing their weight, coconut milk is higher in saturated fats so best avoided. Almond milk and oat milk can also be used but be careful, they often have refined sugars added so read the label.
- Utilizing whole grains such as steel-cut oats and buckwheat soaked overnight in soy milk for breakfast
- Cooked buckwheat with chopped mushroom, sweet potato and walnut is an excellent plant food alternative to ground beef in chili and bolognaise.
- Red or brown rice instead of white rice
- Adding nutritional yeast to curries, casseroles to give it a cheesy, nutty, rich flavor.
Get creative with the substitutes you want to use and don’t be afraid to experiment. It takes time to develop new skills when commencing a plant based lifestyle. Start by adding on one plant-based meals per week into your routine and work your way up to all meals.
In addition to beans, lentils and legumes, tofu is an excellent addition to dishes that could use some extra protein or heartiness – pasta, stir-fry’s, curries etc.
Lastly, follow your own instincts and do what works best for you when transitioning to a whole plant-based diet. And more importantly, be gentle with yourself when making the switch.
Whole Food Plant-Based Living is a new way of navigating the world; the rewards are real and the journey is exciting. For a quick recap here are some tips to get you going:
- Start a food diary
- Incorporate at least one WFPB meal into your meal plan to start with.
- Look for simple recipes and upgrade to more adventurous meals.
- Bulk-buy beans to help with making the transition easier. This helps with your budget too.
- Substitute milk for non-milk substitutes such as whole soy-bean milk
- Have fun and reach out to others for what works for them and incorporate it into your own recipe.
- Learn how to use whole foods as sugar substitutes.
What snacks can you eat on plant-based diet?
Often people wonder what they can snack on with a whole food plant based diet. Hopefully if you are consuming a wholefood plant based meals your desire for snacks will reduce. However here are a few snack ideas for food on the go
- carrot, celery, capsicum sticks with hummus
- whole fruit
- roasted nuts
- roast chickpeas with salt and cumin
- salter popcorn
- green smoothies
- peanut butter made only from peanuts (no added oils or sugars)
Are WFPB diets low in nutrients?
Vegan diets have been found to be low in vitamin B12, zinc, calcium and selenium compared with standard diets.
However this study does not address the difference between vegan patterns – which can include highly processed vegan foods and whole-food plant based which consists of minimally processed nutritious foods from a variety of plants.
Additionally despite vegans have been found to have lower zinc, calcium and selenium status, their long-term health outcomes are better.
WFPB diets are not deficient in iron or protein compared with standard diets.
However anyone following a whole food plant based diet should take a B12 supplement. The recommended dose is either 10 micrograms daily or 2000 micrograms per week.
What are some books to read about WFPB diets?
There is a lot of information available about WFPB diets. Here are a few that cover some of the research on the benefits of WFPB diets.
- The China Study by Dr Colin Campbell
- How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease, by Michael Gregor
- The Starch solution by john McDougal and Mary McDougal
- Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition by Dr Colin Campbell and Dr Howard Jacobson
- Eat for Life by Dr. Joel Fuhrman
- Forks over knives: The Plant Based way to Health ed by Gene Stone
Overall, plant based eating with a WBPD diet has vast benefits for overall health and wellbeing. It promotes a healthy lifestyle, reduces chronic disease, promotes weight reduction, blood sugar management and reduces chronic inflammation. Try transitioning to a whole plant foods diet today and enjoy the benefits.