You may have heard of a whole food, plant-based diet before, but what is it exactly? Is it vegan? Vegetarian? Is it complicated or simple? What can you eat, and are there recipes that you’ll actually like? Keep reading to see exactly what a whole food, plant-based lifestyle is and isn’t!
This post may contain affiliate links. See my full disclosure here.
Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or a healthcare professional. You can read about our personal experience with a plant-based diet, but please know that your experience may be different from ours. You should do your own research before making any changes to your diet or lifestyle especially if you have a health condition.
Is it vegan? Is it vegetarian? What on earth is a whole food, plant-based diet anyway?!
At first glance, a whole food, plant-based diet probably looks like another fad diet with a bunch of complicated rules. That’s what I thought when I first heard about it. But after consuming a mostly plant-based diet for over three years, I now realize that this way of eating is actually ultra-simple!
Let me tell you all about it.
Note: This article gives a helpful overview of the whole food, plant-based diet, but if you need an in-depth resource to help you make the transition to whole plant foods, then be sure to check out my eBook Zero to Plant-Based. It has everything you need to make this new lifestyle work for you!
What A Whole Food, Plant-based Diet Is Not
To start, let’s go over what a whole food, plant-based diet is not.
It’s not vegan. It’s not vegetarian. It’s not keto or Whole30. There’s no counting calories or points, weighing your food, pairing certain foods together, or limiting your portion size in an attempt to lose weight. Nope, no silly and overly complicated rules here. Believe it or not, it also isn’t strictly vegetables!
But what exactly is it, if it isn’t vegan or just vegetables?
What a Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet Includes
A whole food, plant-based diet is exactly what it sounds like: a diet consisting of whole plant foods.
Specifically, a whole food, plant-based diet includes fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds in their whole or minimally processed forms.
Here are some examples of whole plant foods:
- Fruit: apples, bananas, oranges, kiwi, strawberries, blueberries, mangoes, lemons, watermelon, cantaloupe, grapes, pears, etc.
- Vegetables: broccoli, kale, spinach, lettuce, carrots, beets, onions, potatoes, squash, corn, cauliflower, cucumber, asparagus, celery, garlic, collard greens, etc.
- Whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat, oats, rye, barley, etc.
- Legumes: black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lima beans, lentils, pinto beans, etc.
- Nuts and seeds: walnuts, almonds, pecans, sunflower seeds, cashews, pine nuts, hemp seeds, etc.
If you’d like a copy of my super handy plant-based shopping list, you can get it here: Plant-Based Shopping List.
What Isn’t Acceptable on a Whole Food, Plant-based Diet
A whole food, plant-based diet excludes all animal food products such as meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy products.
Here are some examples of animal products:
- Meat: fish, shellfish, chicken, turkey, pork, beef, bison, etc.
- Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, cream cheese, heavy cream, butter, etc.
The only exception to the “no animal products” rule is honey. Honey is generally accepted as an okay sweetener on a whole food, plant-based diet even though it is technically an animal product.
A whole food, plant-based diet also excludes highly processed foods such as bleached flour, white sugar, white rice, and oils*.
Even though some of these foods technically come from plants, they aren’t in their whole forms. They’ve been processed and stripped to the point that they lack any nutritional value.
Here are some examples of highly processed products:
- Oils: canola, vegetable, peanut, corn, etc.
- Grains: white pasta, white rice, white bread, bleached flour, crackers, etc.
- Sweeteners: white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, dextrose, etc.
- Prepackaged snacks: cakes, pastries, candy, chips, etc.
- Boxed foods: mac and cheese, rice sides, frozen pizza, frozen dinners, etc.
Basically, if it’s prepackaged and has a long ingredient list filled with words you can’t pronounce, it’s probably highly processed.
*Some branches of the whole food, plant-based diet eliminate all oils, including coconut oil and olive oil. Other branches say these two oils are okay in small quantities. If you want to know why many of the important plant-based doctors recommend no oil, read these two articles from NutritionStudies.org:
The “whole or minimally processed” caveat
Plant foods are pretty straightforward, but the catch is that they need to be in their whole or minimally processed forms in order to supply you with maximum nutrients and be considered healthy.
I’ve mentioned “whole or minimally processed” quite a bit so far, but what does that mean, exactly?
Let’s use a potato as an example.
A potato you buy from the produce section in the grocery store is considered “whole.” This is good, but you can’t really eat it as-is because you can’t eat raw potatoes.
Once you bake that potato, it’s considered “minimally processed.” This is still acceptable on a whole food, plant-based diet because baking is a healthy way to cook the foods you can’t eat raw.
But let’s say you buy French fries from McDonald’s. That potato is now considered “heavily processed” because it has preservatives added to it and has been deep fried in oil. In fact, take a look at the ingredients listed on the McDonald’s website:
“Potatoes, Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Natural Beef Flavor [Wheat and Milk Derivatives]*), Dextrose, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate (Maintain Color), Salt. *Natural beef flavor contains hydrolyzed wheat and hydrolyzed milk as starting ingredients.”
This level of processing isn’t acceptable on a whole food, plant-based diet. Besides, with the exception of potatoes and salt, the vast majority of the ingredients listed are highly processed themselves.
See, the goal is to keep your food as close to nature as possible so you get all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients the plants have to offer. But since you obviously can’t eat everything raw, the idea is to use minimal processing and cooking to make your plant foods edible.
Why People Choose to Consume a Whole Food, Plant-based Diet
Some people choose a whole food, plant-based diet for ethical reasons. They care deeply for animals and don’t like the idea of killing animals for food. Often, they also oppose industries that exploit animals, such as the dairy and egg industries.
Other people choose a whole food, plant-based diet for health reasons. They seek to prevent, halt, and/or reverse disease so they can live life to the fullest.
Josh and I fall into the latter category. Don’t get me wrong; we do love animals. But we chose this lifestyle for medical reasons. You can read all about our story here:
What Whole Food, Plant-based Dieters Actually Eat
We eat plants, of course! 🙂 Here are some of the foods Josh and I typically eat:
- Breakfast: Whole grain waffles with fruit and maple syrup, smoothies, oatmeal, whole grain toast with peanut butter and banana slices, whole grain pancakes with maple syrup, fruit, hash browns with veggies.
- Lunch: Tomato and avocado sandwich on whole grain toast, not-tuna salad on whole grain crackers, soup, salad, taco salad, burrito bowl, veggie wrap.
- Supper: Vegetable fried rice, veggie burger, veggie pizza, black bean tacos, veggie fajitas, whole grain spaghetti with marinara sauce, steamed veggies, roasted veggies, quinoa mixed with roasted veggies, vegetable lo mein, baked fries.
- Dessert: chocolate peanut butter oatmeal balls, maple candied nuts, dairy-free “nice cream,” dairy-free chocolate popsicles, banana bread, cinnamon apples.
- Snacks: fruit, veggies, nuts, almond-stuffed dates, smoothies, applesauce, air-popped popcorn.
The key is that I make most of these meals from scratch. For example, I don’t buy whole grain waffles in the frozen section because those are highly processed and have all kinds of questionable ingredients listed on the package.
Likewise, I don’t buy pre-made banana bread because it would be loaded with things such as white sugar, white flour, eggs, etc.
I like to make most things from scratch because I get to control the ingredients. But when I do buy pre-made things (applesauce, bread, pasta, etc.), I choose items that have a very short list of minimally processed plant ingredients.
Resources that Teach You More About the Whole Food, Plant-Based Lifestyle
These are some of my favorite plant-based resources that will teach you more about the whole food, plant-based lifestyle:
- Zero to Plant-Based: A Simple Guide for Starting a Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet (my eBook!)
- The China Study by T. Colin Campbell
- How Not to Die by Michael Greger
Final Thoughts on Eating Plant-Based
So there you have it! Now you know that a whole food, plant-based diet consists of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds in their whole or minimally processed forms.
It isn’t so complicated after all, huh?
Other Plant-based ARticles You May Enjoy
- The Do’s and Don’ts of Plant-Based Eating
- How to Start a Plant-based Diet: The Ultimate Transition Guide for Beginners
- 3 Supplements You Need on a Plant-based Diet
- Plant-Based Shopping List: What to Buy When You Follow a Plant-based Diet
- How to Afford a Healthy Lifestyle on a Budget
- 15 Must-Have Kitchen Items Every Plant-Based Kitchen Needs
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