What is a whole foods plant based diet?
A whole foods plant based diet includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. It excludes heavily processed foods including plant oils and refined grains, and also excludes all animal products; meats, dairy, and eggs.
While this sounds like a lot to exclude at first, you can still enjoy healthy versions of many of the same delicious comfort foods like pizza, burgers, and mac & cheese.
Why should I eat a whole foods plant based diet?
The majority of our chronic illnesses and top killers are diseases of affluence and overnutrition, which can attributed to a standard diet diets of overly-rich, high-protein, processed, and animal-based foods. A plant-based diet which also eliminates processed foods is the only diet which has even been shown to reverse our #1 killer in the US, heart disease, as well as certain cancers (1). Unfortunately, due to industry lobbying and corporate funding, the cure for our top killer has been swept under the rug.
Aside from preventing chronic illness and premature death, this diet also promotes optimal body weight, reduces acne as well as oily skin and hair, prevents certain autoimmune disorders and allergies, reduces PMS symptoms, provides relief from migraines, and increases energy and general well-being.
What's the difference between a WFPB diet and a vegan diet?
Veganism is a philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals through abstaining from consuming animal products in food, clothing, or for entertainment. Vegan diets include all animal-product free foods, even processed junk foods like Oreos and soda. A vegan diet is not inherently healthy, it can be a diet of junk food or an equally unhealthy starvation diet of juices and salads. A whole foods plant based diet, though suitable for vegans, has nothing to do with animal rights, rather it's the healthiest diet for humans based on decades of scientific research.
Can you please clarify what a whole food is?
Is peanut butter a whole food? What about smoothies and tofu, are those considered processed foods?
There are some lightly processed plant foods which are not technically whole, but will not be as detrimental to your health as heavily processed foods like oils. These are typically referred to as "yellow-light" foods. Smoothies, juices, nut butters, tofu, maple syrup, coconut sugar, coconut milk, almond milk, whole nuts and seeds, avocado, dried fruit, whole grain flours, etc. should all be somewhat limited, especially in those seeking to lose weight. Many of my recipes contain these foods in relatively small amounts, and this will work for some people, but for those trying to reverse chronic diseases, clear acne, or heal from inflammation, reducing these foods may not be enough and these cautioned foods may have to be more strictly limited.
Where will I get protein, calcium, B12, etc. ?
Whole plant foods contain every single amino acid and nutrient we need and protein deficiency is only possible during starvation. If you are eating enough calories of a variety of whole, unprocessed foods you will be getting enough protein.
It can actually be dangerous to over consume protein because protein causes a faster rate of body mass gain, which is why most factory-farmed cows and pigs are fed soy, a high-protein plant food. Eating too much protein (<20% of daily calories) can cause weight gain as well as provide the right environment for cancers to grow quickly (2).
When you eat a diet based on vegetables, fruits, nuts & seeds, whole grains and legumes, about 10% of total calories will be from protein which is perfectly adequate. Protein should not be a nutrient of concern. Though, if you wish to gain mass in the form of muscle, there are many ways to get more protein in the form of whole plant foods such as beans, lentils, nuts, and tofu/tempeh.
We have been told for decades in the media that milk is a good source of calcium and builds strong bones. Calcium is a mineral that comes from the earth and it is abundant in many plant foods- that's where the animals get it. How much calcium you get isn't as important as where you get it from. Eating animal based foods such as milk and cheese make our bodies an acidic environment, this is the environment that cancers need in order to grow. In an attempt to make itself more alkaline our body leaches calcium from our bones, negating the benefits of eating dairy for calcium. Eating plant foods puts your body in an optimum alkaline/acid balance which is protective to your bones and overall health and longevity(3).
Another nutrient of concern when switching to a plant based diet is vitamin B-12. B-12 is a vitamin which is produced by bacteria living in the soil. Due to nutrient depletion in soil, and the fact that we wash our vegetables, it can be hard to get enough into our diets. This is why farmed animals are often supplemented with it. However, the safest way to make sure you're getting enough B12 is take the supplement yourself. The risks associated with meat consumption (raising IGF-1 levels, heme iron being a potent carcinogen, saturated and trans fats leading to cardiovascular disease) outweigh any benefit you'd get from eating meat just for that nutrient.
While it is convenient and common practice to think about nutrition from the perspective of eating a different food for each nutrient, this reductionist viewpoint often fails to see the bigger picture. Any given food has countless nutrients that all work in a symphony of reactions and that all relate to one another intricately. While deficiency seems to be the main focus of many nutritional guidelines, the problems associated with overnutrition from eating animal protein (which is overly bioavailable) are often ignored leading to the continuation of chronic illnesses.
Forget about eating beans for protein, fruit for vitamin C, or nuts for fat. Instead, choose your favorite whole plant foods, eat a variety, and don't be afraid to eat abundantly. Unprocessed plant foods tend to be far less calorie dense than animal foods, so it's important that we eat a greater volume of them to ensure we are getting enough calories.
Is eating a whole foods plant based diet expensive?
Fortunately, some of the cheapest foods around are whole plant foods. Rice, beans, corn, potatoes, oats, are all very inexpensive. Colorful fresh vegetables can be more expensive if you buy organic, but that's not necessary. It's much more important that you eat fresh produce, organic or not (but do avoid the dirty dozen if you can).
A vegan diet has a reputation for being expensive because some of the specialty junk foods and meat and dairy replacements can be costly, but these are processed food products and not part of a healthy diet.
Why no oil?
We've all heard about the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet and heard the miraculous claims surrounding olive oil (and lately coconut oil too), so it may seem odd that I suggest you cut ALL oils out of your diet entirely. The problem with oils isn't the fat, as of course whole plant fats found in avocado, coconut, and nuts & seeds, are vital to a healthy diet. Rather, the issue with oil is that it has had everything good taken away and we are left with a 100% pure processed fat. There's no fiber in oil and only trace amounts of vitamins are left, along with a large amount of calories. This is confusing to our bodies and can cause us to overeat and recieve less nutrition.
When you think about calorie density, oils are the most calorie dense food on the planet, even more calorie dense than processed sugar. When trying to maintain an optimum weight, it's best to eat a greater volume of food with a lower calorie density, so you can feel full thanks to fiber and get that bulky nutrient dense food your gut bacteria love. Instead of olive oil, you're much better off eating olives, and instead of coconut oil try coconut meat.
Aside from long-term damage, oils have a very real and immediate effect on our bodies. The oil that we add to our food saturates our endothelial cells that line our arterial walls, rendering our arteries inelastic for hours after we consume a high fat meal. This effect also causes lowering of blood oxygen levels in the body by up to 20%, leaving us feeling tired and miserable as well as causing oxidative damage to our cells which leads to chronic disease.
Oily food is also often the cause of oily skin and hair as well as acne. In my own experience, eliminating oils from my diet has totally changed my skin for the better. I used to have very oily skin and thought it was just the natural state of my body and didn't have anything to do with what I was eating, but when I stopped eating oil, the oil on my skin lessened noticeably as well, leading to fewer breakouts. Alternatively, If I go out to a vegan pizza place and indulge, I can almost guarantee a patch of pimples will pop up the very next day. After learning the hard way, it became much easier to make the choice to eat oil-free.
All that being said, it's important not to fear certain foods, even damaging ones like oil, processed sugar, and salt. Sometimes I want to go to out a vegan restaurant and sometimes even at home it brings me joy to brown my garlic with some vegan butter, but it's not something I make a habit of in my everyday cooking.