what is a whole-food, plant-based diet?
My first exposure to plant-based nutrition was Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live a few years ago. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and at the time I was exploring nutrition and wondering what a truly healthy diet consisted of. I didn’t know that what I read in Eat to Live would change my life. Since then, I’ve deeply delved into the world of whole-food, plant-based nutrition, have become familiar with the works of doctors and researchers in this field, and now work as a medical scribe under Dr. Ron Weiss at Ethos Health in Long Valley, NJ. At his practice, lifestyle medicine is the focus, and plant-based nutrition is the cornerstone. We regularly see patients who come off their medications, reverse their diseases, and experience drastic boosts in their quality of life by adopting a plant-based diet. I have my own personal success story, which you can read in my Instagram post below.
I advocate for a diet of whole, plant foods. On such a diet, you can lose weight without calorie-counting (if that is your goal) and become the healthiest version of yourself. A plant-based diet is the only diet that has been shown to reverse heart disease, which is the number one killer in America, ahead of cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Furthermore, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends a plant-based diet for cancer prevention. To read more, check out my piece on four reasons you need to switch to a whole-food, plant-based diet.
A whole-food, plant-based (which I will now shorten to WFPB) diet consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans and lentils), nuts, seeds, and spices. It does not include animal products (beef, chicken, fish, dairy, eggs), processed foods, and oils. A WFPB diet is not necessarily a vegan diet. For example, having turkey once a year on Thanksgiving doesn’t exclude you from identifying as a WFPB eater. However, the goal is to increasingly move towards centering at least 90% of your diet on whole, unprocessed plants.
I want to note here that “plant-based” is becoming a buzzword. Though they might be marketed as such, highly processed foods are not considered healthful, whole, plant foods. For example, though “plant-based” burgers (like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger) have exciting implications for animal welfare and the planet, I strongly believe we should stick to whole, unprocessed plants for health.
Leafy greens, by far, are the most nutrient dense foods - they have the most nutrition per calorie. Greens are associated with the strongest protection against chronic diseases and are rich in anti-oxidants. If you find them challenging to eat, try adding them to smoothies with fruit, or making oil-free salad dressings to drizzle on. Sneak them into soups and stews, and munch on them raw between meals. Your tastebuds will adapt. Years ago, I couldn’t fathom consuming as many greens as I now do!
Vegetables besides leafy greens have diverse phytonutrient (biologically active compounds) profiles, so the more variety you include in your diet, the more benefits you can derive. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, we could save over one hundred thousand lives if the nation met the dietary guidelines for consumption of veggies and fruits.
The Global Burden of Disease has determined that the number one dietary risk factor for disease is not eating enough fruit. I think fruit has been unfairly demonized because of its sugar content. However, fruit is packed with fiber and phytonutrients. Do not consume fruit juices, which have removed much of the nutrition!
Of all fruit, berries are the healthiest: they’re rich in antioxidants, immunity-boosting, and protective against cancer.
Whole grains reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Independent of other dietary and lifestyle factors, higher whole grain consumption is associated with lower total mortality. Finally, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: whole-grain intake cools down inflammation.
It can be confusing what whole grains to eat because processed products are often labeled “whole grain.” The rule of thumb is to avoid anything processed. If you enjoy bread, stick to preservative-free, oil-free sprouted grain products. Incorporate grains like oatmeal, amaranth, millet, or freekeh. I enjoy brown rice, but unfortunately, rice absorbs arsenic found in the soil. Research cooking techniques to decrease its arsenic content, or opt for Blue Moon Acres rice, which contains very low arsenic levels.
Beans and lentils are among the most protein-rich plant foods. The World Health Organization recommends roughly 46g of protein for a sedentary woman, and just one cup of chickpeas contains 40g of protein. As you can see, there is no need to be concerned about meeting protein requirements on a plant-based diet as long as you’re consuming adequate calories.
Furthermore, legumes are the most important dietary predictor of survival. Not only are they nutrient-dense, but lentils in particular have been shown to blunt the sugar spike caused by a subsequent meal!
Worried about gas? Try cutting dairy, which is a leading cause of excessive gas. Soak your beans and legumes before cooking them, which will make them easier to digest. Work them into your meals regularly, as they’re rich with prebiotics that feed your “good bacteria.” It’s possible that as your gut bacteria change in response to your diet, any gas issues you experience will resolve.
nuts and seeds
As nuts and seeds boost nutrient absorption, pairing them with dark, leafy greens or other vegetables is a surefire way to get a lot of nutrient bang for your buck. Walnuts and flaxseeds in particular are nutrient powerhouses. Flaxseeds are high in lignans, which have been shown to suppress the proliferation of breast cancer cells in a petri dish. In a study that saw young women fed just a teaspoon of ground flaxseeds every day for a year, 80% saw a drop in a cancer proliferation biomarkers and fewer precancerous changes in breast tissue. Walnuts have among the highest antioxidant and omega-3 levels.
My favorite ways to eat nuts is in sauces and dressings. I blend them up with fruits, spices, or vinegars to achieve different flavors, and they add an irresistible creaminess to dishes. Be cautious of eating too many nuts if you’re aiming to lose weight: they are high in calories.
how can you get started?
Now that you’re up to speed on what a WFPB diet is, check out the pieces I’ve written on how to get started and supplements you should take. I know the journey seems daunting at first, but if I could do it (as someone who ate junk food daily as a teenager and hated vegetables), then you absolutely can too!
If you’re on medications or have a history of health problems, notify your doctor of any dietary changes you plan to make to ensure that you’re staying safe. For example, high blood pressure often resolves on a whole-food, plant-based diet; if you’re taking a blood pressure medication and have adopted a WFPB diet, your blood pressure may drop dangerously low. Be conscious of this, and stay in conversation with your provider!
Let me know what questions you have in the comments below.