What is a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?

Offered By Plant Based Health Online

Many of us have heard of whole food plant-based diets, but what do they actually involve and can they really give us a truly balanced nutritional intake?

Mature couple peeling fruit in kitchen together

According to the Global Burden of Disease Study in 2017, unhealthy diets are the main cause of chronic illnesses around the world, including rising rates of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes along with certain cancers and dementia.

They also play a huge part in climate change with large swaths of land being transformed for animal agriculture, thus increasing rates of deforestation, rising greenhouses gasses and water pollution.  Now, more than ever, we understand that our own health and wellbeing is inextricably linked to the environment around us.

What is a whole food plant-based diet?

Whole food plant-based diets (WFPBDs) focus on eating foods as they are naturally grown, and is made up of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds.  Foods such as meat, chicken, fish, dairy, eggs or any processed foods, including highly refined sugar or flour products are either reduced or eliminated from your dietary intake.

Photo of mixed vegetables, seeds and avocado

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?

There is much medical research that supports the health benefits of adopting a whole food plant-based diet.  Consuming a plant-based diet has demonstrated to significantly reduce the risk of our most common chronic diseases; such as:

  • Reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by 25%
  • Reduce the risk of cancer by 15%
  • Reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by at least 50%
  • Maintain a healthy body weight by 100%

Major dietetic organisations around the world, including the British Dietetic Association have confirmed that a 100% plant-based diet can meet nutritional needs for all stages of life.

Young family preparing breakfast together in kitchen

So, what foods do you increase in a whole food plant-based diet and what foods do you decrease?

Imagine your plate as a blank canvas which you want to fill with as much colour and texture as possible.  Foods that you will look to increase are:

Fruits and Vegetables – from leafy greens, citrus fruits to root vegetables, the choice and variety on offer throughout the year means that even eating seasonally can provide a real mix and level of diversity in your diet.  Fruits and vegetables are nutrient rich foods which supply us with essential vitamins and minerals such as potassium, vitamin A, folic acid, fibre, vitamin C and magnesium.

Photo of fruit and vegetables creating a rainbow effect of colours

Whole Grains – the key here is that ‘whole grain’ foods contain the entire grain kernel, meaning that they have not been refined.  Adding ingredients such as barley, brown rice, buckwheat, whole wheat bread, pasta, cracker, oatmeal or even popcorn are all included as whole grains.

Beans, Peas and Lentils – also known as ‘legumes’ these foods provide a rich source of vitamins and minerals such as folate and iron which are important for preventing anaemia, as well as maintaining normal metabolic functions.  The potassium found in these foods is also important for nerve and muscle function.  They also contain beneficial fats and both soluble and insoluble fibre as well as being typically low in fat and also contain no cholesterol.  This food group includes kidney beans, pulses, tofu, chickpeas, alfalfa, soybeans, peanuts, lentils and peas.

Nuts and Seeds – both nuts and seeds are great sources of protein, healthy (unsaturated) fats, fibre as well as vitamins and minerals.  Due to their fats not being fully absorbed they can regulate food intake and also help burn energy. For example, pecans contain lots of B vitamins where almonds are rich in calcium and vitamin E and all nuts contain magnesium.  There is a huge variety on offer including pistachios, hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts and pine nuts.

Young woman eating a bowl of mixed nuts

Water –drinking water is not only a thirst quencher but also keeps us hydrated.  Water keeps every system within the body functioning properly.  If you think about it, the adult human body is up to 60% water, so we need water in order to maintain our health and wellbeing.  But the benefits of drinking water are far more wide reaching.  Not only does it aid digestion, help regulate our body temperature, but also it carries nutrients and oxygen to your cells.  It helps prevent constipation and protects our body’s organs and tissue.  It also helps flush away bacteria from your bladder.

Food groups that you would decrease by following a whole food plant- based diet include:

  • Meat, poultry and fish – ham, sausages, mince, salmon, herring etc.
  • Dairy products – Milk, cheese, cream, yoghurt, butter
  • Eggs
  • Processed foods – microwave/ready meals, cakes, crisps, pies, biscuits etc.
  • Processed oils – Vegetable oil, hydrogenated oils, margarine etc.
  • Sweetened beverages – sodas, energy drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened waters etc.

What are the common myths associated to a plant -based diet?

Whole food plant-based diets have ben commonly misunderstood as either deficient in nutritional intake or seen as being a restrictive diet.  However, this has been proved to be quite the opposite.

Myth 1 – ‘You can’t get enough protein on a plant-based diet’

Firstly, it’s important to understand that protein is an essential nutrient that we all need in order to build and repair various tissues.  However, you might be surprised to learn that the general population is consuming far too much protein that is actually needed.  This results in excess protein being excreted by our kidney’s which as a result makes them have to work harder or it’s stored in our bodies as fat.  Of course, we are all unique and there are some groups of people who will have different needs such as athletes, infants, children, pregnant and lactating women as well as the elderly, who will all require different amounts of protein in their diet.  The good news is that a whole food plant-based diet can cater for all of these variances.  As you will have seen earlier in this article there are a number of plant-based foods that can provide some great sources of protein, that are also packaged with other healthy nutrients such as fibre, which animal foods are simply unable to provide.

Range of alternative milks from nut milk through to soya milk.

Myth 2 – ‘You need cow’s milk for strong bones’

Calcium is an important mineral to have in our diets, which can be easily be found in various plant sources.  We may have grown up with the concept that dairy is a necessary component to build strong bones, however there are many plant sources in which we can obtain calcium such as fortified plant milks, plant yoghurts, kale, almonds, tahini, beans and lentils.

But our bone health does not just stop with a sufficient calcium intake.  Other important factors such as regular weight bearing exercise, avoiding smoking, avoiding excess caffeine, salt and protein, meeting your vitamin D requirements as well as keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum, all play a part towards optimal bone health.

Alternative sources of Omega-3 from flaxseeds to walnuts and avocados.

Myth 3 – ‘You need fish for omega-3’

Omega-3 acts as an anti-inflammatory and is important for our immune system, brain health and bodily processes.  However, many people believe that fish is the only source of omega-3, but did you know that fish themselves get their omega-3 from algae?

There are plant sources which are rich in omega-3 and can provide your daily requirements such as:

  • 1 tbsp ground flaxseed
  • 1tbsp ground chia seed
  • 2 tbsp hempseed
  • 6 walnut halves

However, some groups of people for example pregnant, breast feeding women or those aged 65+ may benefit from an algae supplement for a direct source of Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). 

Mature couple shopping for fruit at market

Myth 4 – ‘Plant-based eating is expensive’

It is a common misconception that eating a plant-based diet can be costly.  There are of course some products that can cost more than others, but typically beans, legumes and whole grain foods are some of the cheaper alternatives in many supermarkets.  There are of course other ways in which you can keep your food bill to a minimum whilst also minimising waste:

  • Meal planning
  • Batch cooking
  • Avoiding any unnecessary exotic ingredients
  • Buying in bulk
  • Using frozen fruit and vegetables

Before You Begin

So perhaps you are keen to try adopting a plant-based diet, but planning and really understanding how you will transition away from your current way of eating is essential in making this a successful journey. 

Young male making notes in journal.

As with embarking on any dietary changes, these need to be fully understood and planned.  It is advisable to speak with your doctor or a plant-based health professional before embarking on your journey to ensure that all your individual and unique health needs are met.  Preparation is a fundamental ingredient in making the most of any dietary changes.  Understanding what your motivation is, whether you are making slight changes or completely overhauling your diet, will help you pinpoint the foundations of your plan.  Perhaps you are thinking of the environment or looking to reduce your risk of disease or focusing on your physical health; either way really understanding your ‘why’ and revisiting this on your journey will help keep this pledge alive.

Equipping yourself with facts and scientific research will help support your goals and finding support along your journey can also be beneficial.  This may be in the form of family or friends or even online community groups.  There are lots of further resources too from websites, to books, cookbooks and online community cooking classes to help you find your way and enjoy the journey that a plant-based diet can offer.


Want to keep learning?  Find out more about the authors, Dr Shireen Kassam and Dr Laura Freeman.

Gut Health & Nutrition

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