- What Does “Whole Food Plant-Based Diet” Mean?
- What Foods Can You Eat on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
- What Foods Does a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Avoid?
- Is a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Healthy?
- Shopping Whole Food Plant Based
- How to Eat a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet
- Who Shouldn’t Eat a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
- Benefits of Eating Whole Food Plant Based
- Get Started on Your Whole Food Plant-Based Journey
You’ve already heard that switching to a whole food plant-based diet has amazing benefits. You’re ready to start making some changes to improve your health and reduce your diet’s environmental impact.
But you want to do it right. You want to be sure you get all the nutrients you need, avoid common mistakes and make the transition in a way that fits your lifestyle. (And it should be tasty. Don’t forget about tasty.)
So, how do you get started? What can you eat on a whole food plant-based diet?
Is bread out? Pasta? Chocolate??
No need to worry. Switching to a diet of whole plant foods won’t turn you into a protein-deficient, deprived rabbit person who can only munch on lettuce while everyone else has the pizza.
In this guide, I’m going to break down everything you need to know about eating a whole food plant-based diet and take a crack at fixing some of the errors I’ve found in other guides around the Web. (Like the idea that whole food plant-based diets can include animal products, which undermines the whole point of eating plant-based.)
Drawing on the science—and my background in health coaching—I’ll walk you through the questions, contentions, confusion and benefits of plant-based eating and give you the practical application to make it all work in day-to-day life.
Ready? Grab your salad bowl and your shopping list, and let’s go!
What Does “Whole Food Plant-Based Diet” Mean?
We’ll start by clearing up one of the biggest areas of confusion: the actual definition of whole food plant based.
In the 1980s, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, Whole and The Future of Nutrition, was the first person to use the term “plant based” to describe a diet high in fiber and low in fat, a combination achieved by focusing on foods that come from plants. He was exploring this dietary pattern as part of his research on food’s relationship to cancer risk and wanted to distinguish it from the varied eating habits and ethical implications of vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.
“Whole” got tacked on later to avoid any potential confusion between studying the health effects of single isolated plant nutrients and plant foods as a total package.
Today, “plant based” is used in a much broader way. Several definitions have popped up—which, unfortunately, is causing a lot of confusion. Common ones include:
- Eating mostly plant-based with small amounts of animal foods
- Eating all kinds of plant foods, including processed plant-based products
- Eating only plants and no processed foods
- Focusing on whole plant foods and avoiding oil
- Eating only plant foods with no oil, sugar or salt
And there are plenty of opinions out there on why each of these approaches is the “right” one!
Putting the “Whole” in Plant Based
Instead of getting into a debate, let’s lay down a definition for this guide. I lean toward Dr. Campbell’s view of “whole food plant-based,” which describes a diet that:
- Includes all whole, unprocessed and minimally processed plant foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds) 🥗
- Excludes all animal-based foods (red meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy)
- Eliminates highly processed animal and plant foods (including refined sugars and flours)
- Avoids extracted oils (including olive oil and coconut oil)
Don’t worry if you don’t understand how to put this into practice yet. We’ll unpack it all in the next section.
What Foods Can You Eat on a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
No matter what anyone might have tried to tell you, a plant-based diet is about abundance, not deprivation. When you switch to eating predominantly whole foods, you unlock a world of amazing variety in color, taste and texture.
It’s impossible to list every conceivable whole plant food here, but I’ve done my best to round up the basics to get you started.
Vegetables & Fruits
We all know we should be eating more fruits and veggies! Here are just a few of the benefits the OG of plant foods bring to your diet:
- Phytonutrients: Only found in plants, some of these unique compounds have been shown to combat inflammation; improve skin, tissue and organ health; and provide potential protection against cancer.[2,3,4,5,6]
- Antioxidants: These molecules neutralize the free radicals that can cause cell damage believed to be responsible for inflammation, chronic disease and early aging.
- Fiber: Soluble and insoluble plant fibers arrive in the colon intact, where they aid in digestion, help remove cholesterol, and promote gut microbiome health. High-fiber diets may also reduce cancer risk.[9,10]
- Vitamins and minerals: The abundance of vitamins, vitamin precursors and essential minerals in fruits and vegetables support key body processes to maintain optimal health.
Include a wide range of leafy, crunchy and starchy vegetables in your plant-based diet, along with any and every kind of fruit you can imagine (don’t forget the berries!).
Tip for top nutrition: Eat seasonally according to your area as often as possible. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are harvested at the point when they’re most nutritious (and delicious!). The fresher, the better.
Not familiar with seasonality? Check out your local farmers market throughout spring, summer and fall, or pop your region into this online seasonal food guide.
Beans & Legumes
Beans have boatloads of benefits! Making them part of your daily diet gives you:
- Protein: Lentils and whole soy products (like edamame, tofu and tempeh) are particularly good sources of plant-based proteins that support the health of every cell in your body.
- Key nutrients: Beans contain a range of B vitamins, as well as minerals like calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, copper and manganese.
- Isoflavones: Found in soy, these compounds may have anti-cancer properties.
- Resistant starch: This special type of starch behaves in similar ways to fiber and helps maintain microbial balance in the gut. It may also reduce blood sugar, improve insulin sensitivity and aid in weight control.
- A lower risk of heart disease: Diets high in fiber, including fiber from beans, are correlated with better heart health. Soy in particular has been associated with lower cholesterol.
Try replacing the meat in your favorite recipes with beans, lentils, chickpeas, split peas, whole soybeans, tofu or tempeh. From kidney beans to black beans to a rainbow of different lentils, there are plenty of varieties to experiment with. (Pasta made from beans is great, too!)
Tip for top nutrition: Don’t believe the hype about phytates, the so-called “anti-nutrients” found in plant foods like beans and whole grains. Studies suggest these compounds may have beneficial effects, including protecting against cancer[16,17] improving wound healing and destroying damaged or potentially malignant cells.
Whole grains include every part of the original grain: bran, germ and endosperm. Together, these three components pack a nutritious punch with:
- Fiber: Are you seeing a theme here? Eating whole grains, especially along with veggies, fruits and beans, serves to increase your fiber intake and bring benefits like improved blood sugar control after meals.[19,20]
- B vitamins: Grains contain varying amounts of B complex vitamins, which are essential for processes like energy production and nutrient transportation.
- Minerals: Both major minerals like iron and magnesium and trace minerals like copper and zinc support essential functions throughout the body, including development, metabolism and muscle function.
- Protein: Some grains, like quinoa and amaranth, contain balanced amounts of all essential amino acids (the ones your body can’t make itself), making it easy to add both texture and nutrition to meals.[23,24]
- Complementary amino acids: Other grains like rice tend to be low in the amino acid lysine and high in methionine; beans are the other way around. Eat them together, and ta-daa! You get one tasty meal with a balance of all the essential amino acids.
How do you get these benefits? Ditch the white rice and white flour for whole, intact grains like quinoa, millet, oats, teff, buckwheat and hulled barley (not pearled), as well as brown, black and white rice.
When using flour, choose varieties that include every part of the grain. Pasta made from whole, unrefined grains also gets the green light on a plant-based diet.
Tip for top nutrition: Be mindful to choose only 100% whole grains and whole grain products. Read labels to make sure; products incorporating refined grains can be marked with a “whole grain” stamp even if they have more refined grains than whole.
Nuts, Seeds & Healthy Fats
Whole food plant-based diets are naturally lower in fat than other eating patterns, but low fat doesn’t mean fat free! You need healthy, whole plant fats for:
- Cell membrane structure: Membranes must maintain the right balance of rigidity and flexibility to allow for nutrient transport in and out of cells.
- Hormonal balance: Dietary fat intake can affect levels of hormones associated with blood sugar control, satiety and fertility and reproduction.
- Essential fatty acid balance: Focusing on whole plant fats creates a more balanced intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fats than standard Western diets, which helps keep both inflammation and blood cholesterol levels low.[28,29]
- Transporting and absorbing vitamins: Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble, meaning they require fat in order to do their jobs in your body.
Choose whole food sources of fat whenever possible: nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, avocados, olives and coconut. Along with healthy fats, these foods contain other beneficial nutrients like protein, B vitamins, vitamin E, minerals and fiber.
Tip for top nutrition: Go easy on the coconut; it’s high in saturated fat. While this type of fat is essential in small amounts for producing hormones and maintaining cellular health, high intakes are correlated with increased cholesterol and greater heart disease risk.
Okay, so that’s what you can eat. But what can you drink when you go whole food plant based?
Water is always the best go-to beverage for any diet. You can also enjoy:
- Unsweetened, unflavored water-based beverages
- Unsweetened herbal and green tea
- Minimally processed, unsweetened, oil free plant-based milks
A word on coffee: The jury is still out on whether it’s a good idea to include coffee on a plant-based diet. Some studies suggest drinking coffee can increase cholesterol levels, particularly LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. However, other evidence suggests drinking coffee may have beneficial effects.
Because there are so many variables and confounding factors, it may be best to avoid coffee altogether, particularly if you’re at risk for heart disease or are sensitive to caffeine.
What Foods Does a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Avoid?
Don’t worry—I’m not about to rattle off a lengthy list of “bad” foods you have to wave goodbye to with remorse. In fact, compared to the wide variety of whole foods a plant-based diet includes, the list of what to avoid is pretty small. And because replacing these foods with whole plants will only make you healthier, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by leaving them off your plate.
As the name suggests, a whole food, plant-based diet is made up entirely of foods that come from plants. That means everything that comes from an animal is excluded:
- Red meat
- Dairy products (milk, cheese, ice cream, etc.)
Some whole food diet resources argue that meat is a whole food, but this overlooks numerous studies showing the types of diets providing the greatest health benefits almost always follow the whole food plant-based pattern.
A note for the foodtech age: Companies are now producing meats and dairy products without animals using cell cultures and precision fermentation technologies. Although these foods technically don’t come from animals, the proteins are exactly the same as their animal-based counterparts—so they’re generally not considered suitable for whole food plant-based diets.
Isolated and Fragmented Foods (a.k.a. Processed Foods)
The term “processed food“ means different things to different people, but I find Dr. Michael Greger‘s definition the most helpful: If something bad is added or something good is taken away, chances are a food is processed.
These foods are most commonly recognized as processed:
- Refined grains, including white rice, white flour, instant oats and pearled barley
- Refined sugars, such as white sugar, high fructose corn syrup and “healthier” sweeteners like cane sugar and brown rice syrup
- Artificial sweeteners like Splenda and Equal
- Isolated proteins **from animals or plants, including whey protein and soy protein isolate
- Refined oils of any kind (Yes, that means olive oil, too; I’ll get back to why later.)
All foods made from, derived from or containing these ingredients are off the menu when you eat whole food plant based. This includes sweet treats like cookies, donuts, pastries and candy; soda and other sweetened beverages; and most vegan convenience foods, snacks and meat replacements.
What’s the point of taking these foods out of your diet? Health.
Research links consumption of animal-based foods to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, brain diseases and cancer.[35,36] Eating meat, dairy and eggs may also cause or exacerbate inflammatory conditions[37,38,39] and negatively alter the gut microbiome.
The Great Plant-Based Diet Oil Debate
If you found oil’s inclusion on the list of foods to avoid surprising, you’re not alone. Whether or not small amounts of oils extracted from plants have a place in a whole food plant-based diet is the topic of a hot debate.
The idea originated from Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr.’s work with heart disease patients.[46,47] His approach was based on findings that eating high fat meals crippled the endothelial lining of blood cells for hours afterward[48,49], preventing proper dilation and blood flow. This led to the recommendation to exclude all oils from the diet, particularly if you’re at risk for heart disease.
Other plant-based doctors, including T. Colin Campbell, Joel Kahn, Joel Furhman and Michael Greger, largely support this recommendation. However, not all proponents of plant-based eating agree it’s necessary to completely eliminate oil.
Plant oils do contain some nutrients, such as vitamin E and vitamin K, as well as phytonutrients that may have anti-inflammatory properties. However, some studies showing benefits from eating oil compare plant oils to animal fats or examine oil consumption in the context of diets containing lots of whole plant foods, such as the Mediterranean diet. To date, there isn’t enough available evidence to confirm whether eating small amounts of high-quality oils, such as extra-virgin olive oil, may diminish or negate the benefits of a whole food plant-based diet.
To decide for yourself, keep these points in mind:
- Heating some oils, such as flaxseed oil, can destroy potentially beneficial compounds.
- Most oils have around 120 calories per tablespoon, so even small amounts can significantly increase caloric intake and hinder efforts to maintain a healthy weight.
- Coconut oil is almost entirely saturated fat, which may raise cholesterol levels, increase heart disease risk[52,53] and reduce diversity in the gut microbiome.
- Oils that are improperly stored or stored for long periods may oxidize and become rancid.
If you’re at risk for heart disease or have had a heart attack in the past, Dr. Esselstyn’s research suggests avoiding oil may be the best option.
Is a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Healthy?
Overall, diets high in plant foods and low in fatty and processed meats are associated with better health outcomes. A large (and growing) body of scientific evidence shows that eating a mostly or completely plant-based diet can lower the risk of chronic diseases[56,57,58] and cancer, reduce pain and inflammation[60,61,62] and potentially improve cancer survival rates.[63,64]
The higher fiber content of whole food plant-based diets is also associated with better gut health, which may provide additional benefits. Plant-based foods feed the good bacteria in the gut, promote microbial diversity and boost production of beneficial byproducts like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). (I’ll dig into how this improves overall health in more detail later on.)
Although all the mechanisms of action aren’t yet completely understood, the wide range of benefits from this dietary pattern may be due, at least in part, to the way nutrients behave in the context of whole foods. Nutrients and compounds in whole plant foods appear to act in tandem with various body systems and processes to bring about positive results that aren’t always seen when nutrients are taken in isolation.
There are still, however, several common questions and objections about plant-based diets that lead some people to see them as extreme—or even dangerous. I’d like to clear up the confusion over a few of the biggest ones here.
What About Protein on Plant-Based Diets?
It’s not my goal to cover how much protein you should eat (that’s an even bigger debate than the one about oil!). How much is “enough” depends on age, life stage, activity level, goals, digestive health and overall health status—details best left for a deep dive that’s beyond the scope of this guide.
Plant-based diet proponents often repeat the mantra that eating adequate calories means you’ll get adequate protein. While this is likely true for the average person, factors like intestinal inflammation, inadequate digestive enzymes and food preparation techniques can affect how much protein is digested and absorbed.
In general, plant-based diets containing a wide variety of whole plant foods provide protein in amounts that meet or exceed the average person’s protein requirements without the detrimental health effects associated with animal protein.[66,67]
Top foods for plant protein:
- Beans and legumes
- Whole and minimally processed soy products (tofu, tempeh, edamame)
- Hemp seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- High-protein nuts like peanuts, almonds and pistachios
- High-protein grains like quinoa, teff and whole wheat
Calories: Can You Really Eat as Much as You Want?
This is a huge myth that needs to disappear from the plant-based space. While science (and myriads of anecdotal evidence) has pretty much overturned the old “a calorie is a calorie” mantra, you can’t go tucking into every plant-based meal with reckless abandon.
The idea that you can eat as much whole plant food as you want and not gain weight grew out of the concept of caloric density: the ratio of a food’s calorie content to its volume. Some foods, like leafy greens, have a lot of bulk and few calories; others, like nuts, pack a lot of calories into small servings.
Understanding caloric density is key to unlocking the health benefits of whole food plant-based eating. Too many foods with high caloric density can lead to weight gain; too few can leave you short on nutrients and calories.
The solution is to be aware of what you’re eating and aim for a balance between foods with low, moderate and high caloric densities:
- Low: Leafy greens, non-starchy vegetables, mushrooms and fruits
- Medium: Starchy vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes
- High: Nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, oils
If your goal is weight loss, emphasize foods in the low and medium categories. If you’re highly active or need to gain weight, incorporate more medium- and high-calorie-density options. Remember that sauces and condiments also have calories and can significantly change the caloric content of a meal!
A guide like Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen can be useful to help you get the right balance between different categories of foods, but most people do fine on whole food plant-based diets without actively counting calories.
Whole Food Plant-Based Nutrients: Is There a Risk of Deficiency?
Some nutrients are a little harder to get from plants than from animal sources. Often referred to as “nutrients of concern,” these include:
- Omega-3 fats
- Vitamin D
Although people eating plant-based diets may have lower levels of some of these nutrients than omnivores, this doesn’t appear to be a problem if there’s no actual deficiency. In fact, your body may be able to adapt to these lower levels as you continue eating plant based, suggesting more isn’t always better or necessary. Absorption and conversion of nutrients varies based on individual differences and circumstantial needs.
Overall, plants are good sources of a number of nutrients. They’re high in B vitamins (including folate), vitamin C, potassium and magnesium, as well as carotenoids, which are precursors to vitamin A. Sources of healthy fats provide vitamin E, and all plant foods contain a range of beneficial phytonutrients not found in animal foods.
The one exception is vitamin B12, which is made by bacteria in the digestive tracts of ruminant animals like cows. Some plant foods like seaweed, mushrooms, fortified nutritional yeast and fortified plant-based milks, contain small amounts of B12, but it’s essential to take a supplement to ensure you meet your daily requirements when eating completely plant based.
Why Do Plant-Based Diets Need Supplements?
This leads to a common objection regarding whole food plant-based eating: If you need to supplement, how can it really be healthy?
The truth is that many people in the U.S., regardless of what they eat, are deficient in vitamins A, B6, C and D, as well as minerals like iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Part of the problem relates to soil health; plants grown in soil with inadequate nutrients will also lack nutrients. Changes in the varieties of food commonly cultivated can also be a factor, so even the healthiest diets may require supplements to fill the gaps.
In addition to B12, plant-based doctors typically recommend supplementing with vitamin D3, omega-3 fats and iodine. It’s best to have your nutrient status evaluated on a regular basis to identify and correct any deficiencies—although this is true no matter what you’re eating!
Shopping Whole Food Plant Based
Now that you know what you’ll be eating (and not eating) and why, it’s time to go shopping!
Updating your grocery list for a whole food plant-based diet is a lot easier than it sounds. Since the majority of the food is whole plants, you don’t have to spend a ton of time reading labels or trying to decode vague health claims on product packages.
When you do need to check ingredients, be on the lookout for:
- Animal products or animal-derived ingredients
- Added sugar or sweetener
- Added salt
- Refined and isolated ingredients
- Extracted oils
If you encounter any of these, leave the product on the shelf and look for something else.
A Quick and Easy Plant Based Grocery List
Fruits and vegetables:
- Fresh (seasonal whenever possible!)
- Unsweetened, unsalted frozen and canned fruits and vegetables
- Fresh and frozen vegetable medleys (no salt or sauce)
- No-salt-added canned tomatoes
Beans and legumes:
- Dry beans and lentils (bulk or bagged)
- Low- or no-salt added canned beans and lentils
- Low-sodium refried beans
- Edamame (unsalted)
- Dry grains (bulk or bagged)
- Precooked frozen grains and grain medleys (no salt or flavorings; herbs and spices are okay)
Nuts and seeds:
- Raw, unsalted nuts and seeds
- Dry roasted, unsalted peanuts
- Nut and seed butters (raw or roasted) without added salt, sugar or oil
Bread, pasta and flour:
- 100% whole grain bread (low or no salt)
- 100% whole grain tortillas (low or no salt)
- 100% whole grain pasta
- Bean- and lentil-based pasta
- 100% whole grain flour and flour mixes
- Bean- and nut-based flours
Condiments and flavorings:
- Fresh herbs
- Dried herbs and spices
- Salt-free herb and spice blends
- Vinegars, including apple cider, balsamic, red wine and naturally flavor infused
- Low-sodium hot sauce
- Low-sodium mustard
- Frozen salt-, sugar- and sauce-free medleys of beans, vegetables and grains
- Low-sodium, oil-free, sugar-free pasta sauce
- Low-sodium, oil-free canned or boxed soups
- Oil-free, low-sodium veggie burgers made with whole plant ingredients
You may also choose to include oil-free, unsweetened plant-based dairy products; just be mindful of additives and salt content.
Plant Based Money-Saving Tips
Contrary to popular belief (or well-rehearsed myth), eating whole food plant based isn’t more expensive than being an omnivore. It can actually be quite a bit cheaper.
You can get an even bigger bang for your buck by:
- Purchasing dry goods like beans and whole grains in bulk online or through local by-mail co-ops, including Valued Naturals and Azure Standard
- Comparing prices in weekly ads from local stores
- Using physical or digital coupons
- Shopping at ethnic markets
- Stocking up on frozen and canned items when they’re on sale
- Joining a wholesale club like BJ’s or Costco
- Asking for seconds or purchasing in bulk from farmers market vendors
How to Eat a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet
When your fridge and pantry are stocked with whole plant foods, you’re ready to start putting the principles of plant-based eating into practice!
I want to start off with an often-overlooked but important principle of this lifestyle: You are under no obligation to be perfect. If your overall dietary pattern excludes animal products and emphasizes whole plant foods, don’t worry about occasional small amounts of salt, sugar, oil or processed food.
My favorite way to think about this is Dr. Greger’s traffic light system, which splits foods into three categories:
- Green light: Unprocessed plant foods in their natural forms, including herbs and spices
- Yellow light: Minimally processed plant foods and unprocessed animal foods
- Red light: Ultra-processed foods and processed animal foods
Green light foods form the foundation of a whole food plant-based diet, while yellow light plant foods are okay to include once and a while if they help you eat more green light foods. Red light foods are best avoided the majority of the time.
However, I encourage you not to fall prey to the mindset that you’re doing something bad when yellow or red light foods make their way onto your plate—especially if they’re hiding in a dish that’s otherwise “green light” and you don’t find out until later.
What matters is the big picture of what and how you eat. Here’s how to apply that picture as a delicious rainbow of whole plant foods in your daily meals.
Making the Switch
It’s up to you whether you want to adopt a fully plant-based diet right away or transition gradually; there are proponents of both approaches, and both can have advantages. The goal is the same!
A gradual transition gives you time to learn how to prepare whole plant foods in ways that fit your personal and cultural preferences. It can also be easier if you’re transitioning with your family and not everyone is on board with going “all in” right away.
A complete and immediate transition may be better if you’ve been diagnosed with a condition like heart disease or type 2 diabetes, since continuing to eat highly processed foods and animal products may make these conditions worse. Eating only whole plant foods can also “reset” your taste buds so that you no longer crave foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
The easiest way to get started is to make a list of the meals you like best or eat most often. Identify what’s already plant based, such as your morning oatmeal, and look for ways to make plant-based swaps in the rest. (Cookbooks and blogs can be extremely helpful here!) Get the whole family in on the fun as you discover new ways to enjoy old favorites.
It’s okay to incorporate familiar flavors by using plant-based meat substitutes when you’re just getting started. Although they often fall into the processed or ultra-processed category, these products make good “bridges” between eating animal foods and going all in with plants.
Other tips for an easier transition:
- Keep things simple! Save elaborate dishes for when you’re more comfortable with cooking plant based.
- Batch cook staples like beans and grains, as well as full recipes, to speed up daily meal prep.
- Enlist someone to teach you or help you brush up on cooking skills, if necessary.
- Let the family personalize their creations with fun “build your own” dinners like tacos, burritos and plant-based pizzas.
- Pack quick snacks like fruit and nuts to take on the go.
- Swap out sugary, high-calorie beverages in favor of water.
Spicing Up Flavor
Nothing adds flair to a meal like herbs and spices, and they’re all 100% acceptable on a whole food plant-based diet. (Just make sure blends are free of salt and added flavors.)
You have tons of room to experiment here. Start by learning common spice combinations for cuisines like Mexican, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian and African so that you know which flavors go well together. From there, the sky’s the limit!
You can find common herbs and spices just about anywhere, including the dollar store. Ethnic markets are great sources for regional flavors. If a recipe calls for a small amount of an unusual spice, you may be able to buy only what you need from the bulk department of a local co-op or natural food store.
I highly recommend going for fresh herbs when they’re in season. Farmers markets and farm stands are the best sources!
What About Condiments and Sauces?
This one can be tricky; some whole food plant-based diet advocates are pretty staunch about avoiding salt, including salty condiments; others are liberal hot sauce users!
Vinegar is a great starting point if you’re craving a bit of pizazz. It comes in a diverse range of varieties and flavors with few or no calories, no salt and no sugar.
Most other prepared condiments and sauces fall into the yellow or red categories in Dr. Greger’s traffic light system, so reading labels is important. Avoid condiments with sugar, added colors, added flavors, chemical preservatives and excess sodium.
Remember, too, that just about all condiments have calories. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but it is important to keep in mind if you’re trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight. Be mindful of serving sizes when using dressings or sauces to flavor your meals.
The best way to control what goes into your condiments is to make them yourself! It’s a lot easier than it sounds. You can whip up staples like barbecue sauce, “honey” mustard and plant-based “cheese” sauce in a matter of minutes and have them on hand to add zip to your meals all week. Just type the condiment you’re craving into Google, add “vegan“ or “plant based,” and you’ll have all the inspiration you need!
A word on fermented foods: There’s still no clear consensus in the plant-based space as to whether the sodium in fermented foods is a problem or not. Given the potential benefits for gut health,[75,76] I recommend including them. The serving size of something like sauerkraut or miso is small in comparison to the greater context of a whole food plant-based diet, so there shouldn’t be an issue unless you need to restrict sodium for health reasons.
Are There Any Whole Food Plant-Based Sugars?
Processed sugars, including “healthier“ options like cane sugar and brown rice syrup, are generally not recommended on a whole food plant-based diet.
Instead, try using fruit, dried fruit or fruit purées for added sweetness. Medjool dates are a common sugar substitute in plant-based recipes. Date sugar, which is simply ground dried dates, is also a good option. Some whole food plant-based cookbooks and blogs also embrace maple syrup as a sweetener.
Whatever you choose, it’s best to keep added sweeteners to a minimum and train your taste buds to enjoy the natural sweetness of whole foods instead.
Sample Day of Whole Food Plant-Based Meal Ideas
Ready to put it all together? Try these tasty ideas to get started. (This is by no means a comprehensive list—the more you explore a plant-based diet, the more possibilities you’ll discover!)
- Oatmeal with fruit and nuts or seeds
- Tofu or tempeh scramble and whole grain toast with nut butter
- Stir fry with greens, veggies, mushrooms and beans (sounds weird, but it’s delicious!)
- Salad with a base of greens and seasonal veggies; add beans, tofu or tempeh for protein and a nut-, seed- or avocado-based dressing for healthy fat
- Baked sweet potato, topped with leftover chili or curry
- Hummus or avocado sandwich with veggies on sprouted whole-grain bread
- Veggie and bean wraps or burritos
- Soup, stew or chili with beans and veggies
- Pasta with red sauce or dairy-free alfredo
- Bean-based burgers with baked fries and a side of veggies
- “The Bowl” (this works great for lunch, too!)
- Veggies and oil-free hummus
- Pitted medjool dates stuffed with nut or seed butter
- Fruit and nuts (or fruit slices with nut or seed butter)
- Homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds and dried fruit
- Homemade granola (There are some great recipes over at The Vegan 8 and Oh She Glows.)
Desserts (Yes, you can have dessert!)
- Cookies made with whole ingredients like oats, bananas, dates and/or nut butter
- Cupcakes or cakes made with whole grain flour and sweetened with dates
- Energy balls, bites or truffles (Get some inspiration here!)
- Banana “nice cream”
- Chickpea “cookie dough” (Trust me, it’s amazing!)
Want to see this in action? Check out this 3-day plant-based meal plan from the Center for Nutrition Studies.
Choosing Plant-Based Foods at Restaurants
Not going to lie: It does take a little work to get whole food plant-based options when you’re eating out. Most of the “plant-based” meats and cheeses appearing on today’s restaurant menus aren’t made using whole plant foods.
However, substitutes aren’t without their merits. If you’re in a bind and the only other options are heavy on meat and dairy, a plant-based alternative is preferable. Plant-based analogs are also great when you’re first starting out and haven’t yet mastered the art of ordering whole food plant based.
Speaking of, it’s not that hard to do. All it takes is a little prep work, research and creativity. When you’re planning to eat out:
- Start by reading menus and ingredient lists online before you go.
- Find dishes that are already or can easily be made whole food plant based. “Build your own” options are great!
- If you can’t find any plant-based dishes, look for components like beans, grains, vegetables, tofu, tempeh and baked potatoes in other menu items.
- Talk with the server (or even better, call in advance), and ask if it’s possible to create a meal using available whole plant foods or swap ingredients to make an existing dish plant-based.
- Ask for dressings and sauces to be served on the side or left off completely.
Don’t worry that you might annoy the restaurant staff. As long as you’re polite and courteous in making your requests, most chefs will be happy to whip up a unique whole food plant-based meal for you. They want you to enjoy your experience!
A few notes of caution:
- Breads labeled “whole grain” might contain refined flour.
- Some restaurants put oil in everything, even otherwise plain grains. This can invisibly add a lot of fat and calories to an otherwise healthy meal.
- Options labeled “plant based” may be paired or topped with animal-based foods.
- Some buns, breads and doughs contain eggs.
- Sauces that appear plant based, such as red pasta sauce, may contain dairy.
It’s best to do some research on restaurants’ website or talk with kitchen staff on the phone before you go. Waitstaff may not know the answer, and asking them to check at the time you order could keep other patrons waiting.
But remember: You don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes you can’t completely avoid refined ingredients or added oils, or you find out later a dish you thought was plant-based had an animal-based ingredient. What matters is the overall pattern of your diet.
Who Shouldn’t Eat a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
For the majority of people, plant-based diets that include a variety of whole, unprocessed foods are both safe and healthy.
But…there are exceptions. I’m including three notable ones here. I don’t have any data to say how common these circumstances are, but they warrant talking about due to the prevailing idea in some plant-based circles that everyone can be plant-based:
- Eating disorders: This can go either way. Some people find healing by adopting a plant-based approach. But for others, the framework becomes another type of restriction governed by food rules and fears instead of being healthful and freeing.
- Severe food allergies and sensitivities: A small number of people have gastrointestinal diseases or food allergies serious enough that they aren’t able to get all the nutrients they need from plant foods.
- Certain medical conditions: Some diseases require specialized diets that may make it more difficult to maintain a whole food plant-based lifestyle.
However, even in these cases, eating plant foods as often as is possible or practical can offer benefits.
Myths About Who Can’t Be Plant Based
On the flipside of this, there are also myths about plant-based diets being dangerous or inadequate for certain groups. That’s certainly not true for:
- Pregnancy: Pregnant women can and do benefit from a diet of whole plant foods. Eating plant based can also help unborn babies develop a taste for fruits and veggies![77,78,79]
- Infants and children: A well-planned plant-based diet provides all the nutrients kids needs from infancy through their teenage years.[80,81] Focusing on whole foods establishes good dietary habits that carry into adulthood.
- Athletes: It’s becoming more common for high-profile athletes to fuel their active lives and careers with whole plant foods. Not only can athletes thrive on this diet; many also report better performance and recovery.[82,83]
In each of these cases, it’s important to ensure adequate calorie and nutrient intake. That may require a little extra planning—but so do most healthy habits! And fueling your body with nutritious food at every stage of life is worth the effort.
Benefits of Eating Whole Food Plant Based
I couldn’t wrap up this guide without going over why a plant-based diet is good for you! There’s a ton of science on this, which I’ve tried to condense into a digestible overview (pun intended) of eight areas where eating plant-based can provide big benefits:
- Heart disease: The low saturated fat and high fiber content of plant foods can improve cholesterol clearance and lower blood cholesterol levels. High antioxidant intake provides additional protection by reducing the risk of cholesterol oxidation, a major player in arterial plaquing.[84,85] Plant-based diets are also also correlated with lower blood pressure and may even be able to reverse signs of coronary artery disease.
- Diabetes and metabolic syndrome: Evidence suggests eating plant-based can cut diabetes risk in half and increase insulin sensitivity for better blood sugar control. This may be related to the lower body weight of people plant-based diets compared to omnivores, which may results from beneficial changes in metabolism. Fat inside of cells, known as intracellular fat, can interference with insulin signaling, making it harder for the body to utilize sugars from food.[90,91]
- Inflammation: The nutrient composition and antioxidant content of plant foods appears to play a role in reducing inflammation, likely by protecting against cellular damage. Lower saturated fat intake can further reduce markers of inflammation. Improved weight maintenance and control may be an additional factor since body fat has been shown to secrete pro-inflammatory compounds. Eating plant-based also lowers C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation associated with heart disease risk.
- Gut health: The soluble and insoluble fibers in plant foods improve digestion and feed beneficial microbes in the gut. These microbes make short-chain fatty acids, which strengthen the walls of the colon and serve as fuel for more good bacteria. Eating more plants also increases microbial diversity, which is associated with better overall health.[95,96]
- Immunity: Improving gut health and lowering inflammation can both lead to a better, more balanced immune response. In fact, the SCFAs produced by healthy gut bacteria may play a role in regulating immunity! Antioxidants from plants protect immune cells from damage and help neutralize free radicals naturally produced during immune responses.
- Autoimmunity: Balancing the immune system with a plant-based diet may lower autoimmune disease risk. This may be due to the beneficial effect increased fiber intake has on gut microbiome diversity. Additional benefits may come from lower levels of IGF-1, a growth hormone that prevents cell death, including the death of immune cells that erroneously attack healthy tissues. The overall lower intake of pro-inflammatory animal-based and processed foods may also reduce the inflammation characteristic of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.[102,103,104]
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s: Since brain health and vascular health are often directly related, the same whole plant foods that help the heart can help the brain! Reduced saturated fat intake has been associated with lower Alzheimer’s risk,[105,106] and plant-based diets in general appear to lower the risk of cognitive impairment. The increased intake of nutrients like potassium in combination with plant-based antioxidants may also reduce stroke risk.
- Cancer and cancer risk: Whole plant foods contain numerous anti-cancer compounds, which may have greater effects working in concert than on their own.[108,109] This is likely why eating a diet high in plant-based nutrients and in low in both meat and refined ingredients is associated with lower cancer risk,  and further evidence confirms that people following vegan and vegetarian eating patterns are less likely to develop cancer. Lower IGF-1 levels could also be a factor due to the hormone’s association with tumor growth.[112,113]
Scientists still don’t know all the mechanisms by which whole food plant-based diets provide these benefits. Research is ongoing, which means there will likely be more discoveries into how eating plants can positively affect your health.
Of course, diet alone can’t cure all ills. Other factors—like exercise habits, stress levels, sleep hygiene and environmental chemical exposure—can affect health status and disease risk. But the evidence makes it clear that eating more (or only) whole plant foods is one of the best things you can do to reduce diet-related risks and get your lifestyle on track!
Get Started on Your Whole Food Plant-Based Journey
Switching to a whole food plant-based diet doesn’t have to be complicated. All it takes is one small step.
Or maybe you want to dive right in? Go “cold turkey“ from animal products and processed foods and all in for plants? 🥗
Whatever approach you want to take, I have a checklist that can help you out. If you decide to download it, you’ll also get a short series of emails that will guide you through easy steps to make whole plant foods a part of your daily routine.
Now, go for it. You’ve got this!