By Jane Birch
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What is a Whole Food, Plant-based Diet?
“Whole foods” are foods made with whole plants—plants as they look when they are harvested: the whole apple, squash, bean, or grain, relatively unprocessed and unrefined. Whole foods contain all of the natural nutrients of plants. Some processing is inevitable and some even helpful, but extended processing/refining robs plant foods of their nutrients.
“Plant-based” means foods that come from plants, rather than animals. There are three main sources of animal foods: meat, dairy, and eggs. A plant-based diet largely avoids these three foods and relies exclusively, or almost exclusively, on whole plant foods.
Guidelines for an Optimal WFPB Diet
The following guidelines are based on the work of Drs. Caldwell Esselstyn and John McDougall and registered dietician Jeff Novick (but please note this is my interpretation of their work). Even if you do not follow all these guidelines exactly, you may find it very useful to understand them so you can make better choices overall.
For more information on why these guidelines are important and the powerful affect a WFPB diet can have on your health, see the series of articles Jane Birch has written for Meridian Magazine, as well as her book, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Study also The Dietary Principles of the Word of Wisdom.
See also: WFPB Recipes.
Use to gain weight
There is no need to eat animal foods or junk foods to gain weight! To gain weight, you need to consume more calories, and calories from wholesome plants work just as effectively as animal and junk food calories. Be sure to make whole grains “the staff of life,” or the bulk of your calories.
- Load up on good wholesome grains, starchy vegetables, and beans.
In addition, you can use the plant foods that are high in calorie density to easily add additional calories, if needed:
- Avocados, olives, coconuts, and soy
- Dried fruits
- Bread and products made from whole grain flour (make sure they are whole grain and still low in sugar/fat/additives)
- Nuts & seeds
Supplements to Consider
If you consume no animal products or foods fortified with Vitamin B12, plan to take a Vitamin B12 supplement (you cannot overdose on this vitamin). 500 mcg/day is more than enough (you can take a week’s worth at one time if you prefer).
If you don’t get enough sunshine (most of us don’t) you might consider taking a Vitamin D supplement.
Some people take 1–2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed a day (store in the refrigerator) to increase omega-3 fats.
A WFPB diet will provide all other vitamins and minerals. If you take additional supplements, you may not just be wasting money, you may be getting too much of a certain nutrient, which is not always a healthy thing to do. Nutrients are packaged ideally only in whole plant foods.
What About Organic, Non-GMO, and Local?
A great many factors influence the amount of nutrients in a particular plant food, as well as how well your body absorbs the nutrients. The main point to remember is that whole plant foods are so full of nutrients that you don’t need to worry about squeezing every last nutrient out of the plant and into your body! If some of the plant foods you eat are somewhat deficient in nutrients, it doesn’t matter—unless your entire diet is poor.
The most important factor in your diet is whether you are consuming whole plant foods or crowding them out with animal/junk foods. In my experience, too many people pay far too much attention to whether their food is organic, fresh from the farm, not cooked or lightly cooked, compared with whether it is a whole plant food versus an animal food or processed food. The current epidemic of obesity and chronic disease is not caused by people consuming nonorganic vegetables! It is far better to eat overcooked, nonorganic, canned vegetables than to eat organic, grass-fed beef from so-called “happy” cows.
That said, organic foods have some advantages over nonorganic foods (though there are many other factors to consider: soil, freshness, seed quality, local conditions, cooking method, time in storage, etc.). Local produce is likely fresher than produce from South America. Lightly cooking food preserves some nutrients that will diminish if you boil the vegetables to death. But my advice is to not worry so much about these factors. Instead, concentrate on the most important factors: eating whole plant foods. If you have to worry you are losing nutrients because of the quality of the whole plant foods you buy or how you cook them, it probably means you are eating too many animal or processed foods and not enough whole plant foods. Once you have the basics down, if you have the time and money and interest to get extra fresh plant foods, go for it! If you don’t, you’ll be just fine.
Plant Juices and Smoothies
I enjoy juices and smoothies as much as the next person, but I’m not crazy about them as staple sources of nutrition. Yes, these are easy ways to quickly consume a lot of plants, but are they the best way to consume food? Most of us don’t need efficient ways to consume more calories. Humans did not evolve with fancy juicers and blenders. We are meant to chew our foods, with our mouths; it is supposed to take time. When high-powered machines process plants into tiny bits, it increases the surface area of these foods, which then interact with our bodies differently (increasing the insulin response, for example).
Probably the worst thing about juices and smoothies is that people use them as “insurance,” thinking they’ll deliver all the nutrients they need so they don’t need to worry so much about what they eat the rest of the day. Wrong. If you are eating right, you don’t need the supposed extra nutrients from pulverizing plants. If you are not eating right, that is the place to focus your attention.
Guide to Reading Food Labels—Based on the work of Jeff Novick, RD
Shop mainly in the produce section. When buying packaged foods, check for the following on the labels:
Avoid all saturated fats, hydrogenated fats, and tropical oils, including lard, butter, coconut, cocoa butter, palm oils, shortening, or margarine. Polyunsaturated fats (like safflower, soybean, corn, and sesame) and monounsaturated fats (such as olive and canola) are less harmful. If they are included, make sure the percentage of calories from fat is still 20% or less.
Hidden fats: monoglycerides, diglycerides, triglycerides, lecithin, partially hydrogenated oils, myristic acid, suet.
Jeff Novick says, “Watch out for sugars and other caloric sweeteners that don’t say ‘sugar’ but in fact are, such as corn syrup, rice and maple syrup, molasses, honey, malted barley, barley malt, or any term that ends in ‘ol,’ such as sorbitol or maltitol, or ‘ose,’ such as dextrose or fructose. Try to limit all these added, refined, concentrated sugars to no more than 5 percent of total calories (essentially, no more than 2 tablespoons daily for most folks). Don’t be concerned about naturally occurring sugars . . . however, on the Nutrition Facts label, added sugars and naturally occurring sugars are all lumped together as ‘sugar.’ Your best bet: Look at the ingredient list. Try to avoid foods with added, refined caloric sweeteners in the first three to five ingredients. Because ingredients are listed in descending order of weight, the lower down the label you find added sugars, the better.”
Hidden dairy: caramel color or flavoring (sometimes derived from dairy), casein, caseinate, ghee, hydrolysates, lactalbumin, lactose, lactate, nougat, whey
Hidden egg: albumin, globulin, livetin, lysozyme, mayonnaise, meringue, ovalbumin (and anything beginning with ovo), silici albuminate, Simplesse, vitellin
Other animal foods: gelatin, rennet, carmine, isinglass, pepsin
Read the labels, especially THE INGREDIENTS!!!
Ignore all the “health” claims stated anywhere on the packaging. They are almost always misleading.
Additional Resources by Jeff Novick, RD
Jeff Novick is a master teacher and has created many useful resources. Here are two on food labels:
“Understanding Food Labels”
“Identifying Hidden Sources of Salt/Sodium, Oil/Fat & Sugars/Sweeteners”
See also Jeff ’s excellent DVDs on shopping for food:
Should I Eat That? How to Choose the Healthiest Foods
Fast Food Vol 3: Shopping School
Additional DVDs: www.jeffnovick.com/RD/DVDs.html
More WFPB Food Resources
- Getting Started
- Figuring Out What to Eat
- WFPB Recipes
- WFPB Meal Planning
- WFPB Made Easy
- WFPB Resources
Last updated: August 27, 2017