What is a whole-foods plant-based diet?

by Amy Renee
What is a whole-foods plant-based diet?

Switching to a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle has changed my life. I’ve tried several ways of eating since my overweight, adolescent years. I’ve tried low-carb Atkins type diets, the Zone eating plan, the Dukan diet, the South Beach Diet and similar Mediterranean style diets, the typical high-protein bodybuilder diet and more and I will tell you this, I have never weighed less, had more energy, been more healthy, and felt better physically and emotionally.

It took a long time for me to get here, but better late than never! It’s like what all the adults used to say when we were kids, “if I knew then what I know now…”

But there’s no point in worrying about that now. What I’m concerned with now is what I’ve learned in my postgraduate studies about how what you eat SUBSTANTIALLY influences your health and longevity. I know a lot of people who say, “oh, I don’t care if I die young, I want to enjoy my life…” But when they say that I’m always confused because I’m assuming they must be picturing the end of their life much differently than what I am imagining for them. Unfortunately, what they are not considering is that although they think they may not care about how long they live, what about how they live? I doubt anyone wants to be in a hospital bed, unable to walk or unable to do the things they once loved. What if they are on several medications that have awful side effects. Impotence. Or have dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, yet another disease linked to high animal food consumption.

Changing your lifestyle can be difficult, but it can also be interesting and fun. It’s all in how you look at it. I want to help you make small steps in getting to a healthier place. You don’t have to make drastic changes. Keep reading for my advice on how to improve your health and longevity, oh…and sexiness.

What is a whole-food, plant-based diet?

It is exactly that. You eat whole foods that are from plants. Whole foods are foods that are in their most original form. A whole-food, plant-based diet (usually referred to simply as a plant-based diet for short) consists of nutrient-dense plant foods while limiting processed foods and oils and eliminating all animal foods.

The most obvious foods in a whole-food, plant-based diet would be fruits and vegetables and there are TONS to chose from. Not only do fruits and vegetables contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals but they are packed full of antioxidants and phytonutrients. Other components of a whole-food, plant-based diet include nuts and seeds, legumes, and un-processed or minimally processed foods such as sprouted breads and whole grains.

EXAMPLES OF THE MANY WHOLESOME FOODS IN THIS LIFESTYLE

Fruits & Vegetables:

  • Brussels sprouts, apples, oranges, peaches, melons, berries, spinach, kale, cucumbers, celery, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, green peas,zucchini,watercress,onions, asparagus, dandelion greens, Swiss chard, butter lettuce, red leaf lettuce, apricots, bananas, pineapple, plums, pomegranate, dates avocado, cabbage, melons, grapefruit, grapes, mangoes, papaya, kiwi, collard greens, beets, figs, bell and hot peppers, garlic…the list goes on

Starchy Vegetables:

  • Sweet potatoes, red potatoes, yukon potatoes, squash, parsnips, pumpkin

Sea Vegetables:

  • Agar, dulse, kelp, arame, wakame, nori, kombu

Lentils

  • Beans (adzuki, black, chickpeas, fava, kidney, navy, pinto, etc.)
  • Lentils (brown, red, green)
  • Peas (black-eyed, split green peas, split yellow peas)

Nuts & Seeds:

  • Almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, hazelnuts, brazil nuts, walnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, flaxseed (ground), chia seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seed, sunflower seeds, and many more.

Grains & Pseudograins:

  • Brown rice, millet, spelt, teff, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa, wild rice

Healthy Fats:

  • Avocados, nuts, seeds
  • Oils (coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil, hemp oil, pumpkin seed oil)

Other Healthy Plant-Based Foods:

  • Apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, nutritional yeast, stevia, coconut nectar, agave nectar

Herbs:

  • Basil, oregano, parsley, thyme, chilies & chili powder, cilantro, dill, mint

Spices:

  • Cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, black pepper, cayenne, cloves, cardamom, curry powder, cumin, turmeric, paprica

Why should you make the change to a plant-based lifestyle?

Despite the abundance of evidence available justifying a plant-based diet for the prevention, treatment and possible reversal of obesity and chronic disease (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and inflammatory diseases and more) physicians are not recommending this lifestyle to their patients. Instead they prescribe costly medications that often have serious and sometimes even fatal side effects. It is sad how much we (healthcare workers) know poor nutrition affects our health, yet nothing is being done to change it.

Evidence shows those on a plant-based diet have a significantly reduced risk for several chronic diseases. But if living a longer, disease-free life with less pain isn’t enough to convince you to make a change, maybe weight-loss will win you over? Yep! Plant-based eaters weigh less as evidenced by several peer-reviewed studies!

If you are interested in learning more about the latest research correlating animal food consumption with adverse effects to health I highly encourage you to watch this video presentation by Dr. Michael Greger, a highly respected authority figure in the field of nutrition research. Not only is the information he presents super informative and important for your health, but he is a fun and excellent presenter!

How to transition to a plant-based lifestyle

If you consume the standard American diet (SAD) trying to make the change to a plant-based lifestyle cold turkey is probably not a good idea. Start by making small changes, slowly eliminating groups of animal foods while incorporating more plant foods every week or two. If you already eat a pretty clean diet and are motivated by other factors such as ailing health making the change might be easier for you.

I would like to tell you to eliminate the most dangerous animal food (in my opinion – dairy) first, but this is often the most difficult for people to give up. Not because of milk, but because of cheese. American’s LOVE their cheese. To be honest dairy was the most difficult for me to give up because of cheese. I was seriously addicted to cheese. I never thought I’d be able to let go of goat cheese, feta, parmesan, cheddar…but then one day I just had my “a-ha” moment and didn’t touch it again. I was totally over it. Although there are some great vegan cheese options available commercially (Daiya seems to be the most popular from what I’ve been told), I don’t even feel the need for the fake cheeses. I have fallen in love with nutritional yeast and it has taken the place of cheese in my life, happily. 

ANIMAL FOODS TO SLOWLY PHASE OUT (in the order I recommend): 

  • Dairy (milk, all cheeses, yogurt, ice cream, etc.)
  • Red meats
  • Poultry
  • Egg
  • Fish & seafood

Week One

So you made the commitment to make a change. GOOD FOR YOU! Now where to begin…

Start small. If you are a big time carnivore than maybe you could just jump on the “Meatless Mondays” bandwagon and go all plant-based on Monday’s. No animal foods. But only on Monday. Maybe you think you’d rather start by giving up a specific group of animal foods – like red meat or dairy. As I mentioned above in my opinion dairy is the most unhealthy of all animal foods, but then again that argument could be made for any animal product as all animal products are strongly linked to chronic disease and certain animal foods are more strongly linked to certain disease than others. Take chicken for example. If you watched Dr. Greger’s presentations above (if you didn’t I HIGHLY recommend it) he points out a longitudinal study of over 100,000 participants in which just 50 grams (that’s about 1/4 of a breast) of chicken (poultry in general – so turkey too) per day tripled the risk for non-Hodgkins lymphoma and leukemia. Wow!

Week Two

If one week isn’t long enough then calm down! I’m not the food police – ha ha. What matters is that you are trying. That being said, you need to be accountable for your actions and your health. When you make excuses you are just lying to yourself. So if you need two weeks for each transition phase, take two, but then GET YOUR BUTT INTO THE NEXT PHASE!!!

Now you need to start making some REAL changes. Start experimenting with some foods you don’t normally eat. Remember, you’re still eating animal foods, but just phasing them out slowly. So you need to replace them with nutrient-dense plant foods. Go back and look at the list above. Try some things you’ve never had before. And guess what, our tastes change over time so if you think you hate something because of a bad childhood memory of canned green beans (gross, I wouldn’t EVER make you eat canned green beans – in fact I WOULDN’T WANT YOU TO!) I encourage you to try them again, only buy fresh beans and prepare them until they are just crisp tender (not overcooked). Check out my recipes. Scan the internet for recipes. There are THOUSANDS of great plant-based recipes out there. Just make sure they are healthy ones and not just “vegan” recipes with tons of fat, sugar and processed junk added in.

Not only are you adding in more foods you haven’t been eating, you are going to eliminate another group of animal foods this week. Your choice. But stick to. Sayonara!

Week Three

Are you having fun yet? Have you made some new recipes? Don’t get stuck in a rut and start eating only grains because you are afraid of cooking vegetables. Cooking vegetables are so easy. And the best thing is that most can be eaten raw too. So if you are really in pinch you could always opt for a really big salad. Or even a whole wheat pita (look for a low calorie one with few ingredients), slap on some hummus and some raw veggies and nutritional yeast. Yum! One of my favorite quickie meals.

Which animal food are you cutting out this week? You should be down to only two left in your diet now unless you are a SUPER STAR and opted to cut out a couple in one week. Is it getting easier? Are you having a difficult time? Try my recipes on my blog and feel free to comment if you are having any problems. I am here to help.

Week Four

Almost there! You are probably starting to feel reenergized, lighter, happier, less anxious, less depressed…the list goes on. I am so happy for you!

Week Five

I am so proud of you. You just got rid of the last animal food group. GOOD FOR YOU! I promise you changing to a plant-based lifestyle is the best decision I ever made. And I am betting it will be for you too.

If you feel the need to have meat or cheese there are some alternatives available, but I honestly do not crave them at all. Again, I used to be a hardcore cheese addict and now nutritional yeast is my best friend and I don’t miss cheese at all. Not even the slightest bit. Not even on pizza!

If you miss scrambled eggs you can make scrambled tofu. I don’t cook tofu a lot, but I like it. It is really good scrambled with veggies or even alone with turmeric and nutritional yeast (yep – I know…). It’s also good sliced and grilled, broiled, or pan fried and it takes on the flavor of whatever you are cooking it with. You just have to be careful not to overcook it because it can dry out quick. I recommend purchasing the extra firm tofu NOT packed in water. It will save you a lot of time if you don’t have to press it as you do with the water packed kind. Always look for non-GMO varieties of any type of soy products you buy.

I haven’t tried a lot of the “fake meats” out there, but I do really like tempeh. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and has a little bit of a nutty flavor, but like tofu it takes on the flavor of whatever it is being cooked with. It is really yummy on sandwiches or in stews and soups. It really does taste like meat (to me anyway). And I like it a lot. Since it is a soy product I recommend you look for non-GMO varieties.

BEANS & LENTILS! You can do so much with these little gems! You can add veggies to them and make all sorts of delicious veggie patties to heartier burgers to “meat(less)” balls…desserts…YES DESSERTS! I didn’t eat a whole lot of legumes when I was younger, but now they are my favorite food, well…I love veggies too…and fruits…and chocolate…..

 

References:

  1. Michael Greger, M.D. DrGreger.org. http://www.drgreger.org/about. Accessed on May 26th, 2014.
  2. Greger M. More than an apple a day: preventing our most common diseases. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-8ovk81nNM#t=116. Published on August 27, 2013. Accessed on December 2, 2014.

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