Healthy Living Part I: Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet

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

Simply put, it is the consumption of plant-derived foods in their most “whole” form. It is a diet based on unprocessed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and other natural products such as mushrooms and honey. What it excludes is all meats, dairy products and eggs. More importantly, the whole-food, plant-based diet omits all processed foods— including refined flours, sugars and oils—regardless of whether it is plant- or animal-derived.  

You might think that such a diet would limit your dinner table options, but this could not be further from the truth. By adopting a plant-based diet, you can open up an entire world of culinary extravagance simply based on the variety of edible plants and natural products our planet has to offer. Some examples of whole foods include: crucifers, such as kale, broccoli and spinach; food seeds, such as hemp, chia and flax; nuts, such as almonds, pistachios and walnuts; orchard fruit, such as apples, pears and peaches; extra virgin oils, such as olive and coconut; various berries, figs, avocados, tomatoes, legumes (beans), mushrooms, nutritional yeast, sea salt, spice herbs, tubers, squash, carrots, onions, red wine, green tea, brown rice, quinoa, steel-cut oats and coarse-ground grits. That’s just the tip of the cornucopia.

Why should I consider a whole-food, plant-based diet?

Consuming whole, plant-based foods will aid in regainingand maintainingyour overall health. Numerous studies strongly suggest that eating plants and unprocessed foods can help treat and even reverse diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain cancers—most of which are results of poor diets to begin with. There are more immediate pros to ditching dairy, added sugars, meats and processed foods: Less bloating and heartburn. Better digestion and bowel health. More energy. Reduced or eliminated body odor. A sleeker, more efficient physique.

Is a whole-food, plant-based diet the same thing as the vegan or raw diet?

The whole-food, plant-based diet is not vegan. Nor is it specifically raw. There are plenty of products included in this diet that vegans avoidmost notably, honeyand food can be eaten cooked or uncooked. Also, the whole-food, plant-based diet comes without the intense philosophical approach of veganism, but instead with an added vigilance towards consuming food in its most natural form. However, though not directly confronting the issue of animal welfare and environmental concerns, the plant-based diet by virtue of avoiding animal products decreases demand for flesh and dairy, which has a net-positive effect on our global habitat. So while the whole-food, plant-based diet shares some similarities with veganism, this diet puts much more emphasis on the wholeness of what is consumed within the framework of vegetarianism.

Will I get all the nutrition I need if I’m only eating plant-based foods?

Skeptics of plant-based diets typically focus more on what's potentially lacking in nutrition, rather than on what it can offer, and they often overlook some fundamental facts of biology. A majority of bioaccumulated energy on this planet is stored in carbon molecules—mainly glucose, the most simple form of carbohydrate—assembled by clusters of chlorophyll in plants, algae and certain bacteria using solar photons. These carbohydrates are absolutely necessary for healthy body function, and are found abundantly in all plant products.

And what about proteins? Proteins are made from amino acids, which are nitrogen-based building blocks used by all forms life on Earth, not just animals. That nitrogen didn’t just accidentally end up in the organic cycle—much of it was synthesized by plants using symbiotic bacteria. So the amino acids you might get from animal sources still very likely originated from the flora.

While animal products do provide a high density of protein, animal-based foods are notoriously aggressive acid-formers; plant-based foods are generally alkalizing. The pH—proportion of acid to alkali—of your body is critical for proper function, and any deviation outside of the body’s comfort zone can lead to significant health issues. So instead on feasting on meats, there are plenty of protein-packed, plant-based options that rival animal products, including sprouts, hemp seeds, legumes and quinoa that won’t tip your pH scale outside of the healthy range.

Further, plant-based foods also contain various fibers and phytonutrients that cannot be obtained from animal products. Worried about not getting your calcium from dairy? Crucifers, squashes and carrots are excellent examples of plant-based sources of calcium. Maybe most importantly, plant products are simply easier for your body to digest and process, making those vitamins and minerals more bioavailable for uptake in your digestive system—this is far more healthy and effective than supplementing with over-the-counter laboratory products.

Anything else should I know about eating plant-based and avoiding processed foods?

The key to the whole-food, plant-based diet is variety—the more you diversify the fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods you take in, the better off you will be. It can be quite visually pleasing as well, as a healthy diet is also very colorful, and a lot of fun to prepare! Additionally, reducing your sodium intake from processed foods will allow you to use more table salt—which is healthy in appropriate amounts—to flavor food to your satisfaction.

So there you have it: an introduction to the whole-food, plant-based diet. Improving the quality of your nutritional intake is the first and most important step in achieving a sustainably healthy lifestyle. Along with exercise and other beneficial activities like gardening and cooking, you can achieve the vigor and vitality that comes with eating correctly and keeping your body fit.

Suggested reading/viewing: 

BOOK: The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, PhD & T. Campbell, MD (2005)

FILMForks Over Knives by Lee Fulkerson (2011)