What is a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet?
A whole-food, plant-based diet is centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants. It’s a diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes; and it excludes or minimizes meat (including chicken and fish), dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.
We know that’s a mouthful! Rest assured, though, that you will be eating in a way that people have thrived on for thousands of years.
Following are the food categories from which you’ll eat, along with a few examples of each. These include the ingredients you’ll be using to make familiar dishes, such as pizza, mashed potatoes, lasagna, and burritos:
Fruit: mangoes, bananas, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, oranges, cherries, etc.
Vegetables: lettuce, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, carrots, etc.
Tubers and starchy vegetables: potatoes, yams, yucca, winter squash, corn, green peas, etc.
Whole grains: millet, quinoa, barley, rice, whole wheat, oats, etc.
Legumes: kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, cannellini beans, black beans, etc.
A Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet Is Not a Diet of Vegetables. You may have heard that people living this way eat lots of spinach, kale, and collard greens, and that this is, in fact, the primary basis for many of the meals. You may even think we live only on leafy and raw vegetables. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
While leafy vegetables are an important part of the whole-food, plant-based diet, they are a very poor calorie (i.e., energy) source to be sustainable. We would need to eat almost 16 pounds of cooked kale to get 2,000 calories of food! In fact, it is virtually impossible to get enough calories from leafy vegetables alone to form a sustainable diet. Perhaps the most common reason for failure in this lifestyle is that people actually try to live on leafy vegetables alone. If you try to live on these vegetables, you become deficient in calories. Not eating enough calories leads you to feel hungry, which over time may result in decreased energy, feelings of deprivation, cravings, and even binges. These issues are not caused by switching to a plant-based diet—rather, they are all related to not eating enough.
In America most of us are accustomed to building our dinner plate around meat. This will change with your new lifestyle. The center of your plate is now going to be the starch-based comfort foods most of us have always loved, but that have long been relegated to side dishes or stigmatized because of a misperception that they are “unhealthy.” Yet, these are the foods that people around the world have thrived on for generations: tubers like potatoes and sweet potatoes; starchy vegetables like corn and peas; whole grains like brown rice, millet, quinoa, and buckwheat; and legumes like chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, and lima beans.
They may be prepared a bit differently—leaving out oil and dairy, for example—but most of them will nonetheless be familiar. In addition to starch-based foods, you can enjoy as much whole fruit as you like!
By: Alona Pulde, MD and Matthew Lederman, MD