Have you heard about whole-food, plant-based diets? They’ve become pretty popular in recent years, but anyone who’s heard just what’s involved in them is probably going to be a bit overwhelmed. It’s a lot of changes, a lot of decisions, and a lot of thinking! If you’re at a point where you’re wondering how to transition to a plant-based diet, though, you’ve taken a good first step: getting information.
What is a whole-food, plant-based diet?
Plant-based diets have become increasingly trendy in the health sphere. What makes a whole-food, plant-based diet (WFPB diet) unique?
Here’s a simple explanation of a plant-based diet for beginners: a plant-based diet cuts out meats and animal-based products as much as possible. There aren’t any strict standards for how vegetarian or vegan you have to be; some people eat occasional dairy or fish, while others eat no animal-based products at all.
No matter where you are on the spectrum, the most important part of this diet is to eat whole foods. The emphasis here is on minimally-processed food, with as little refined sugar, processed oil, and white flour as possible. Instead, eating whole grains, fresh (or frozen) fruits and vegetables, and healthy protein sources is encouraged.
This agrees with advice from nutritionists, doctors, and health scientists across the board: the less processed food you eat, the healthier you’ll be. Even the DASH diet — the top diet in the US News & World Report for the last 8 years and the diet recommended by the US government — follows this emphasis on whole foods.
Wait, isn’t that just a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is a lifestyle change, just like the WFPB diet. However, a vegan diet is motivated by a desire to contribute to ending animal cruelty or an unwillingness to consume animal products in any form.
In comparison, a WFPB diet is usually made from a desire to be as healthy as possible. It’s often used to manage diabetes, cholesterol, hypertension, and weight. While it’s possible for a vegan to be on a whole foods diet, not every vegan eats a whole foods diet.
There’s a large number of vegan products on the market, and many of these products can contain things that are unquestionably unhealthy for you. These include — refined grains such as white flour, added sugars, high amounts of sodium, and fried foods such as french fries and potato chips.
Plant-based does not mean healthy in and of itself, though the two are often equated. While transitioning to a plant-based diet that focuses on whole foods can be difficult, it’s one of the best choices you can make for your body.
Similar diets to a whole-food, plant-based diet
Nutritionists didn’t just happen to stumble across the nutritional benefits of a plant-based diet. If you’re nervous about adopting a plant-based diet, you can also check out some other diets that reflect the same concepts:
Blue Zones Diet
The Blue Zones Diet claims to use information from surveys of the longest-living people in the world to develop a diet meant to maximize health. In many of these Blue Zones diets, meat is used only sparingly, as little as a few times a month.
Instead, people following the Blue Zones diet focus on leafy greens, tubers like sweet potatoes and yams, beans, nuts, seeds, and fruits. Fish is the only truly acceptable meat, while things like dairy, eggs, and sugars are to be removed from the diet. Sourdough bread made from whole grains and whole wheat bread are the only recommended grains.
A book called The Blue Zones dives deeper into this concept. The author, Dan Buettner, looks at the eating habits and lifestyles of the healthiest people around the world. You can learn how to reverse engineer what they’re doing to live a longer and better life.
Okinawans, residents of an island about 400 miles south of Japan, are rumored to be some of the longest-lived people on earth. Their diet, like the Blue Zones diet, is largely centered around whole fruits and vegetables; however, small amounts of pork, fish, beef, and goat are included in the diet. Dairy was not originally included, as calcium was gotten from vegetables, especially leafy greens.
The Okinawa Diet looks different than it used to because of Western influences. The modern iteration emphasizes whole grains, whole foods, and calorie restriction by following rules of “featherweights” to “heavyweights” – more foods that are featherweight in calories, and fewer foods that are more calorically dense. Tofu is also emphasized as a healthful protein source.
Centenarians, or those who live to be over a century old, have a wide variety of reasons for their long age. Many cite dropping bad habits, getting in better physical shape, and eating healthy diets, such as those which emphasize whole foods or plant-based diets, as the reason for their age.
Despite what you may have heard, while some dietary changes may increase your lifespan by limiting the risk of deadly diseases, many centenarians cite genetics and sheer dumb luck as the reason for their age. There is no conclusive evidence that a whole-food, plant-based diet will let you live that long — but it will certainly get you closer.
Health benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet
If you’re still on the fence about starting a plant-based diet, we’ve pulled together a shortlist on how it can help your health.
There are no major studies which prove that certain diets prevent cancer; most studies done to date look at how many people on a certain diet get cancer. However, a thorough review of studies shows that high-quality diets, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, report reduced cancer risk and lower cancer mortality rates.
Both of these diets emphasize similar points to a whole-food, plant-based diet, like whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and legumes. They also follow strict avoidance of things like refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and refined flour. Neither, however, are wholly plant-based. The Mediterranean diet includes fish, and the DASH diet includes low-fat dairy and lean meats.
Heart disease prevention
Simply following a plant-based diet isn’t enough to decrease your risk for coronary heart disease, one study says. A plant-based diet that’s high in refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and refined grains may actually increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
In comparison, a plant-based diet centered on whole foods can have drastic, positive effects on health. The same study of over 200,000 people showed that a diet rich in healthy fruits, vegetables, oils, whole grains and legumes substantially lowers risk for coronary heart disease.
High-fiber diets such as a plant-based, whole-food diet are also able to lower the risk of coronary heart disease by 10% to 20%.
A study of over 100,000 people has shown that a plant-based diet, especially one with high-quality plant foods, substantially lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes.
The study was very thorough in its research of different kinds of plant-based diets and different levels of adherence. The findings were very clear, however — there are less healthy plant and animal foods too and consuming too many of those increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. It emphasizes the importance of following a whole-foods diet, which naturally cuts out many of these risk factors.
Numerous studies, including this review of studies which includes over 1,100 subjects, show that vegetarian diets, when combined with caloric restriction, tend to have a greater effect on weight loss and a better chance of helping people manage and keep off their weight.
Even when caloric restriction isn’t involved, tentative research shows that a whole-food, plant-based diet can have significant effects on BMI and cholesterol reduction. As this kind of diet combines the best parts of a whole-foods diet with the best part of a vegetarian or vegan diet, these results are not surprising.
Telomeres are one of the culprits of age-related diseases and the appearances of aging on the body. They act as caps on DNA strands to keep them from fraying and losing a bit of length every time a cell splits. The shorter the telomeres are, the higher is the mortality — and telomeres get shorter the older you get.
Though telomere length is also related to gender and race, studies on diets similar to a whole-food, plant-based diet show that eating in such ways shows longer telomere length and higher telomerase activity directly because of diet. Some have even shown that a plant-based diet actually increases telomere length. What does this mean for us?
It means that a whole-food, plant-based diet can have a drastic effect on the way aging impacts your body and your looks.
How to transition to a whole-food, plant-based diet
How do I start a plant-based diet? The question is a big one, and there’s no single answer that works for every person. Good news, though: if you’re asking how to transition to a plant-based diet, you’ve already started the process, because researching is an important first step.
If you’re wondering how to begin a plant-based diet, it’s best to start by informing yourself. Figure out why you want to follow a plant-based diet. Educate yourself on what foods to eat and learn more about what to avoid.
For example, most pre-packaged alternatives to a non-plant-based diet, such as vegan meats and cheeses, are a big no. To help guide, educate, and motivate you, I recommend reading The China Study and/or watching the Forks Over Knives documentary. Another great book is How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger.
You can even listen to it on Audible. These are all fantastic plant-based resources grounded in scientific research and evidence. Also, check out other healthy-eating diets with an emphasis on whole foods, like the DASH diet. Just swap out the meat and dairy for things like beans, tempeh, soy or almond milk.
If you’re like me, this probably isn’t the first time you’ve tried to change your diet. I usually end up faltering after a few weeks, when I’m at the grocery store for the sixth time and at an utter loss as to what to eat for the next few days.
While it’s tempting to go all-out and eat nothing but fruits, veggies, and nuts in your first week or two, going to a plant-based diet is a lifestyle change. This isn’t a fad diet; you need to give your body everything it needs for day-to-day living, and that means knowing how to get your proteins, carbs, and fats. Forks Over Knives can help you do this. They offer a great meal planner. They will create customized plant-based meal plans for you and your family that will only take 35 minutes or less to make. The Plantpower Meal Planner is also a great resource.
If you’re on a budget, check out Toni Okamoto’s site Plant-Based on a Budget. Here you can learn how to live plant-based without breaking the bank.
Plan out your meals ahead of time and compile your grocery shopping list before you head out. Not only does this save money, it also saves a world of frustration, and makes it easier to feed yourself right when you’re hungry. Prep your meals when you can, since having something you can just throw in the oven with minimal fuss makes it all the more easier to follow a new diet.
Figure out healthy snacks too. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been saved from making very poor decisions by having snacks around the house that’ll satisfy a sudden craving for something fatty, salty, or sweet. Fruits go a long way towards sweet cravings, and a handful of nuts or some homemade guacamole and wheat cracker chips kill the salty cravings pretty quick.
Changing to a plant-based diet can be very, very overwhelming. Unless you’re one of those people who can stick with an all-or-nothing change, don’t be afraid of taking it one step at a time and turning to resources.
I had the best luck going whole-foods first and then moving to all plant-based foods afterward. Honestly, this was mostly because I absolutely love cheese, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to cut out fatty foods, added sugars, and cheese. Oh, and let me tell you, cheese was the hardest. To help break my cheese addiction, I listened to The Cheese Trap by Neal Barnard, M.D. This helped me understand why I was so addicted to cheese and reinforced the benefits of going dairy-free.
Going slowly also gives you time to figure out what foods you love. From there, it gets a lot easier; you can surround yourself with foods that you can binge guilt-free, and foods you can look forward to eating.
Don’t be afraid to go easy on yourself. Making the transition to a plant-based diet is a long-term commitment, so it’s okay if you don’t get it perfect in your first week.
Substitute where you can.
Knowing how to start eating a plant-based diet is tricky. It’s tempting to swap out protein for frozen, pre-packaged veggie burgers and cheese slices for highly processed vegan cheese. That’s why it’s so important to be well-informed: by making good swaps, you’ll train your body and your taste buds to whole foods instead of processed foods.
Figure out easy changes to make. For me, that was cutting out meat – I was never fond of the taste and texture. Burgers could be swapped for a simple black bean recipe. Curry could be made with soy instead of chicken. I never really craved anything else.
I made veggies easy on myself by keeping a hefty stock of frozen veggies ready to be added to chili and curry (when I was needing to sneak them in) or roasted in the oven. Herbs and spices made them taste flavorful enough to make me think I was eating out!
I keep whole wheat noodles and squash in stock (along with canned, no-salt-added tomatoes) whenever the pasta urge hits. Fruit is always on hand, and I used it instead of sweets to satisfy late-night sweet cravings instead of chocolate or brownies.
Dairy was a lot more difficult to cut out, especially cheese. That was mostly willpower and a lot of education, so I made sure to keep it for last, when I was pretty solid on the rest of the diet. Waiting turned out to be the best choice, since my body had come to expect different foods and my head had time to adjust to the new way of eating.
Clean your pantry.
If you’ve got other people living with you — like roommates, a spouse, or your family, this can be a bit tricky. It’s unlikely everyone is going to be on-board with you, especially not at first, and that’s okay.
See if they’re alright with keeping unhealthy foods you’re tempted by out of the house or hidden somewhere only they can access. Discussions can be difficult but keep communication open. Who knows? They may start asking how to start a plant-based diet themselves!
If you’re living by yourself — so much the easier. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been saved from cravings or the temptation to eat badly just this once by simply not having anything else to eat in the house other than healthy foods.
It’s incredibly difficult to constantly see foods you’re trying to stop eating, so make it easy on yourself and clean out your pantry as much as you can. Donate what’s nonperishable and unopened, and give away everything else. It’ll make your life a whole lot easier and give you the feeling of a fresh start when you next go out grocery shopping.
Keep track of what works for you.
If you’re on the go a lot, plan food and snacks you can take with you so you don’t have to rely on out-of-house options. If you’re not a big breakfast eater, keep something healthy and filling like oatmeal on hand for when you start getting hungry.
Don’t like salads? Try getting your veggies in through smoothies, added to other foods like sandwiches and soups, or by cooking and seasoning them. Love baking? Learn how to adjust your favorite recipes to suit your new lifestyle.
Your body and your diet are just that — yours. What works for one person might not work for another. The goal here is to eat healthier, not to follow a specific set of directions for a one-size-fits-all lifestyle!
Going out to eat can be difficult, especially at first. Along with planning ahead, being around people who want you to succeed is the best way to stick with these new changes in your life.
Let your friends, your significant other, or your family know you’re trying to make positive changes for yourself (without getting preachy). Find a friend who can keep you accountable. If you’re in an area that has a number of vegetarians, vegans, or people trying to stick to whole foods, introduce yourself.
There’s a whole slew of websites, apps, and forums that can help you find what you need, from questions about certain foods to restaurant recommendations. Also, apps like Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen have been a great help to me to make sure I am including nutrient-rich foods in my diet each day. And don’t forget about YouTube. YouTube is a great place to get inspired and pick up a ton of tips and tricks. I personally love Ellen Fisher’s YouTube channel. She demonstrates not only how her family lives on a plant-based diet but thrives on it.
While supplements probably aren’t needed (except maybe B12), be sure to talk to your doctor about your dietary change. A whole-food, plant-based diet is undeniably healthy for you, but any rapid change can be detrimental to your wellbeing, especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions or take any medications.
A whole-food, plant-based diet is one of the healthiest choices you can make for your body. Its health benefits are backed by a number of other, similar diets and studies, and the pattern of cutting out unhealthy foods like refined sugars and processed oils is seen in just about every doctor’s recommendation on how to get healthier.
Beginning a plant-based diet can seem overwhelming, but researching, planning, and making decisions based on what works best for you can turn the process of starting a plant-based diet into something fun and exciting.