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Harnessing the Power of Plants: What's the Difference Between Whole Food Plant-Based and Processed Plant-Based?

basket of farmers market produce

Have you ever wondered what exactly a plant-based diet entails?

Let's dive into it!

A plant-based diet involves consuming foods primarily derived from plants. This includes a colorful array of fruits, vibrant vegetables, wholesome nuts, crunchy seeds, hearty beans, peas, and lentils, and nourishing whole grains.

And, why all the buzz about going green? Here's the scoop: embracing a plant-based lifestyle offers a myriad of health benefits. From reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, to even sharpening brain health and nurturing a happy gut, the perks are pretty abundant! Everyday benefits noticed through eating more plants include better sleep, improved mood, clearer skin, more mobility, and less joint pain.

Of note, not all plant-based diets are created equal. While some plant-based enthusiasts swear off all animal products (hey there, vegans!), others simply aim to incorporate more plants onto their plates while still enjoying the occasional animal product. Whether you're diving headfirst into a veggie-packed adventure or simply testing the waters, there's a plant-based path for everyone! Overall, adding more plants to your plate is good for you and good for the planet.

The Tale of Whole Foods vs. Processed Foods

freshly pulled carrots

Picture this: a crisp apple harvested straight from the orchard versus a sugary apple-flavored candy. One is a wholesome, nutrient-packed treat straight from nature's bounty that is sure to energize and nourish you from head to toe. The other is a concoction of artificial flavors and added sugars that is sure to zap your energy and has the potential of creating inflammation throughout your body. Welcome to the world of whole foods versus ultra processed foods.

Whole foods are the unsung heroes of nutrition. They're the unaltered or minimally altered gems that retain their natural goodness. Take oat groats, for instance. These untouched grains are harvested and sold just as nature intended, with fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are essential to helping your body and mind run smoothly and optimally. Now, compare them to their rolled counterparts—still packed with fiber and nutrients, albeit gently steamed and pressed. These whole and minimally processed foods boast a treasure trove of nutrients, making them the MVPs of any meal!

Other minimally processed foods include frozen veggies, cut carrots, canned beans, tofu and tempeh, to name just a few. While these plant powerhouses have undergone some form of modification from their natural state, they're still highly nutritious foods.

Whole Food Plant-Based Examples


  • Fruits: berries, bananas, apples, watermelon, pineapples, peaches, pears

  • Vegetables: kale, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, peppers, onion, garlic, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and avocados (technically fruits!)

  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds

  • Whole grains: oats, quinoa, brown rice, millet

  • Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, cannellini beans

freshly picked apples

Minimally Processed Plant-Based Examples

  • Fruits: frozen, canned, and dried fruits; ready-to-eat chopped fresh fruit

  • Vegetables: frozen and canned vegetables; ready-to-eat chopped fresh vegetables; fermented

  • Nuts and seeds: roasted, dehydrated

  • Whole grains: steamed, boiled, parboiled, pressure cooked, cut or rolled

  • Legumes: canned, steamed, boiled, pressure cooked

  • Extra virgin cold pressed olive oil, flax oil, or avocado oil

vegan tofu bowl

And while minimally processed foods, like tofu and rolled oats still hold onto their nutritional prowess, another category of processed foods — ultra-processed treats like Oreos and potato chips — are a whole different ball game. Laden with refined sugars, oils, and flours, and excess sodium, these snacks can wreak havoc on your health over time, leading to a slew of pesky ailments and lifestyle diseases. According to one meta-analysis, consumption of ultra-processed foods high in refined oils and sugars is significantly correlated to the development of many chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and irritable bowel disease.

Ultra processed foods are the foods that can feed into aches and pains, restless sleep, digestive issues, skin issues, a cranky mood, depression, and more. Of course, enjoying the occasional Oreo may not throw your body into a tizzy, but consuming ultra processed foods consistently, over time, has been shown to disrupt physical and mental health.

Navigating the Grocery Aisles: Tips for Smart Choices

at the grocery store

So, how do you distinguish between the nourishing and the not-so-nourishing foods at the grocery store?

First, keep an eagle eye out for chemically processed foods lurking in the aisles. These sneaky snacks are engineered to tantalize your taste buds and leave you craving more — it's a dangerous game! And don't be fooled by hidden sugars masquerading under fancy aliases like dextrose or fructose. Keep added sugars in check, aiming for no more than 36 grams of added sugar a day for men and no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day for women as suggested by the American Heart Association. Learn more about added sugar in our article, Added Sugar: How to Reduce it for Better Health.

Next up, let's talk sodium. While a pinch of salt can elevate flavors, too much sodium can send your blood pressure soaring. Aim to cap your sodium intake at 2,300 mg per day, with an ideal limit of 1,500 mg for optimal heart health.

And last but not least, bid adieu to trans fats. Scan those ingredient labels diligently, steering clear of hydrogenated oils. These artery-clogging culprits have been linked to a laundry list of health issues, from raising LDL cholesterol levels to wreaking havoc on your blood vessels. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an individual on 2,000 calories per day should not consume more than 2.2 grams/day.

Embrace the Art of Meal Prep

meal preparation

Now that you've armed yourself with knowledge, it's time to conquer the kitchen! Know that meal prep doesn't need to be a daunting task when you have a few tips and tricks in your culinary toolbox. Here are a few handy things to consider:

  • Pre-chop veggies and fruits that can be easily added to your meals. Store them in glass containers for up to 3 days and keep them front and center in the fridge for simple snacking!

  • Embrace the freezer. Whenever making a meal, double the recipe and portion servings into individual containers for easy grab and go meals when you're low on time.

  • Cook grains and beans in bulk to streamline meal prep for the week. Select one hour during the week or weekend where you can batch prep a whole grain, like quinoa or brown rice, and legumes, like lentils or chickpeas. Allow them to cool before storing in the fridge. The grains and beans or lentils can make the base for meals throughout the week like grain bowls, stir fries, salads, and more. Just add veggies and a sauce, and you're ready to rock and roll!

  • When low on time, turn to canned and frozen foods. Canned beans and frozen veggies can be lifesavers with their extended shelf life and easy prep. Add beans, veggies, and grains to a stovetop pan along with a bit of olive oil and your favorite seasonings or condiments to make a meal in minutes!

  • And remember, leftovers are your culinary canvas—let your creativity soar!

With these meal prep hacks in tow, you'll be well on your way to wholesome plant-based nourishment! For ideas and inspiration, visit our recipes page that include all whole or minimally processed plant-based foods.

Whether you're aiming to eat exclusively plants or simply seeking to add more plants to your plate, the journey to better health begins with food label knowledge and mindful food choices. Adding whole and minimally processed plant-based foods to your daily diet may help to mitigate inflammation, leading to better sleep, digestion, brain health, and skin health, as well as decrease your risk of lifestyle diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Here's to savoring the wonders of whole foods, one delectable bite at a time!


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