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How Do You Stay on a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet?

Updated: Jan 31

Guest post by Beth Rush,

plant based bowl
photo credit: Unsplash, Brook Lark

Going on a whole-food plant-based diet can be a transformative and health-conscious choice, but, if meat and dairy are staples in your diet, switching to all plant-based foods may be tricky at first. From the temptation of your favorite dairy-based treats to navigating social situations, how do you overcome challenges of going plant-based? The right strategies and mindset can make this lifestyle shift a sustainable and nourishing component of your lifestyle. Below are tips to successfully starting and staying on your new eating plan. 

Understanding a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet

A whole-foods plant-based (WFPB) lifestyle may differ from a vegan or a plant-forward diet. The WFPB approach centers on consuming whole and minimally processed foods derived exclusively from plants. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are the foundation of WFPB meals, providing an abundance of essential nutrients, including protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The emphasis lies in avoiding animal products, refined sugars, ultra processed foods and unhealthy fats. Consuming whole plant-based foods supports better health outcomes and aligns with ethical and environmental concerns by reducing the carbon footprint associated with standard American diets that are more meat, dairy, and ultra processed food centric. 

Whole food plant-based diet defined: WFPB, for the most part, excludes:

  • Animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy

  • Highly processed foods, like sugary snacks, chips and packaged convenience foods

  • Refined sugars, including high-fructose corn syrup and white table sugar

  • Cooking oils, particularly refined oils like vegetable and palm oil

  • Refined grains like white bread and white rice

  • Refined vegan products like alternative meats and vegan cheeses

Whole foods plant-based diet includes:

  • A variety of fresh, frozen and dried fruits

  • A diverse range of leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and root veggies

  • Whole grains, including brown rice, quinoa, farro, oats, barley and wheat

  • Beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and other legumes

  • Nuts, seeds and nut butters

  • Fresh or dried herbs and spices

  • Tofu and tempeh

  • Natural sweeteners like dates or minimally processed sugar, like maple syrup

The Benefits of Eating Whole Foods

plant based bowl
photo credit: Unsplash, Anna Pelzer

Eating whole foods can lead to a myriad of health benefits, including cardiovascular, gut, brain, and skin health. 

Heart Health

One of the most significant benefits of a WFPB diet is its positive impact on heart health. Whole food plant-based eating has been shown to significantly lower risk of heart disease by reducing the consumption of saturated fats found in animal products and ultra processed foods, and by incorporating fiber- and antioxidant-rich options like legumes, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Following these guidelines may significantly reduce cholesterol levels, blood pressure and inflammation, contributing to a healthier cardiovascular system. 

Weight Management

WFPB diets are naturally less calorically dense and more nutrient dense, making them an effective tool for weight management. These foods are rich in fiber and water, which promote a feeling of fullness and satiety. This can help you maintain a healthy weight or shed excess pounds when combined with a balanced calorie intake.

Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases

Research consistently shows that WFPB diets can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. The abundance of antioxidants, phytochemicals, and fiber in plant-based foods protects the body against cellular damage and inflammation, which are linked to development of these diseases. 

Improved Digestive Health

The fiber content in whole-plant foods supports healthy digestion. It helps regulate bowel movements, prevents constipation, and maintains a balanced gut microbiome. A well-functioning digestive system is essential for overall health and well-being.

Enhanced longevity

A whole-foods diet aligns with the Blue Zones diet, which focuses primarily on fruits, vegetables, legumes and healthy fats. Blue Zones are areas where people live the longest and happiest lives, and have lower rates of chronic disease than anywhere else in the world. Their diet consists of approximately 95% plant-based and unprocessed foods, not all that different from a WFPB approach. Plant-based eating, along with other healthy lifestyle factors (like connecting with others and staying active), may lead to lower risk of chronic diseases, healthier body weight and reduced inflammation, contributing to overall longevity and quality of life,

Better Blood Sugar Control

WFPB diets can help those with diabetes manage their blood sugar levels more effectively. The low glycemic load of plant-based foods can lead to improved insulin sensitivity and better blood sugar control.

Vibrant Hair and Skin

The vitamins, minerals and antioxidants abundant in plant-based foods may promote healthy skin and hair. The diet’s anti-inflammatory properties have also been shown to help with skin conditions, like acne and eczema.

Improved Mental and Emotional Well-Being

A WFPB approach may positively impact mental health and emotional well-being. Nutrient-rich foods support brain function, and the reduced intake of processed items and excess sugar can contribute to mood stability and mental clarity. 

Environmental Sustainability

In addition to improving health, adopting a WFPB diet is an environmentally responsible choice. Plant-based diets have a much lower carbon footprint than traditional diets high in meat and dairy. Reducing or eliminating animal products reduces greenhouse gasses and deforestation associated with these agricultural practices. Recent studies show that you can reduce your carbon footprint by 75% by consuming only plant-based foods. Even if you choose to opt for plants some days of the week, you can significantly make a positive impact on the planet.

How to Stay Satisfied on a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet

avocado toast
photo credit: Unsplash, Ella Olsson

How do you stay full on a whole-food plant-based diet? Due to the abundance of fiber and high water content of many plant-based foods, many people tend to feel satisfied with the right balance and a variety of foods. If you haven't seen the docuseries, 'You Are What You Eat' yet, check it out. In short, the research behind the docuseries followed 22 sets of identical twins who participated in a study, looking to answer the question, “What are the cardio metabolic effects of a healthy vegan vs healthy omnivorous diet among identical twins?” The vegan subjects were instructed to eat until they're full and ended up consuming approximately 200 calories less a day on a vegan diet compared to before the study.

Eat Fiber-Rich Foods

High-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are key to staying full. Fiber takes longer to digest, promoting a feeling of fullness. Incorporate a variety of these items into your meals to ensure you’re getting enough. 

Don’t Forget About Protein!

Protein is another satiating nutrient. Oftentimes, when individuals remove meat from their plate, they're left with an empty plate, because they're not sure what to add in its place. Beans, lentils, chickpeas, edamame, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and seitan are excellent plant-based protein sources. Including these in your meals helps you feel full and satisfied. Try a bean burger, bean tacos, tofu stir fry, or grain bowl with edamame and veggies.

Choose Whole Grains

Choose whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oats, and whole wheat pasta over refined options. They contain more fiber and nutrients, providing a longer-lasting feeling of fullness.

Include Healthy Fats

Including healthy varieties of fat, like the kind you get from avocados, nuts, seeds, nut and seed butter, and tahini can add flavor to your meals and help to keep you satiated, not to mention, nourished — fat is an essential nutrient! These whole food fats are nutrient-dense (in that they also have lots of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals) and contribute to the feeling of fullness. Extra virgin cold pressed olive oil may sometimes be used in moderation on a WFPB diet, but some folks who opt for only whole foods (like whole olives instead of olive oil), may choose oil-free WFPB. Read more about why some choose oil-free in the article, What's Wrong With Oil (Plus Oil-Free Salad Dressings: Three Ways!).

Remember to Hydrate

Sometimes, bodies confuse thirst for hunger. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to ensure you’re well-hydrated. Herbal tea or water with a squeeze of lemon can also help to stay hydrated. While eight glasses of water a day is recommended, most men need about 15.5 glasses daily and women need about 11.5 glasses to stay hydrated. Ensure you drink enough water, especially if you exercise regularly or live in a hot climate. 

Snack Smartly 

When you need a snack, choose whole foods like fresh fruit, vegetables or a handful of nuts. These picks are satisfying and nutritious. Including a little protein and carbohydrate in each snack can be a sustainable choice. It may include an apple with nut butter, veggies with hummus, or chia pudding made with chia seeds and plant-based yogurt plus fruit and nuts or seeds sprinkled on top.

Create Balanced Meals

Ensure your meals are well-balanced and contain various food groups. Include vegetables, whole grains, legumes, healthy fats and protein in each meal to provide a well-rounded source of nutrients to keep you full. The American College of Lifestyle Medicine offers a wonderful visual of what a plant-based plate looks like. Download the guide here.

Tips for Your WFPB Journey

plant-based meal
photo credit: Unsplash, Jo Sonn

It’s helpful to have a game plan when adopting a lifestyle change. Here are some ways to make your new eating plan easier.

Meal Plan

Start by creating a weekly meal plan that includes various plant-based foods. Focus on a colorful array of fruits and vegetables, protein-rich foods, fiber-rich grains, and healthy fats, like avocado or a drizzle of extra virgin cold pressed olive oil, for a balanced meal filled with carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Adding just a little bit of fat to meals also helps to deliver key nutrients, like vitamins A, D, E, and K, while also improving the flavor and texture of a meal. Adding plant-based protein helps to keep you sustained. And carbohydrates from the right types of foods, like whole grains, starchy vegetables, and legumes are important for gut health, brain health, hormonal health, and more! Planning your meals makes you less likely to reach for unhealthy options when hunger strikes.

Cook at Home

Learning to cook plant-based meals at home can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, and it doesn't have to be complicated! Invest in cookbooks or explore plant-based websites and YouTube channels. Experiment with new recipes and over time, you’ll develop your skills and discover delicious, wholesome dishes you love. Tip: Keep a recipe library that includes the plant-based recipes you try and absolutely love. That way you can return to them each week.

Stock up on Staples

A well-stocked pantry is key for plant-based eating success! Always have staples like dried or canned beans, whole grains, canned tomatoes and spices on hand. Having options available ensures you have the foundation for a quick and nutritious meal, even on the busiest days.

Keep Snacks Ready

Snacking can be an opportunity to get even more nutrients on your plant-based diet. Keep pre-cut fruits and vegetables in the fridge, and portion out single servings of nuts and seeds. These healthy options can satisfy your cravings while adding additional nourishment to your meal plan.

Read Ingredient Labels

When you do purchase packaged foods, investigate the ingredient list. Ensure it contains recognizable, whole plant-based ingredients. Minimize or avoid products with artificial additives, high levels of sodium, or excessive sugar.

Do Some 'Good' Internet Scrolling

With social media and the internet, you have a whole world of plant-based eating at your fingertips including recipes for WFPB alternatives for some of your favorite foods that traditionally feature meat and dairy. You can make your own WFPB ice creams, burger patties, yogurts, protein bars and pancakes — all out of plants! Do a little research to get inspired.

Remember to Get Your Essential Nutrients

Ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs. Some essential nutrients, like vitamin B12, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, may require supplementation or careful food choices. Consult a registered dietitian or health care professional if you feel you’re lacking in any essential vitamins or minerals. They’ll be able to recommend supplements to get you feeling your best. 

Fun WFPB Meal Ideas to Make at Home

healthy breakfast

You can make your favorite WFPB meals at home so you’re less likely to reach for unhealthy alternatives. Below are some delicious options to try. 

Homemade Veggie Burgers

Create your own WFPB veggie patties using black beans, cooked rice, or quinoa, and oats. Blend the mixture and add chopped mushrooms, grated carrots, diced onions, and seasonings. Divide them into even patties and cook on a skillet until brown and cooked through. Add the patties to a whole grain bun and add your favorite burger toppings, like sliced tomato, crunchy lettuce or crispy slaw.

Plant-Based Pizza

Make a WFPB pizza option healthy by using whole grain or cauliflower pizza crust as the base, or make your own dough from scratch. Top with tomato sauce and loads of colorful veggies like bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and spinach. You can create a homemade cashew-based vegan cheese sauce or sprinkle your pie with nutritional yeast. 

Veggie Stir-Fry

Stir-fry a mix of colorful vegetables like peppers, broccoli, carrots, and snap peas in a tasty soy or teriyaki sauce. Serve over brown rice or quinoa for a satisfying and nutritious meal. You can add some cubed protein-packed tofu to create a nutritionally complete meal.

Loaded Sweet Potatoes

Bake a sweet potato until tender and then slice it open. Top with black beans, corn, avocado, salsa, and a sprinkle of chopped cilantro for a delicious meal. Or try these Loaded Potato Nachos. You can even cook your sweet potatoes in the microwave, making it a convenient addition to a busy week.

Homemade “Nice Cream”

Homemade WFPB ice cream is a delightful and healthier alternative to processed, store-bought options. You can create your own nice cream at home by blending frozen bananas, vanilla extract, cinnamon, plant-based milk and Medjool dates for added sweetness. You can even get creative and add extra ingredients to make different flavors. Here are some ideas:

  • Cocoa powder for chocolate flavor

  • Berries for a berry-flavored nice cream

  • Nut butter for a creamy texture and added flavor

  • Cinnamon or nutmeg for a spiced ice cream

  • Chopped nuts or seeds for a crunchy element

Veggie and Lentil Soup

Soup is the perfect meal for cold winter days. Sauté onions, garlic, celery and carrots in a pot. Add vegetable broth, lentils and chopped vegetables like zucchini, kale and sweet potatoes. Season with herbs like thyme and rosemary and simmer until the lentils are tender. Serve with sourdough or a homemade loaf of whole-grain bread.

Chickpea and Vegetable Curry

Sauté onions, garlic and ginger in a large pot. Add diced tomatoes, chickpeas and your favorite veggies, like spinach, broccoli, cauliflower or peppers. Season with curry spices like cumin, coriander, and turmeric. Serve with whole-grain basmati rice or whole-wheat naan. Try this One-Pot Cauliflower Chana Dal for a cauliflower twist on curry.

Asian-Inspired Quinoa Salad

Whip up a vibrant salad using fluffy quinoa and crunchy vegetables like shredded carrots, edamame, bell peppers, and thinly sliced red cabbage. Incorporate baked tofu or tempeh to add protein and depth of flavor. You can make a zesty sesame ginger dressing using ingredients like grated ginger, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and chopped green onions. 

It’s About Progress, Not Perfection

healthy cooking

Sticking to a whole-food plant-based diet may be challenging at first, as with any change! However, with small steps in the right direction, over time, it gets easier and is certainly super nourishing (as well as tasty!).  It may require commitment and a bit of planning initially, but the more nourished you feel, the more you’ll naturally continue this way of eating.  By making some minor adjustments and keeping these tips top of mind, you can successfully sustain this healthy and eco-conscious lifestyle. Remember, it’s not about being perfect but about making conscious choices that align with your values and goals. 

In a Wrap

Now that you have the scoop on everything whole-food plant-based, you may be wondering how you can eat plant-based in a variety of different settings. Whether you’re at a family gathering, a college campus, or hiking trip, these additional guides and recommendations will help you enjoy delicious options no matter where you are:

Now, tell us! What have you found helpful when making a whole food plant-based meal or following a whole food plant-based diet?

1 Comment

May 08

Thank you for sharing your thoughts; they've been incredibly helpful. Lately, I've been contemplating the switch to a vegan lifestyle, and your advice has reaffirmed my belief in the benefits of plant-based eating. There's this thought-provoking blog article I read that you might enjoy for some extra vegan inspiration.

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