Healthy Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet – A Beginners Guide

(Whole foods) plant-based diets and veganism are becoming increasingly popular! But many people don’t know what plant-based or vegan really means. In this whole food plant based beginners guide, we want to make it easy for you to understand the difference between a vegan and a plant-based diet and the specialty of a whole foods plant-based diet.

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After reading this blog post, you will have: 
a basic understanding of veganism and plant-based diets and how they work.

Questions upon questions

  • What is a whole foods plant-based diet?
  • What’s the difference between whole foods plant-based, plant-based, and vegan?
  • What do you eat on these diets?
  • Is it really healthy?
  • What about carbohydrates, protein, fat, and especially supplements like vitamin B12?

It seems like there are countless questions about these diets… for a good reason!

There are many different opinions and arguments among companies, organizations, doctors, coaches, and scientists about how healthy nutrition should look like. Also, veganism or following a plant-based diet is highly discussed, and there are as many opponents as supporters.

The public has a right to know the truth as understood by experts in nutritive biology about what constitutes the safest and healthiest diet

Dr. Greger

(Whole Foods) plant-based vs. vegan

Plant-based

A plant-based diet consists of foods derived from plants – including vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits, and with very little or no animal products.

Whole foods plant-based

The special thing about a whole foods plant-based diet is that fresh and whole foods from plants are emphasized, whereas processed food should be avoided. Processed foods are foods such as snack bars, noodles, bread, oil, refined wheat, and sugar.

Vegan

Veganism is like a philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. In comparison to a (whole foods) plant-based diet, veganism is the practice of abstaining completely from the use of animal products or products tested on animals. In addition to nutrition, this includes cosmetics, leather, zoos, marine parks, and animal-related activities like elephant riding.

Conclusion

  • The term (whole foods) plant-based is limited to the diet
  • Veganism is more a kind of philosophy
  • (Whole foods) plant-based diets are not clearly defined
  • Veganism is strict and therefore clearly defined

For better understanding:
If you are 100% (whole foods) plant-based, then you are eating a vegan diet in the parlance. But you are not yet automatically a vegan in other areas of life.

We consciously don’t write about veganism in this blog post.
Veganism might be a confusing term related to health because it isn’t automatically a healthy diet.
We rather want to write about a whole foods plant-based diet. Today’s science indicates that a fully plant-based diet is the most environmentally friendly diet and at the same time (probably) the healthiest diet for us humans!

So how do you eat healthy?

Principles of a whole foods plant-based diet

  • pays special attention to high-quality food sources
  • focuses on plants including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds
  • emphasizes no or minimally processed foods
  • limits or excludes animal products
  • excludes heavily processed foods like processed oils, added sugar, and refined grains

Benefits of a whole foods plant-based diet

  1. low environmental impact of your nutrition
  2. respect animal rights and avoid exploitation and slaughter
  3. optimize your own health

What and how much to eat on a plant-based diet

Depending on your…
– fitness level
– activity per day
– kind of work
– age
– gender
– etc.
… the exact intake of foods differs a lot.

But we have created a list to give you a general idea about which foods you should eat at least regularly, if not daily:

  • Legumes: good for fibers, healthy carbohydrates, protein, and mineral nutrients
  • Vegetables: are full of vitamins, fibers, protein, carbohydrates, and mineral nutrients
  • Fruits: don’t be afraid of the sugar inside – there is a huge difference between refined sugar and fruit sugar; fruits give you vitamins, antioxidants, and mineral nutrients
  • Whole grains: provides you energy! But it’s important to eat WHOLE grains instead of processed and refined grains to give your body fibers, mineral nutrients, and complex carbohydrates
  • Nuts: provide essential, healthy fats, mineral nutrients, protein and fibers
  • Seeds: important to get antioxidants, essential fats, fibers, and mineral nutrients

Healthy vegan food pyramid by Simon Hill

Heathy vegan/ whole-foods plant-based food pyramid
Plant-Proof vegan food pyramid by Simon Hill

Carbohydrates in a whole foods plant-based diet

First of all:
Don’t be afraid of carbs! Complex (!) carbohydrates will be your number one of energy intake. Even if you want to lose weight, you need to eat your carbohydrates!

A diet characterized by low carbohydrate and high protein intake was associated with increased total and particularly cardiovascular mortality amongst women. Vigilance with respect to long-term adherence to such weight control regimes is advisable.” [1]

Especially women tend to believe in low-carb weight loss programs, which might be effective in the short-term but are potentially bad for health in the long-term.

The myth of protein

This is probably number one of all dietary myths: you DON’T need more than 0.8g protein per kilogram body weight (unless you’re not a professional athlete or people who need more protein for special reasons). And this is easy to reach with a whole foods plant-based diet.

fried egg with green herbs in a pan
Eggs can be a good source of protein, but they also contain a lot of cholesterol. In terms of health, cholesterol is very controversial.

The supplement industry told us for years that we have to eat more and more protein to be healthy and especially to build up muscles. BUT too much protein will risk your health very likely as the risk of developing diseases like diabetes type 2 or cancer will increase.

“The adverse effects associated with long-term high protein/high meat intake in humans were (a) disorders of bone and calcium homeostasis, (b) disorders of renal function, (c) increased cancer risk, (d) disorders of liver function, and (e) precipitated progression of coronary artery disease. […] The findings […] suggest that there is currently no reasonable scientific basis in the literature to recommend protein consumption above the current RDA (high protein diet) for healthy adults due to its potential disease risks.” (2)

But where do I get my protein from a whole food plant-based diet?

List of good plant-based/ vegan protein sources

If you decide to cut out meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood you need to know other reliable sources of protein. We made a list of adequate, healthy and protein-rich foods from plant sources:

Suqares of colorful red yellow white and black beans peas and lentils as great source of protein for a whole-foods plant-based diet
Especially Legumes are healthy plant-based sources for protein.
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Seitan
  • QuinoaShow More

Optimizing your whole foods plant-based diet

A diet is never perfect, but it’s always improvable.
These additional guidelines will make your diet even better:

  • eat the greatest amount of your daily calories before lunch
  • have a light (low fats) dinner before 7 pm so you will get a long digestive rest
  • have a carbohydrate-rich and fiber-rich breakfast around 9 am
  • drink a lot of water (min. 2L)
  • increase your fiber intake slowly, so your digestive system can accustom to it (you might get flatulence and stomach ache otherwise)
  • don’t boil all your vegetables until they’re dead 😉 rather eat it raw or steamed, so more nutrients stay inside
  • avoid extra added oils (fats in nuts and seeds are enough)
  • eat organic foods instead of conventional foods
  • especially if vegetables and fruits are organic, eat it with a paring
  • favor regionally and seasonally foods
  • minimize your alcohol consumption (if you want to have a glass, then take red wine), also minimize soft drinks as well as juices
  • eat diverse– try to mix your foods and try out new ingredients
  • greens: the darker the better! Especially dark green vegetables have a bunch of good nutrients

Nutrient insufficiency

A nutrient insufficiency comes from eating a nutrient-poor diet made up of empty calories. And this could happen with a standard western diet, a vegetarian diet, a keto diet, a paleo diet and of course also with a vegan diet.

In the first place, it doesn’t matter which diet you follow, if you eat a one-sided diet you will very likely have a lack of some essential nutrients.

The fact is that many people in today’s society lack special nutrients and therefore need supplements. The supplement industry is clever and tells us constantly that we need extra calcium for our bones, extra vitamin C for our immune system and extra protein for our muscles.

However, if you eat healthy and diverse you won’t need all these supplements!

Vitamin B-12 insufficiency

It’s kind of a funny story that people tend to criticize a whole foods plant-based diet or a reasoned vegan diet.
The common argument of opponents is the alleged insufficient supply of nutrients.

Food for thought:
In every single supermarket and grocery store, you can find all kinds of supplements and fortified foods. But there is only one supplement recommended for all vegans: Vitamin B12.

So who needs/buys all the other supplements…?

The answer is obvious… or on the plate!

Whole foods plant-based diet and Vitamin B12

With a whole foods plant-based diet that is diverse but low in processed foods, you will only have one supplement to take: Vitamin B12. Of course, there are special circumstances when additional supplements are necessary, but this is something, only a doctor can decide with a blood test.

To make one thing clear at this point:
For our advice, we always assume a more or less healthy person without any serious diseases.

different types of medicaments in form of pills and capsules
Different kinds of Vitamin B12 supplements are available

Which Vitamin B12 supplement is the right one?

There are different types of Vitamin B12 supplements: bioactive and depot supplements.

  • Methylcobalamin: is the most active form in the human body
  • Cyanocobalamin: a synthetic version of vitamin B-12 created in a lab, it’s the cheapest supplement option
  • Hydroxocobalamin: it’s the main type found in foods, it is long-lasting with an ideal depot effect
  • Adenosylcobalamin: although naturally occurring, it is the least stable of the four types of B-12 outside the human body

The common advice is taking a Methylcobalamin supplement. We personally also recommend Hydroxocobalamin for long-term use because of its depot effect. Ideally, you can take a combination of both.

A Vitamin B12 supplement we can recommend due to our research (please inform yourself or ask a doctor for liability): Sunday Natural Vitamin B12 MHA Formel (500mcg for daily intake and 1000mcg or 5000mcg on a weekly bases).

Which dosage is of Vitamin B12 is recommended?

Most supplements have a way too high dosage simply because of marketing. An overdose is at no health risk, but a daily dosage of 250mcg is recommended. If you want to take it on a weekly bases, a dosage of 2500 mcg is recommended. Due to the very limited absorption of Vitamin B12, a daily intake is likely to have a better effect.

Absorption = 1.5 µg + dose/100
(E.g. for 500 µg: 1.5 µg + 500/100 = 6.5 µg)

What happens if i don’t have enough Vitamin B12?

Early symptoms of B-12 deficiency include fatigue, digestive issues, nausea, and loss of menstruation. Advanced symptoms include nerve pain, mental health disorders, infertility, impaired immune function, and anemia.

If you think you’re having a Vitamin B12 deficiency you should see a doctor and make a blood test. Eventually, you have to start with a slightly higher dosage to refill your storage and then reduce it after a few weeks.

Is a whole foods plant-based diet extreme?

“Some criticize this exclusively plant-based diet as extreme, or draconian. Webster’s dictionary defines draconian as ‘inhumanly cruel.’ A closer look reveals that ‘extreme’ or ‘inhumanly cruel’ describes not plant-based nutrition, but the consequences of our present Western diet. Having a breastbone sawed in half for bypass surgery, or a stroke that renders one an invalid unable to speak, can be construed as extreme, and having a breast, prostate, colon, or rectum removed to treat cancer may seem inhumanly cruel. That’s extreme. Eating a bean burrito is easy.”

Dr. Michael Greger

If you made it until here, you might think:
What the heck is left that I can eat to be safe and healthy? Isn’t a whole-foods plant-based a one-sided diet? 
Believe us, it is not!

If you do it the right way, it is diverse, it is delicious, it is cheap, it is fun and last but not least it is god damn healthy!

What to buy for a whole foods plant-based diet?

You may still wonder what is actually left to eat when you cut out meat, all dairy products, eggs, and fish.
This might help you!
This is a list of many types of legumes, vegetables, whole grains, berries, nuts, and seeds:

Legumes

  • Adzuki Beans
  • Anasazi Beans
  • Asparagus Beans
  • Black Beans/Black Turtle Beans
Show More

Vegetables

  • Artichoke
  • Arugula
  • Asparagus (Green, Purple, White)
  • Avocado
Show More

Fruit

  • Apple
  • Apricot
  • Banana
  • Berries
Show More

Berries

  • Acai Berry
  • Barberry
  • Bilberry
  • Blackberry
Show More

Grains

  • Natural brown rice
  • Corn
  • Oats (whole grain)
  • Quinoa
Show More

Nuts

  • Almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnut
Show More

Seeds

  • Sesame Seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Flaxseeds
  • Hemp seeds
Show More

Read more about plant-based nutrition

References

[1] Lagiou P, Sandin S, Weiderpass E, Lagiou A, Mucci L, Trichopoulos D, Adami HO.
Low carbohydrate-high protein diet and mortality in a cohort of Swedish women. J
Intern Med. 2007 Apr;261(4):366-74. PubMed PMID: 17391111.

[2] Delimaris I. (2013). Adverse Effects Associated with Protein Intake above the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Adults. ISRN nutrition, 2013, 126929. doi:10.5402/2013/126929

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