There are many arguments about which diet is best for you.
Nevertheless, health and wellness communities agree that diets emphasizing fresh, whole ingredients and minimizing processed foods are superior for overall wellness.
The whole-foods, plant-based diet does just that.
It focuses on minimally processed foods, specifically plants, and is effective at stimulating weight loss and improving health.
This article reviews everything you need to know about the whole foods, plant-based diet, including its potential health benefits, foods to eat, and a sample meal plan.
- What is a whole-foods, plant-based diet?
- Reasons to follow a healthy plant-based diet
- What to eat on a WFPB diet
- Meeting nutrient needs on a WFPB diet
- Whole plant foods & calorie needs
- Weight issues on a WFPB diet
- How to stock a plant-based kitchen
- Is a WFPB diet expensive?
- Plant-based kitchen tools
- Plant-based meal planning & prepping
- Transition to a WFPB diet
- Possible problems with a WFPB diet
- Craving heavily processed food?
- Mastering social situations as a vegan
What is a whole-foods, plant-based diet?
There is no clear definition of what constitutes a whole-foods, plant-based diet (WFPB diet). The WFPB diet is not necessarily a set diet — it’s more of a lifestyle.
The WFPB diet is often used to describe a fully vegan diet that doesn’t contain any heavily processed foods. So, no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, or honey, but also no refined grains, added sugars, or added fats (like oils).
However, there are different degrees of processed foods, and the WFPB diet may include minimally processed items like tofu, whole grain flour, nut butter, or tomato sauce. Let’s simplify it this way:
- Whole-foods: unrefined, unprocessed, or minimally processed food
- Plant-based: coming from mainly unrefined plants, not containing any animal products
- Vegan: simply not containing any animal products
For these reasons, this diet is often confused with vegan or vegetarian diets. Yet although similar in some ways, these diets are not the same.
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People who follow vegan diets abstain from consuming any animal products, including dairy, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and honey. Vegetarians exclude all meat and poultry from their diets, but some vegetarians eat eggs, seafood, or dairy.
The WFPB diet, on the other hand, is more flexible. Followers eat mostly plants, but animal products aren’t off-limits.
While one person following a WFPB diet may eat no animal products, another may eat small amounts of eggs, poultry, seafood, meat, or dairy.
Reasons to follow a healthy plant-based diet
Are you looking to feel better physically? Prevent chronic diseases (especially heart disease) as you age or even reverse some of the damage done to your body? Or are you concerned about the state of the planet, the mistreatment of animals, and poverty in many countries?
The good news is that a WFPB diet can take care of all of the pressing issues of today. Not completely, of course, but it’s a powerful foundational first step each one of us can take. And the best part is, you can take it today.
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Best benefits of a WFPB diet:
Eating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables as well as nuts and seeds (especially when minimally processed) and skipping the animal foods doesn’t just come with health benefits — there are even more good reasons!
- Disease prevention, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes
- Weight management and sustainable weight loss without counting calories
- Dealing with allergies, skin or digestive issues
- Reducing exposure to environmental contaminants
- Improving blood flow and fitness
- Showing compassion to sentient beings
- Reducing the environmental footprint
- Fighting world hunger and wildlife extinction
- Discovering tasty a new plant-based meal each day
What to eat on a WFPB diet
We love how uncomplicated eating like this can be. No need to strictly follow recipes.
This isn’t what most people believe in the beginning, though. Moving away from animal products can seem scary, and for the uninitiated, it can look like there’s pretty much nothing left to eat except for some sad lettuce and expensive avocado toast.
The main foods to eat on a plant-based diet are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds. But what actual foods at the store can you grab? Here are some examples:
Quick whole-foods, plant-based shopping list
- Fruits: berries, bananas, stonefruit, citrus, dates; (fresh, dried, or frozen)
- Vegetables: green leafy veg, cruciferous veg, carrots, potatoes, bell peppers; (fresh or frozen)
- Whole Grains: brown rice, millet, rolled oats, quinoa, whole grain bread, and pasta
- Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, black beans, peas, tofu, tempeh (yes, soy is great!)
- Nuts and seeds: cashews, macadamia, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, tahini, almond butter
- Dairy alternatives: unsweetened soy or almond milk, coconut milk, cashew cheese
- Condiments: soy sauce, mustard, nutritional yeast, vinegar, herbs, salsa
Apart from that, you can leave a little room on top of your plant-based food pyramid for some less healthy treats – because nobody expects you to be 100% perfect or constantly obsess over what you eat. That’s what contributes to the success and longevity of such a lifestyle change and what distinguishes it from a short-term diet.
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To be a little more detailed in which foods should be minimized or avoided, here are some examples:
Food to avoid on a whole-foods, plant-based diet
- Highly processed foods like fast food and fried food, cheeseburgers, doughnuts, french fries, chips, or nuggets
- Added oil, even in homemade salad dressings or sautés (yes, that includes olive oil and coconut oil – more on that here)
- Added sugars and products containing them like baked foods, cold cereal, soda, etc.
- All animal products like meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, and honey
Meeting nutrient needs on a WFPB diet
In 2009, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the largest dietetic group worldwide with more than 100,000 credentialed practitioners) published a position paper on vegetarian diets which stated that:
“appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
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This statement alone should be enough assurance that everyone can be healthy on a fully vegan and WFPB diet.
But if you’re still nervous, don’t worry – more and more major health organizations have come out with similar acknowledgments which include the findings of evidence-based reviews showing that plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk for many chronic diseases.
Critical nutrients on a WFPB diet
Every single way of eating comes with caveats. Just because someone eats animal products doesn’t mean they meet all of their nutritional requirements!
While it’s true that following a whole food plant-based diet means you need to supplement with vitamin B12, animal-based diets are almost always too high in saturated fat and cholesterol while lacking fiber, folate, magnesium, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
To ensure that we all meet our requirements, we’d like to show you the nutrients that need to be looked out for a little more carefully and as well as foods to emphasize to cover your needs.
- Calcium: green vegetables, oranges, tahini, calcium-fortified soy milk, and tofu
- Iron: oats, spinach, dried figs, lentils, tahini, chickpeas
- Zinc: whole grains, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, pumpkin seeds, almonds
- Iodine: nori or dulse seaweed, iodized salt
- Omega-3: flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts
- Vitamin D: sun exposure, some UV-light grown mushrooms, supplement
- Vitamin B12: fortified food, supplements
Please note that it’s crucial that every plant-based eater supplements with vitamin B12 (find our full article on vitamin B12 here). Everyone over the age of 65 should take this supplement, no matter if they are following a pl or not, due to the worsening ability to absorb it.
B12 is made by bacteria and due to our sanitized water and food supply, we need to make sure we’re all getting enough. Animal feed is often fortified with B12; vegans just cut out the animal part to cover their needs.
Whole plant foods & calorie needs
It can be easy to accidentally undereat on a WFPB diet – especially if you’re coming from a history of restrictive dieting.
The current trend of eating small portions, which is necessary to maintain a healthy diet if you include a fair amount of animal products and processed food, isn’t applicable when following a WFPB diet.
Being used to restricting carbohydrates, for example, may cause you to just load up on vegetables with some plant-based protein on the side. Although this can look like a huge amount of food, it contains very few calories.
Intentionally or not, undereating on calories can easily lead to malnutrition as well as feeling constantly hungry and low in energy – a reason that’s often mentioned as to why people turn their backs on veganism
What eating below your natural hunger drive does is drastically increase the chances of being hangry and grabbing the nearest calorically dense food (often a bag of chips or chocolate bar).
So, please don’t listen to very low-calorie recommendations or drink a small smoothie to replace a whole meal.
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It’s a good idea to track your food intake over a few days if you start following a plant-based diet to make sure you meet all of your needs for the day – including calories.
In general, you do not need to count or measure your food to be well-nourished on such nutritious food (unless to ensure you eat enough).
Just choose from all whole plant foods, especially whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and emphasize the sources of critical nutrients above and listen to your hunger and satiety cues.
Taking the WFPB diet too far
This might apply to you or not – but there’s a general trend of people looking for purity and perfection that are attracted to plant-based diets. Some might even have the false illusion of never becoming sick again and healing every disease out there with diet alone.
Just as many people care way too little about what they eat and get sick as a result, some care way too much about every little detail. This isn’t necessary and can even do more harm than good.
We’re talking about cleanses, detoxes, juice fasts, or eating only raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Following very restrictive protocols, such as raw food diets or detox diets that skip even healthy whole grains, doesn’t get you any closer to your health goals than eating a reasonable WFPB diet.
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It’s often the cause of malnutrition and people turning their back on vegan diets because they suddenly think their bodies crave animal foods like fish or eggs without even getting their bloodwork done when they in fact just undereat and cut out food groups unnecessarily.
Thinking that your body is dirty and needs to be cleansed is borderline eating disordered thinking and we would love for you to check in with a professional if you find yourself in this rabbit hole.
Eating a diet high in fiber is what will naturally “cleanse or detox” your body – and cutting out the heavily processed food helps, too. That’s why juice cleanses are especially ineffective: they just starve the gut microbiome, making it harder to tolerate a wide range of foods again.
Bottom line: please don’t equate plant-based eating with these fads that are not based on science but wishful thinking. Eat a large variety and eat enough!
What about protein on a WFPB diet?
As you might expect, this is one of the biggest concerns we’ve heard over the years when talking about the WFPB diet. So, let us explain.
Amino acids, the building blocks that make up protein, originally come from the plant kingdom. They are essential and help maintain muscle and bone mass as well as support the immune system.
Contrary to popular belief, there’s no need for a single food or even meal to be a “complete protein” that covers all 8 essential amino acids in adequate amounts. It’s perfectly fine to get the different amino acids from a variety of foods over the day.
Generally speaking, the average Western person eats way too much protein, as the DRI for adults is only 0.8 g per kilogram of body weight (which comes to around 50-60 grams per day for a person at a healthy weight).
While vegans can get all of the protein they need from plants, lysine (one essential amino acid) is a little harder to come by, but is still found in many legumes. In general, whole plant foods like nuts, seeds, vegetables and whole grains all have protein!
It’s not hard to meet daily protein needs while eating a varied whole foods plant-based vegan diet since every unprocessed food contains at least some amount, but just to be sure, here’s a list of some high-protein plant-based foods:
- Grains: Seitan, amaranth, quinoa, spaghetti made from whole grains
- Legumes: Tempeh, peanuts, tofu, soy milk, lentils, beans
- Nuts & Seeds: Pumpkin seeds, almonds
Is soy unhealthy for you?
You’re probably on board with the idea that legumes are healthy – all but this one, at least.
If you’re not allergic and still want to skip soy, you’re missing out. It’s a great source of protein due to its amino acid profile, helps meet your calcium and zinc needs, and is associated with longevity!
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Soy contains phytoestrogens (similar to but not the same as mammalian estrogens found in humans or animals) which can block our estrogen – something that is helpful for specific types of cancer or bone loss in women.
And speaking from an environmental perspective, the rainforest is not vanishing due to the soy that vegans eat but because of the large amount of soy that’s being fed to livestock animals.
Why eat an oil-free WFPB diet?
Now, this isn’t a deal-breaker. We would certainly argue that cutting out all animal products should be way higher on your list of priorities than cutting out oil! And eating oil-free makes more sense in some situations than in others. But first things first.
As per definition, a WFPB diet is free from refined ingredients – and this includes vegetable oil or nut-based oil. Yes, even olive oil and coconut oil!
For some reason, these are seen as healthy foods whereas refined sugars are deemed as evil. But all of them are so stripped down that they consist of one single macronutrient and nothing else!
What’s more, oils quickly make a healthy vegetable dish into a high-fat meal that slows down blood flow, may contribute to atherosclerosis and some extra fat depots.
The whole food is always preferred over the refined version – the same goes for olives versus olive oil or walnuts versus walnut oil. You’re missing out on lots of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals when choosing the highly processed version of the whole food!
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Oil-free doesn’t mean fat-free! As you can see above, a WFPB diet includes nuts, seeds, avocado, and olives – all of which give you the essential fatty acids you need.
The decision to go oil-free isn’t for everyone, though. If you’re losing weight too quickly or are already underweight, have a hard time meeting caloric needs, or simply don’t like the taste of healthy food unless it’s prepared with some oil, then please forego this step for now.
Weight issues on a WFPB diet
Much of our content is created for people looking to lose some weight on a WFPB diet. That makes sense because most of us carry around some extra body fat which isn’t necessarily healthy.
Weight loss usually comes easily when focusing on whole plant-based food – they are naturally low in calories and high in fiber, meaning you can fill up while shedding some pounds without even trying.
So, what if you’re gaining weight on a vegan or plant-based diet? You probably restricted either carbs or calories before making the switch, rely on processed food too much, or just aren’t listening to your hunger and satiety cues.
The EPIC-Oxford study which compared diet and BMI of 38,000 meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans, revealed that the vegan population was the only one with an average BMI in the healthy range. High protein and low fiber intakes were the factors most strongly associated with increasing BMI.
You’re very likely no biological abnormality – check our resources to see what’s possible for you.
Want to gain weight on a vegan diet in a healthy way? Many have done so before.
What we know works for healthy weight loss can also work for healthy weight gain so long as you keep considering the calorie density principle.
This means that, if you want to healthfully gain weight, you’ll need to fill up on calorically dense foods such as nuts and seeds, bread, pasta, hummus, dried fruit or drink your food in the form of a smoothie. Skip the large green salads and keep your vegetable intake on the lower side to leave room for richer foods.
How to stock a plant-based kitchen
This part is so much fun! Now that we’ve shown you which foods belong on a plant-based plate, we need to make sure you have some of them at home. But please don’t think you have to go buy all the vegan food that’s available at the store now!
There are a couple of vegan staple foods you might already have at home – or can focus on the next time you go shopping. They are very versatile, nutritious, and easy to find at most places!
The best vegan staple foods
- Canned beans
- Frozen veggies
- Canned tomatoes
- Vegetable broth
- Plant-based milk
These staples can be used for numerous sweet, savory, cold, and warm dishes. Add your favorite fresh or frozen produce and you’re likely to meet most of your nutritional needs for the day!
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You can make things easier for your transition to a WFPB diet by deciding to get rid of as many refined and animal-based foods as possible. This depends on your living situation and whether or not your family is on board, but maybe stop buying what you don’t want to eat.
Please remember that our tips are generalized here. When stocking your plant-based kitchen, you need to take your taste preferences into account – as well as the amount of time you have for cooking and preparing food.
Is a WFPB diet expensive?
This depends on the actual foods that you choose to eat. Having fancy avocado toast or cashew cheese every day will lead to a high grocery bill for sure! Luckily, many WFPB diet staples are very budget-friendly – depending on where you live and what season you’re in.
Especially when you think about the number of essential micronutrients you get for the money spent, whole plant-based foods will be hard to beat.
Green vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are all rich in minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. When bought seasonally and in bulk, they are very affordable! These foods are the ideal foundation of your WFPB diet.
Have you compared a bag of oats or rice with processed or animal-based foods? When most of your calories come from whole starches instead of meat, cheese, and eggs, your grocery bill will shrink drastically. Here are our best tips!
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Whole food plant-based on a budget
Make a WFPB diet affordable (even fruits and vegetables or nuts and seeds) and prevent heart disease by skipping animal products and follow shop for your plant-based foods smartly!
- Go for seasonal produce
- Buy in larger quantities
- Cook some items from scratch
- Check out frozen fruit and veg
- Shop at farmer’s markets
- Freeze leftover produce to avoid food waste
- Plan your meals to use everything up
- Stick to your grocery list; no impulse buying
- Grow some of your food
- Avoid eating out if you can
Plant-based kitchen tools
Having your kitchen stocked with some basic plant-based foods for your WFPB diet is the first important step to create delicious and easy whole food plant-based meals. But depending on the recipes you plan on following, it might make sense to invest in one or two kitchen tools to make your life a lot easier.
We couldn’t live without our electric pressure cooker, the Instant Pot, which enables us to prepare meals in large batches or cook legumes from scratch easily. One of our favorite uses is the hands-off cooking function, meaning we can go out or work at our computers while the device prepares our veggie stew all by itself.
Must-have kitchen tools
- Non-stick pan and pot
- Large dinner bowls
- Airtight food containers
- High-speed blender
- Immersion blender
- Silicone baking ware
- Pressure cooker
Plant-based meal planning & prepping
This step is more for some people than others. We love to go with what we feel like eating each day and not plan too much ahead apart from regular batch cooking our favorite plant-based foods.
But we also have more time on our hands and both follow plant-based diets – plus we’re already very versed in freestyling with tasty ingredients to put together a well-rounded meal that’s fully compliant with the WFPB diet.
But you might be a person who loves structure and convenience in the kitchen, so here’s how you can manage that.
If you are already familiar with meal planning and prepping, then switching to a plant-based or even WFPB diet will just make things easier. There is less chance of your food being contaminated or going bad if it’s made from plants instead of animal products – and cooking some lentils is usually quicker than preparing meat.
Benefits of meal planning and prepping
- Easier shopping and lower grocery bill
- Less food waste
- Makes healthy eating very convenient
- Less time spent in the kitchen
- Lunches to go instead of eating out
- Nutritionally sound meals
- Trying new meals regularly
- Less decision making and overthinking
Transition to a WFPB diet
Are you convinced by now that a WFPB diet could be for you? That’s awesome! We’d love to make the transition stage for you a bit easier.
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There are a few different ways to go about this and how you should do it depends on your personality and situation.
Living on your own and an all-or-nothing type? Jump right into the WFPB diet if you like! Throw all the non-compliant food out or give it away, start making whole food plant-based meals and never look back.
But for most people, a gradual approach works best. You may live with other people or feel like it would be way out of your comfort zone to give up all of your favorite foods at once. This is what you can do.
Whole food plant-based transition tips
- Start each day with a plant-based breakfast
- Get in touch with the reasons for choosing this lifestyle
- Increase the amount of plant-based protein in your diet
- Eat enough food to avoid getting hangry and getting junk food cravings
- Make healthy plant-based snacks to stay on track
- Prepare some easy meals like soups and stews in bulk
- Find simple food swaps for processed or animal-based food
- Watch documentaries to get educated and inspired
- Listen to vegan podcast shows while cooking or relaxing
- Get in touch with like-minded people for support
- Try different plant-based milk alternatives to find your favorite
- Be easy on yourself and just keep improving
There is no need to overcomplicate things! Sure, it’s important to be informed and a bit mindful about what you’re eating but going down the rabbit hole of analyzing every single bite isn’t very productive.
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Crowding out the unhealthy food by eating more of the healthy whole food plant-based things you already like is a great first step! It can be as simple as choosing whole grains over refined ones for now.
Possible problems with a WFPB diet
We probably don’t have to tell you that there are some cases of people going vegan and then getting sick – such headlines are very popular these days. But did they follow a healthy WFPB diet?
While it’s true that there are many benefits associated with a plant-based diet, there are some possible pitfalls to look out for. You can do any diet right or wrong!
Some of you might go through the transition phases in a breeze, with no discomforts or hiccups at all. That’s wonderful! But to those of you whose health is already compromised or are used to eating mainly processed food and animal products, here’s what could happen.
- Digestive discomfort like bloating or diarrhea
- Blood sugar gets too low if on insulin medication
- Unwanted weight loss due to a lack of calories
- Constant hunger and low energy
- Increased cravings for heavily processed food
- Having a hard time eating out
- Spending a lot of time cooking and prepping food
- Planning to make sure you meet all of your nutrients
None of these possible side effects mean that you cannot successfully transition to a plant-based diet; you just need to deal with them once they come up. And rest assured, there is always a way to make it work!
From checking with your doctor before making drastic changes to slowly increasing the fiber in your diet and chewing well, many little things can make a considerable difference. It’s all a matter of wanting to change your way of eating to a WFPB diet, understanding the plant-based nutrition basics, and then adjusting it to your situation.
Craving heavily processed food?
We’ve all been there. Out of the blue, you just need to go and grab a chocolate bar. But what if you want to follow a WFPB diet and are haunted by thoughts of burgers, fries, and cakes?
There are several ways to work your way through this:
- First of all, nobody is telling you to eat a 100% WFPB diet for the rest of your life, starting today, with no exceptions. As explained a couple of times above, it is fine to just increase the amount of whole plant-based foods, like vegetables or legumes, on your plate – and still have the fries on the side. Just eating less of the not-so-nutritious stuff will already take you in the right direction.
- Then, you could look for a few recipes showing you how to create healthy plant-based versions of your favorite food! Many smart food swaps can replace animal products and refined ingredients in most dishes, making them WFPB-approved.
- And if you find yourself craving heavily processed food out of boredom or habit, you can retrain your brain and learn new ways of relaxing after a stressful day that doesn’t have anything to do with food.
Our top tip for you right now is this: eat as much of the healthy tasty food as you need to feel full and well-nourished – it’s one of the easiest ways to prevent the longing to reach for a bag of chips.
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By the way: there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to some greasy vegan pizza once in a while, even if you’ve been on a WFPB diet for years. That’s part of the lifestyle and long-term success strategy that makes it more than just a diet. We go for 90% whole food plant-based meals and 10% processed fun foods.
Mastering social situations as a vegan
Alright, so the food part is covered in-depth now. You know the basics of plant-based nutrition, why you should emphasize or de-emphasize certain foods, and how you can sail smoothly through the transition period.
But what happens in the real world if you go out to eat? What if your new diet starts conversations with family and friends?
A huge and important piece of the puzzle is mastering social situations and being able to have healthy relationships within your social circle.
Connecting with like-minded people is very helpful, maybe even crucial, for an easier transition and long-term success on this lifestyle.
We often hear from our readers that they don’t have any support at home from their family – which is why we highly recommend reaching out online and joining a virtual vegan group somewhere.
Suggested read: The 8 best exercises for weight lossLast updated on October 13, 2021, and last reviewed by an expert on August 19, 2021.