What a Plant-Based Diet Is — and Isn’t — Explained
Health•7 min read
Choosing to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your personal health, the environment, and animal welfare.
Words by Grace Hussain
Choosing to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your personal health, the environment, and animal welfare. Making the transition is easy. A variety of helpful free resources are available on the internet to make the switch a breeze.
A person following a whole food diet consumes only unprocessed foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads. A plant-based diet is one that is made up primarily or entirely of foods derived from plants. In this article, we will be talking about diets made up entirely of unprocessed foods, sourced from plants.
Whole-food, plant-based diets have a number of significant benefits, reducing the risk of certain health issues and negative environmental impacts, as well as helping to end the unethical treatment of animals.
Following a whole-food, plant-based diet has been shown to be one of the most effective methods of weight management and loss. One contributing factor is a higher volume of food per calorie compared to other ways of eating. It takes much longer to consume 240 calories of carrots (around 5 cups) than 240 calories of coke or other processed foods, and the carrots take up more space in your stomach. It takes fewer calories by far to reach a state of contentment when eating whole foods than on other weight-loss regimens.
The plant-based aspect of a whole-food, plant-based diet is also an important factor that contributes to weight management, as the fiber found in plant-based foods helps you feel fuller for longer. The emphasis in industrial farming on raising large, profitable animals has not only led to animal suffering but has also increased the amount of fat in meat and made it a less healthy food option. For example, industrial farming has increased the amount of fat in a chicken raised for consumption in the United States by more than 200 percent.
Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet can lead to a reduction in the risk of falling ill with a number of serious diseases. Yet despite this, 222 pounds of meat are still being sold in the United States per person per year.
Whole-food, plant-based diets have been associated with improved heart function in several case studies. One such case study of a 54-year-old woman following what was considered a “healthy Western diet,” but who was experiencing heart failure and had diabetes, found that she vastly improved after adopting a whole-food, plant-based diet for just five and a half months, and later checks then showed that her diabetes had improved and that her heart had returned to functioning normally.
Another study that followed over 16,000 participants for almost nine years found that those who followed a plant-based diet had a 41 percent lower risk of heart failure than those following any of the other identified diets. For the purposes of this study, a plant-based diet consisted primarily of fruits, vegetables, beans, and fish.
Those eating a plant-based diet enjoy a lower rate of cancer than those eating any other diet. There may be a number of explanations for this. Plants contain phytochemicals that act as a natural anti-inflammatory and interfere with the growth of tumors. Whole-food, plant-based diets are also high in fiber. High fiber intake has been negatively correlated with cancer incidence or, in other words, people who consume greater amounts of fiber are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer.
Meat consumption has also been tied to greater incidence of cancer. For example, one review has suggested that for every 3.5 ounces of red meat consumed per day, the relative risk of developing colorectal polyps that can, in turn, develop into colorectal cancer increases by 2 percent.
Additional research is necessary to solidify the precise link between a whole-food, plant-based diet and reduced incidence of cognitive decline. However, emerging evidence supports the assertion that eating certain plant foods can prevent cognitive decline, because of certain nutrients only found in plants. Eating a diet heavy in plant-based foods has been linked to improved cognitive ability, specifically in the frontal lobe which is largely responsible for creativity, emotional control, and judgment, among other things.
Numerous cohort studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of a whole-food, plant-based diet in preventing and treating Type 2 diabetes. Though the optimal balance of micronutrients is unclear, it is plain that the type of food consumed and the source of the nutrients are important. For example, protein gained from plants is superior to that from animals, while consuming unrefined carbohydrates is superior to refined carbohydrates, etc. Inculcating the habit of consuming whole foods that are plant-based can reduce the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes.
The environmental value of choosing to consume a whole-food, plant-based diet cannot be overstated. Animal agriculture is one of the primary accelerants of climate change, producing massive amounts of greenhouse gases, and accounting for about 37 percent of all emissions globally. These emissions come not only from the animals being raised on factory farms for the purpose of human consumption, but also from deforestation and the repeated planting by industrial farms of massive tracts of land with single crops for animal feed, that require fertilizer and pesticides.
Adopting a plant-based diet can reduce this toll on the environment. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, plant-based eating requires less water and less land for food production than an omnivorous diet.
There are a number of resources available to help make the transition to a whole-food, plant-based diet. Among them are starter guides including options from healthcare company Kaiser Permanente and Tracye McQuirter, a prominent vegan activist and public health nutritionist. Another option available to many is to consult with your physician, or a nutritionist, to establish a plan for the transition.
The options of plant-based whole foods to try are endless. In fact, many who have made the transition report trying more foods and eating more adventurously.
Any fresh fruit can be consumed on a whole-food, plant-based diet. The key here is to choose unprocessed fruits. Local farmers markets often have seasonal produce that is locally grown.
Any fresh, unprocessed vegetable can be consumed while adhering to a plant-based, whole foods diet. Try branching out and visiting new stores run by people from different cultures for exciting new options you may not have seen before.
Tubers include foods such as potatoes, yams, and taros. These foods are typically filling and are a good option for healthy carbohydrates. In adherence to the whole-food diet, avoid processed options in favor of fresh produce.
Whole grain products are those that are made using the entirety of a grain. Options include oatmeal, a variety of breads, brown rice, and barley, among many others. They can be purchased at a grocery store or at many local bakeries or farmers markets.
Legumes provide an excellent source of protein for those following a whole-food, plant-based diet. Each serving of legumes has about 8 grams of protein.
There are a number of options for healthy fats when following a whole-food, plant-based diet. Some popular options are avocados, peanuts, flaxseeds, and tahini–a key ingredient of hummus.
Consuming seeds as a snack, a topping for salads, or in any other form is an easy and delicious way to get essential nutrients. Pumpkin seeds, for example, have a large amount of protein, potassium, magnesium, and iron making them an ideal addition to any whole-food, plant-based diet.
Nuts and unprocessed nut butters provide a delicious and nutritious food for snacks or meals. Nut butters can be made easily at home to avoid not only the high cost that can be associated with them, but also to ensure they are unprocessed.
There are a variety of meal plans available for those adhering to a whole-food, plant-based diet. Some examples include a week’s worth of recipes from meal delivery provider Mama Sezz and a helpful guide to a day of eating for a vegan athlete.
There’s a delicious whole-food, plant-based recipe to satisfy every craving. Curl up, read a book, and enjoy a warm bowl of black bean soup. Have some fun in the kitchen with loved ones making blueberry nut butter cookies. Get ahead in the morning and enjoy a pineapple spinach smoothie before heading to work or the gym. The options for whole food, plant-based meals and snacks are endless.
Choosing to make the transition to a whole-food, plant-based diet is one of the most beneficial decisions you can make for both personal health and the environment. In addition to being more humane, eating a whole-food, plant-based diet decreases an individual’s impact on the environment without compromising on taste or variety of food. With the help of the many resources freely available on the internet, the transition is an easy one.
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