What is a wholefoods plant-based diet?
Wholefoods are foods that are in their natural form, not heavily processed and with unrefined (or minimally refined) ingredients. Plant-based refers to food that comes from plants, which includes fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, wholegrains, and nuts and seeds. A wholefoods plant-based diet does not include foods from animal sources, such as meat, dairy and eggs.
When you are eating ‘plant-based’ you simply commit to adding more of these plant-based foods to each meal for a ‘plant-forward’ or ‘plant-heavy’ approach. These plants and wholefoods play a starring role and the more and higher proportion of plants and wholefoods you eat, the more benefits you will see.
The beauty of a WFPB approach is that there is so much in the way of healthy, nourishing and delicious food choices once you know the basics, and unlike a ‘diet’ there is no need to restrict calories or worry about portion sizes. Many people find they can achieve an instinctive and healthy relationship with food by choosing WFPB eating, and eating when they’re hungry. You won’t feel deprived or go hungry, and the high-fibre content means your digestive system will be as happy as your taste buds.
Why is a WFPB diet healthy?
An apple a day keeps the doctor away. That’s what Granny used to say. Everyone knows fruit and vegetables are important and crucial to good health. But why exactly is that?
Fruit and vegetables are full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals, which are many thousands of compounds working in synergy to create wellness, and many of which we are yet to discover. Fruit and vegetables, along with wholegrains and beans, are our only sources of dietary fibre, which plays an important role in our health. Nature offers us a vibrant and exciting colour palette and ‘eating the rainbow’ is the best way to ensure that you are eating a wide variety of phytochemicals.
Evidence shows that taking phytochemicals in supplement form may not provide the same benefits. Larger concentrations of phytochemicals are found in all the edible parts of plants, especially in the skin and peel. For example, a raw unpeeled apple contains up to 332 per cent more vitamin K, 142 per cent more vitamin A, 115 per cent more vitamin C, 20 per cent more calcium and up to 19 per cent more potassium than a peeled apple.
Longevity – who lives to 100?
We all want to live long and healthy lives but how much is dictated by our lifestyle and how much by our genes? There are some clues in a handful of magical places where the number of people living to 100 is up to ten times higher than the rest of the world. In these places – Okinawa (Japan); Sardinia (Italy); Nicoya (Costa Rica); Icaria (Greece) and among the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda (California) – the people tend to be very healthy and are active into their eighties and nineties but they have much lower rates of chronic disease, so they not only live longer but live better. These areas were named the ‘Blue Zones’ by National Geographic researcher Dan Buettner.
One major factor explaining this phenomenon is that these people share an important eating habit in common – a 95 per cent plant-based diet. The average menu in each place is very different, but there are parallels among the core ingredients. The foods they have in common are nuts and seeds, healthy wholegrains and lots of vegetables alongside a cup of beans, legumes or pulses per day. So, despite the enormous variety in the culture and style of their diets, they see similar results.
The Blue Zones also share important lifestyle similarities, such as making movement throughout the day a natural way of life, having purpose, being part of faith-based communities and sharing strong family links, as well as including stress-relieving habits in their day.
Eat more and weigh less
For lots of people, weight is not just a simple equation of food in and energy out, but determined by a whole host of external and personal factors, from our food environment, what shops we have access to, our upbringing, whether or not we smoke, how much alcohol we consume, if we do shift work and how stressed we are to our genetics, medications, sleep patterns and so much more. Even if you do follow a pattern of trying to burn more calories than you eat, this can be hard to maintain.
Despite being overfed, many of us who are overweight are in fact undernourished. Why? Because a lot of the most inexpensive meals are also highly processed and energy-dense, packed with fat, refined grains and sugars. Unhealthier foods are often on special offer and are promoted as being very convenient. However, they don’t always have the nutrients our bodies need. This is not our fault; our food environment is stacked against us.
The beauty of a WFPB approach is that it is an eating pattern of abundance with no need for calorie counting and restriction or even trying to carefully calibrate your different intakes of nutrients.
- Focus on healthy choices over losing weight
- Fill up on veggies
- Love legumes
- Happy wholegrains
- Avoid liquid calories
- Limit vegan junk food
- Limit alcohol
- Avoid low-fat products
How fat influences our health
Low fat? More fat? Zero fat? What is the best for our bodies? Fat gets a bad rap. For years we have been told that fat will make us pile on the pounds, raise our cholesterol and lead to health issues. But we all need a regular amount of fat to give us energy, help us absorb vital nutrients and protect our organs. ‘Bad’ fats are responsible for all the things that fats are blamed for, including clogged arteries and increased risk of heart disease, whereas ‘good fats’, such as unsaturated fats and omega-3s have the opposite effect and can lower the risk of heart disease.
To understand more about the role fats play in a healthy diet, it is a good idea to look at the main types of fat: saturated, unsaturated and trans fat. Remember: Not all fats are created equal.
Limit foods that contain unhealthful saturated fats such as pastries, battered foods, fried foods and animal products and instead enjoy wholefoods like flax seeds and nuts, as opposed to refined, liquid oils.
For some people, oils can trigger inflammatory arthritis pains. Low-oil and oil-free diets have been used to improve heart disease too. If either condition is a cause of concern for you, limit your oil intake. However, extra virgin olive oil has been found to be heart healthy, containing antioxidants and MUFAs, which is good news for those of us who like a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on our salads.
Reset your skin
Many people only start focusing on the skin when there is a problem. Sometimes the cell turnover process or the protective barrier can break down and not only can this cause physical pain, but it can be emotionally challenging as the perception of our skin is interwoven with feelings of wellness, vitality and youth. Other people’s opinions of how we look can also make us feel bad when our skin is affected by medical conditions such as acne, eczema or psoriasis. Because we can see the skin, it is usually very obvious when something is going wrong. However, what is not so obvious is the diagnosis, or the underlying causes of these problems.
Diet and skin health are closely linked, and by eating healthy foods you can also nourish your skin from the inside out. Medical interventions are often really important too, and seeing a doctor early if your skin is in trouble will be helpful in deciding your diagnosis and what treatments to try.
Why not also try other lifestyle changes to help your skin at the same time? With a WFPB diet you will be eating more nutrient-rich foods, including the building blocks of vitamins A, C, E and other antioxidants, which work hard to keep your skin healthy. It is important to note that it can be a long road, with bumps and detours along the way.
Instead of eating without thinking about the effect it could have on our skin, let’s nourish it as we would every other organ, and give it some love and attention from the inside out.
Hormones and health
Hormones are the chemical messengers in our bodies. They are usually made by glands, which operate in an amazing feedback loop with other glands to regulate all the body’s functions. Glands are all part of the endocrine system.
Hormone imbalances are when there is too much or too little of a hormone in the bloodstream. Common hormonal symptoms that affect both men and women can include weight gain, mood swings, insomnia, fatigue, dry skin, low libido, muscle weakness, depression and skin problems. Women may experience heavy or irregular periods, fibroids and night sweats, whereas men may suffer from erectile dysfunction, acne, development of breast tissue or loss of muscle mass. These are just a handful of examples; hormone imbalances may be to blame for a host of unwanted symptoms.
Fat can have a bad reputation, and there is a lot of confusion on this topic. So, let’s clarify a few things. Fat is one of the most important nutrients for hormone balance because healthy fats are essential for hormone production and the maintenance of proper hormone function. Our bodies use cholesterol as a backbone for all the hormones we make, and omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and modulate hormone receptor site sensitivity.
That’s why when people talk about ‘low-fat diets’ they are really describing the ideal situation of minimising excess fats from processed foods, junk food, processed oils and excess animal products, not eliminating fats altogether. Fats also help with the absorption of some vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K. So, enjoying a palmful of unsalted mixed nuts and a variety of seeds, as well as other healthy fats like avocados and olives will enhance your hormonal health and keep that symphony playing all the right notes.
A healthy gut
It is more than just you living in your body – we have trillions of micro-organisms – bacteria, viruses, fungi and other life forms residing in each of us, and these organisms are collectively known as the microbiome. These outnumber our human cells by ten to one. In fact, we have more bugs living within us than there are stars in our galaxy. Just think about how awe-inspiring that is
Gut health is widely considered the next frontier of health and well-being, and evidence continues to mount around the importance of our gut bugs and the link between them and our health. We know that the gut microbiome affects the body from before birth and determines not only the digestion of the food that we consume but a host of systems, including our immune system, our central nervous system and our risk of obesity, cancer and chronic disease.
There are many factors that affect our gut microbiome, including (but not limited to) our environments, genetics and antibiotics. Many of these things cannot be changed. However, we also know diet plays a significant role and even though our gut microbiota is relatively stable, what we eat in just 24 hours can change our microbiome, for better or worse. Our food choices can significantly impact our gut microbiota and modern lifestyles, including a Western diet, have led to substantial depletion of gut microbial diversity.
What keeps our microbiome diverse? Eating as many different types of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes as we can. Some worry that a WFPB approach will restrict them, when in fact it introduces a much broader range of different foods for our microbiome than the same staples from a standard Western diet.
Just beyond the wall of your intestine sits 70 per cent of your immune system. When infections or even cancerous cells come to the attention of immune cells, it is their job to figure out which ones to kill and which to leave alone.
How do you separate friend from foe when there are millions of microbes in the gut mingling with your food and drink, which contain pesticides, metals, plastics, bacteria, viruses and fungi of their own, not to mention the 30 trillion human cells they will meet too? That’s a lot to deal with. Too vigorous a response and you get allergic or autoimmune issues. Too laid-back and you get infections or even cancer.
How do we help the immune system figure things out? What can translate the message into a language the immune cells understand? The short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) produced from fibre do a great job as translator
Fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes get broken down into these SCFAs by gut microbes, and the immune response to SCFAs is to relax. In fact, SCFAs have been shown to inhibit three of the most powerful inflammatory signallers in the body. This is important not just for dealing with immune disorders, but also for potentially reducing food sensitivities over time.
A new way to eat
Sometimes thinking about making a wholescale change to your lifestyle can feel overwhelming. Many of us have tried fad diets in the past or promised ourselves we were going to succeed with a massive health kick, only to feel crushingly disappointed when we fail. You are doing nothing wrong. You are not weak willed.
This is no 7-day challenge. There is no 360-degree programme. And this is definitely not a fad. Instead promise yourself to start by just doing one thing and feel really good about it.