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Practitioners of whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diets focus on whole foods and foods derived from plants, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes. Refined foods, like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil are off the table. Consumption of animal products, including dairy products and eggs, is minimized, and, in some cases, excluded altogether. As a matter of fact, WFPB is considered more a lifestyle than a diet because the practice varies among devotees depending on the amount of animal products they choose to include. Food quality is also important. Proponents are often active in promoting locally sourced organic food.

Although a WFPB lifestyle sounds like a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, it isn’t. The difference is in the consumption of animal products. Many followers abstain from doing so, but others do not. A WFPB diet is more flexible than vegan or vegetarian diets in this way.

The whole world of plant-based foods is open to those who choose this way of eating. It’s not just about leafy green vegetables, although they are of course a major player. Starchy foods, which aren’t always welcome in some diets, are front and center here. However, that doesn’t mean indulging in French fries and white rolls. Instead, think of staples like potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, brown rice, quinoa, black beans, kidney beans, and chick peas. As many of these are considered comfort foods, their presence makes a diet filled with them even more enticing. Consuming as many whole fruits as you want is also encouraged, unlike with some other diets, such as Paleo.

Because plant-based foods contain more fiber than most traditional diet foods, they have more bulk. Bulk takes up more space, so we feel fuller faster. For this reason, calories aren’t counted in WFPB diets, nor is portion control considered to be necessary.

Nutrition is a high priority. The philosophy is that the overall nutrient profile is important so it’s better not to focus on single nutrients. Because whole plant foods “contain all the essential nutrients we require, with the exception of vitamin B12, in proportions that are more consistent with human needs than animal-based or processed foods,” according to the Forks Over Knives website, it is believed that by choosing a wide variety of whole-food plant-based foods we can meet all our nutritional needs.

Proponents of this way of eating believe the WFPB lifestyle can decrease the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers and help us maintain a healthy weight. As WFPB diets and lifestyles become more popular, more and more research is being done into their claims. A 2015 study of 70,000 people, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, showed that WFPB diets can even lengthen our lives. At Nutrition 2018, the flagship meeting of the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), new data from around the world was presented linking a plant-based diet to a variety of health benefits. A study from the Netherlands, involving nearly 6,000 people, found that those who ate more plant-derived protein than animal-derived protein were less likely to develop coronary heart disease later in life. 

For those of us who are interested in increasing our consumption of whole-food plant-based foods while still consuming a modicum of healthy meats and fish, the solution is as easy as redesigning the foods on our plate. Here’s how to do it. For a balanced plate, fill half with vegetables and/or fruit; fill one quarter with whole grains or unprocessed starchy food; fill the remaining quarter with a lean protein such as beef or chicken.

Whether we choose the WFPB lifestyle or not, it is clear that increasing our intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, while decreasing our intake of fatty meats and oils, will benefit our health in the long run. If we do choose a WFPB lifestyle, we open ourselves to a world of healthy choices with few restrictions.

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