A plant-based diet emphasizes whole, plant foods in their most natural state.

 

 The Basic Principles of a Whole Food, Plant-based Diet are as Follows:

  • The obvious: an emphasis on whole, plant foods in their most natural state (or minimally processed).

  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, tubers, nuts and seeds.

  • Limit or completely avoid animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy.

  • Limit foods that contain oil, sugar, salt, preservatives, and chemicals.

  • Avoid cooking with oil of any kind.

  • Pay attention to food quality. Choose organic and locally grown produce whenever possible.

Embrace These Foods:

Vegetables

mushrooms, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, leeks, beets

Vegetables are rich in phytonutrients, antioxidants, fiber, minerals and vitamins. Adding a few more servings of vegetables to your daily routine will improve gut health, athletic performance, energy levels, and immune function. ​

 

When it comes to vegetables, diversity matters. To get the full array of benefits “eat the rainbow.” The nutrients in fresh vegetables cannot be replicated in a pill or supplement, so stock up on these bad boys and eat them every day, multiple times a day. 

Fruits

berries, mango, apple, kiwi, papaya, pears, grapes, banana

Fruits are low in calories and fat, and a rich source of phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Like vegetables, fruits have unique nutrient profiles. It’s best to eat a variety of colorful fruits throughout the day. Fruits also provide soluble fiber, which improves bowel regularity, balances gut flora, and stabilizes blood sugar. ​Studies indicate that fruit is associated with lower risk of disease and protects against ailments such as memory loss, macular degeneration and hair loss.  

Whole Grains

quinoa, farro, brown rice, amranth, wheat, oats

A grain is considered a "whole grain" if it contains the bran, germ, and endosperm. Examples of whole grains include brown rice, quinoa, farro, buckwheat, and wild rice. Whole grains provide health benefits that refined grains (white rice, white bread) do not. 

 

Eating three or more servings of whole grains per day lowers the risk for hypertension, breast and prostate cancer, and pre-diabetes. 

 

Legumes

black beans, chick peas, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, navy beans

Legumes include beans, peas and lentils. Legumes are jammed packed with wholesome plant-based protein (up to 17 grams per cup). Legumes also have health benefits that animal foods don’t; legumes are rich in minerals, and fiber and low in saturated fat. No cholesterol found here! 

Legume consumption is a predictor of lifespan. Just a 20 gram increase (2 tablespoons) in daily legume consumption decreases mortality rate by 8%! 

Legumes are especially good for diabetics. Beans blunt the insulin response to sugar. This effect is due to the high fiber content of legumes, which slows down gastric emptying rate so food leaves the stomach at a slower rate. Bravo beans! 

Nuts and Seeds

almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds

Tasty, convenient and versatile, nuts and seeds are among the world’s healthiest foods. Nuts and seeds are rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and a plant-based protein. A serving a day should do. 

 

​Add them to your salads, stir-fries or eat them as a snack. Choose raw, unsalted, non-roasted nuts and seeds for optimal nutrition. 

Herbs and Spices

cinnamon, oregano, thyme, turmeric, cumin

Adding herbs and spices to your meal not only makes your food taste great but provides essential dietary nutrients to meet your daily nutritional needs. Herbs strengthen the immune system, reduce inflammation, and help regulate blood sugar levels. And check this out: herbs like ginger and turmeric protect DNA from free radical damage. Amazing! 

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Eat Less of These Foods: 

Red Meat, Poultry, Fish, Seafood, Processed Meat

Humans do not thrive on a meat-based diet. In fact, increased consumption of animal-based protein is associated with the development of numerous chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. This is because animal products are rich in saturated fat and cholesterol, nutrients that our bodies can do without.

 

A plant-based diet is more physiologically suitable for humans and has been shown to provide optimal health and increase lifespan.

 

When humans eat a diet a high in animal products, humans develop heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Why? Because animal products are packed with saturated fat and cholesterol, nutrients that our bodies can do without.

Dairy

milk, yogurt, cheese, cream cheese, eggs

The dairy industry spends millions of dollars every year trying to convince us that dairy builds strong bones. The truth is, dairy does just the opposite. The United States drinks the most dairy and has the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world.

 

Dairy is also linked to higher rates cancer, heart disease, acne, infertility, premature puberty and premature death. 

 

Oils, Added Fats

Canola oil, olive oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil

I know what you’re thinking, “isn't some fat good for you?". The answer is, yes.

 

Fat from unprocessed, whole foods, such as, avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds, contain a host of other nutrients that are beneficial for your health. Remember, a whole food, plant-based diet is naturally low in fat, and that is one of the reasons this diet helps reverse heart disease. 

 

"But, isn't olive oil healthy?"
 

Olive oil is not a whole food or a health food.  Like other oils, olive oil is a processed fat that has been extracted, and therefore, has lost most of its nutritional value of its original food (olives). 

It's unclear as to whether olive oil provides health benefits, but it does add 120 calories per tablespoon. If you're starting a plant-based lifestyle, keeping small amounts of olive oil in your diet may help you stick the diet, however, be cognoscente of the amount consumed. 

Prcoessed Foods

Chips, sausages, fries, cakes, instant ramen, margarine, donuts, ketchup

Processed foods are bad for your health and are a major contributor to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.  Let me clarify what I mean by "processed food”.

 

A processed food is chemically processed and comprised of artificial and refined ingredients. Processed foods are void of nutrients and often rich in cheap fats, refined grains, salt, and chemical preservatives. Worst of all, processed foods are designed to be addictive.

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Should I Eat Processed Food on a

Plant-based Diet? 

Let’s be honest. For many of us, it’s unrealistic to avoid all processed and packaged food all the time. The good news is, it is possible to be successful on a plant-based diet while indulging in some minimally processed products. 

Minimally processed foods are made with little or no added oil, sugar, salt or preservatives. They are processed and packaged at their peak to maintain nutrition quality. They aren’t harmful, in fact, they may enhance your health.

Here is a list of minimally processed, plant-based foods that align with the guidelines of a plant-based diet:

  • ​​Frozen fruits and vegetables

  • Canned beans, fruits and vegetables (look for “no added salt”)

  • Nut butters (look for “no added sugar/oils”)

  • Non-dairy milk (look for products with few preservatives)

  • Tofu, tempeh and some veggie burgers

  • Sauces, flavorings and condiments

  • Whole wheat pasta, bread, crackers, cereal, tortillas and rice cakes

  • Sweeteners: dates, molasses, agave, maple syrup (in small amounts)

  • Granola bars made with fruit and nuts

  • Roasted nuts, unsalted

What You Need To Know About

Nutrition Labels:  

 

Have you ever read a food label and wondered if any of this information is relevant or useful? I've definitely been there. While designed to inform us about what we're actually eating, nutrition labels can also cause confusion. Here are some tips to help you choose plant-based products that align with a whole food, plant-based diet:

  • Choose products with the fewest ingredients. The longer the ingredient list, the more likely the food is highly processed. Ingredients are listed in order from highest content to the least. Avoid products that list a form of sugar, such as corn syrup or brown rice syrup, at the start of the list.

  • The information shown in the label is based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day. You may need more or less than 2,000 calories depending on your age, gender, activity level, and whether you’re trying to lose, gain or maintain your weight.

  • A “serving size” may vary from what you’re eating. Be aware that the amount of calories, fats and other nutrients listed on the nutrition label are  only for one serving. Multiply the nutrients by the actual number of servings you’re eating to accurately reflect your intake.

  • Limit certain nutrients. Review the sodium, sugar and saturated fat content on the nutrition label. Determine if this product is in alignment with a whole foods, plant-based diet.

  • Fiber content is important! Choose food products that contain more than 5 grams of fiber per serving.

  • Avoid foods that contain ingredients you're not familiar with or can't pronounce.

  • Be weary of nutrition claims, such as natural, low-fat, sugar-free and heart healthy, on the front of the box. Nutrition labels are often used to lure the customer in. However, many are misleading. Even a vegan product isn’t necessarily healthy. Decide for yourself whether this product is healthy after reading both the ingredient list and the nutrition label. 

 

"Plant-based Diets Seem Restrictive"

It’s assumed that plant-based diets are limiting. That's because SAD is centered around animal products like meat, dairy, eggs and processed foods. Americans fill up on the same three animal proteins over and over again: chicken, pork and beef. What people don't realize is that there is an even larger variety of plant-based protein sources available to us.

For instance, there are over 40,000 varieties of beans! We also have plant-based meat alternatives, such as tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein (TVP), veggie burgers, and seitan. Furthermore, there are concentrated sources of protein in foods like hemp seeds, chia seeds, peas, nutritional yeast, and quinoa. The options are endless.

It may feel like you're giving up most of the foods that you've been eating your entire life, but you're also adding hundreds of plants to the menu. Those plants will quickly become a staple in your diet, while enhancing your palate. You may find that the variety of foods in your diet has not shrunk but, instead, increased exponentially!

 

Eat Healthy Without Sacrificing Taste

One of the enduring misconceptions about healthy food is that it's bland and boring. People fear that they'll never enjoy food in the same way. It's important to understand that those fears are rooted in food addiction. The brain is wired to crave salty, sugar, and fatty foods. These foods light up the pleasure centers in the brain, similar to that of a drug. Letting go is no easy feat - it requires determination and willpower.

The good news is that taste buds (your palate) adapt quickly, within weeks! You can retrain them  to enjoy foods with less sugar, salt and fat. Once you formulate a new baseline for your palate, the foods you used to eat will taste too rich, too sweet and too salty. 

The secret to making healthy food taste delicious without the added salt, sugar and fat is in the seasoning. Spices, herbs, vinegar, and condiments are vital to creating flavorful dishes. Think of plants as a blank canvas: choose a flavor profile - maybe it's BBQ or curry, or Asian-inspired - and run with it!

Of course, there are some classic seasonings you probably already have on hand like salt, pepper, garlic, cumin, cinnamon and oregano, but they barely scratch the surface. There is a whole world of flavors out there and I encourage you to explore them. Here is a list of seasonings and condiments that will elevate your meals:

  • Bragg Coconut Liquid Aminos

  • Nutritional Yeast

  • Better than Bouillon Bases

  • Miso Paste

  • Dried Mushrooms

  • Smoked Paprika

  • Liquid Smoke

  • Soy Sauce

  • Vegan Worcestershire Sauce

  • Bay Leaf

  • Spice Mixes, like curry

  • BBQ Sauce

 

Not Ready to be 100% Plant-based?

That's okay! It's more important that the transition to a plant-based diet is sustainable for you. Develop a plan that you can commit to.

Check out "How to Transition to a Plant-based Diet" to learn more. 

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Iraina Rosenthal-Tawil, RD

Founder, Your Life on the Veg

Iraina is a registered dietitian based in New York City. She specializes in plant-based diets for the prevention and management of chronic disease. She offers virtual nutrition counseling via a HIPPA-secured online platform. 

Image by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis

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