According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the US. Some 735,000 Americans suffer a heart attack every year, and, although diet is not the only factor that contributes to poor heart function, it’s a huge part of it.
Many people have adopted keto, paleo, and gluten-free diets as a way to live healthier and make better choices. But in today’s day and age, it seems there are unlimited options when it comes to nutrition. The aforementioned diets barely skim the surface of what’s out there, and, truthfully, it can be hard to keep up. However, there is one healthy-eating plan that you’re definitely familiar with—whether you know it or not.
The whole foods diet is centered around plant-based, unprocessed nutrition sources, such as fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. These are the foods you know you should be eating, and they are the ones that probably come to mind when you think of healthy eating habits. Unfortunately, for many of us, it’s a lot easier to reach for a bag of cookies than a handful of almonds.
Plant-based diets have been linked to lower levels of heart disease, low cholesterol, and a decreased risk for developing diabetes and digestive issues. That being said, if you’re used to consuming foods like meat or dairy at every meal and are concerned about cutting out these groups, you are certainly not alone. The majority of Americans eat well over the recommended amounts of meat and dairy each day.
While you should never eliminate anything from your diet cold turkey, once you understand the basis of plant-based eating and how to most effectively eliminate processed foods, eating whole foods becomes a lot less intimidating and a natural part of your lifestyle. This guide explains how to start, how to keep up your progress, and how to avoid the temptation of processed foods (because saying no to fast-food French fries is hard).
WHAT COUNTS AS WHOLE FOODS?
Before you even begin laying out the foundation for a whole foods nutrition plan, you need to know what foods to fill your plate with and what foods to avoid. A good rule of thumb is that if the food is natural—as in grown from the earth—it’s OK to eat. Sticking with some of the food groups we are familiar with, here are examples of the most basic whole-foods-approved foods, as outlined by the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, a leading researcher and proponent of this diet that helps individuals and health professionals through its education, advocacy, and research.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
• Starchy and nonstarchy vegetables, such as broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas, sweet potatoes, lentils, squashes, and beans
• Whole fruits found in nature (i.e., not dried or in juice), such as apples, oranges, berries, and bananas
WHOLE GRAINS, SPICES, AND OMEGA-3 SOURCES
• Whole grain pastas, oats, and brown rice
• All spices
• Omega-3 sources, such as chia seeds and ground flaxseed
• Nuts, such as almonds, pistachios, and walnuts
• Decaffeinated teas and coffees
• Unsweetened, unflavored, plant-based milks, such as oat milk, almond milk, and soy milk
WHAT CAN’T I EAT?
Now that you know what you can eat, you’re probably still thinking, “What do I have to give up?” While it’s best not to think of eliminating processed foods as “giving something up,” there are still a number of foods you should avoid with this plan—and one of the most common concerns with a plant-based diet is how to get the necessary amount of protein while avoiding meat. However, when done correctly, this plan fills your diet with high-protein, high-fiber plant sources as a substitute to supplement the nutrients you may have been getting from meat.
WHAT YOU SHOULD TRY TO ELIMINATE:
• All meat
• All dairy products
• Fatty cooking oils, such as olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil
• Foods with added sugars
WHAT YOU SHOULD EAT SPARINGLY:
• Natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup and stevia
• Nuts, such as peanuts and almonds
HOW CAN I EAT MORE WHOLE FOODS?
The next step is formulating a plan for incorporating more whole foods into and removing processed foods from your diet. Most health professionals don’t recommend drastically cutting back on what you eat immediately—this often leads to bingeing and falling back on your goals. Instead, start planning your meals with whole foods in mind and substituting where it’s easiest.
For example, if you typically buy a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich for breakfast, try making your own version to freeze and reheat later by using whole grain bread and veggies. It’s also helpful to pack your own snacks ahead of time to bring with you wherever you go, which can help you avoid heading for the snack bin at work or buying something processed from the vending machine. Cucumber slices with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, veggies with plant-based dips, and homemade vegetable chips are all great substitutes for processed snacks.
If you’re still confused about where to start, try these steps:
1. Eliminate the processed foods from your pantry and fridge. If they’re not easily accessible, there will be nothing to reach for.
2. Check your local grocery store circular for weekly produce specials, and build whole-food-friendly recipes around those items.
3. Plan ahead. Even if you aren’t a meal-prep aficionado, it’s important to be prepared with healthy alternatives to avoid snacking on processed foods throughout the day.
4. Find what you enjoy, and stick with it. If you hate salads, don’t force yourself to eat them simply because they’re whole-foods-approved.
WHOLE FOODS, HEALTHY RESULTS
There are so many other benefits to the whole foods diet than simply feeling healthier (although that is a huge bonus). Increasing the amount of fiber-and-vitamin-rich foods in your diet has been shown to contribute to a lower risk for heart disease and diabetes, and improved weight loss. It might seem obvious, but the better the foods you put into your body, the better you’ll feel now and in the future.
We all strive to live healthier in our everyday lives, and a whole foods plan is just one of many effective ways to achieve the results you want. It’s not just about losing weight—it’s about filling your body with foods that fuel you, thinking more consciously about the choices you make, and eating with your future in mind, not simply for the sake of eating.
There is a world of temptation out there when it comes to what we eat. Unfortunately, it has become far easier, and often cheaper, to fill our kitchens with prepackaged foods. When many of us want to see quick results, we turn to eating drastically less, which is extremely unsustainable. The whole foods diet is not the kind of program that forces you to dramatically drop the number of calories you consume or only limits you to protein smoothies. This diet sets you up for success by allowing you to eat the same amounts of food, only with more natural choices in mind.
For more info, visit nutritionstudies.org