Which Plant-Based Food Plan is Right For You?
Have you noticed that the more popular whole food plant-based eating becomes, the more it can seem that ‘plant-based diet’ can mean one thing to one person, another thing to someone else?
It might even seem like everyone and his plant-based brother has staked their claim on which variation-on-the-plant-based-theme is ‘best’.
With the flood of emails on this topic reaching critical mass in my inbox, now seems a good time for us to sit down and talk about it.
Maybe your plant-path is clearly marked.
Yet perhaps you – or someone you know – could use a hand in cutting a trail through the culinary confusion.
Let’s take this email from ‘Curious in the Midwest’ to set the stage for sorting through the maze of making good choices about what to eat – within the context of a plant-based food plan – so you can easily discover which plant-based food plan is right for you.
I have a question for you that has been mulling in my mind.
I was vegetarian for over 20 years and am now adopting a whole foods plant-based diet. Can you explain the differences in the various WFPB [whole food plant-based] author’s views?
There seems to be discrepancy around incorporating nuts, salt, flours, sweeteners and calorie counting as well as the prescribed amount of green vegetables in one day.
There seems to be agreement on many things, but each person has their own tweak. I wonder about this and am getting more and more confused. If I am confused as a former vegetarian and pretty well informed about the influence of food on my body, I can only imagine how confusing this must be to someone trying to switch from a Standard American Diet.
Thanks for your response!
Curious in the Midwest
You’re right. On the face of it, there appear to be several ‘styles’ of plant-based food plans. This can lead to the confusion you are experiencing, and I’m glad you’ve asked the question.
Between you and me, the last thing we want to do is make switching to plant-based eating more complicated.
You can easily cut through the confusion when you look at your choices through the lens of what you want to achieve with your switch to eating plant-based.
From there, it starts with simply eating more whole plant foods and less of everything else. Yet we can get obsessive about ‘getting it right’, forgetting that ‘all or nothing’ often leads to ‘nothing’.
I’m not a plant-based hair shirt. When it comes to getting animal products off our plates, that’s one thing. This can be done quickly and easily with a few simple swaps so that you can keep enjoying most of the foods with which you are familiar – which is why The Plant-Based Journey is so rich in ideas for how to do just that.
Yet if everyone is ordered right out of the gate that every grain of salt and sugar has to go along with all the animal products, the fried fluffernutters, and all the other beasts of the modern feedbag, the plant-based movement is dead in the water.
Now that we have some perspective, we are in better position to look at the these differences in plant-based food plans – so that you can move from plant-perplexed to plant-positive, and more easily flow into what’s best for you.
What the plant-based food plans have in common
First, as you note, let’s be mindful of the commonalities of each of these approaches.
They are 99% on the same page.
If you look at all edibles as being in one of three groups: 1) whole plant foods 2) animal products and 3) highly processed – a brilliant viewpoint I learned from Dr. T. Colin Campbell when I interviewed him for The Plant-Based Journey – it simplifies things.
Each variation-on-the-theme that you mention advocates predominantly #1 – whole plant foods – and eschews #2 and #3, animal products and highly processed foods..
From there, simply filter the different ‘flavors’ of plant-based eating through the lens of what it is you want to achieve by eating a plant-based diet.
In other words, what are your goals with going plant-based?
People start on the plant-based journey for various reasons. These reasons usually fall into one or more of these three categories:
- health and weight loss
- the lot of animals
- environmental concerns
Whatever your personal goals are will influence which plant-based food plan you make yours.
Let’s take a look at the different items you’ve listed in your question through the filter of personal reasons for going plant-based: nuts, sweeteners, salt, flours, and calorie counting.
Is weight loss and improved health desired?
First, we’ll run the items on your list through a Checkpoint Charlie from the weight loss and improved health perspective. Then we’ll consider them from the viewpoint if weight loss is not the driver behind switching your diet to plant-based.
To get hunger satisfaction with a calorie load that helps you achieve your ideal weight, you want lots of fiber and low calorie concentration in foods. Whole plant foods do this quite nicely – some better than others.
Nuts, seeds, nut butters, and other high fat plant foods such olives, and avocados give you lots of energy in relation to the fullness they provide.
Next to vegetable oils (which is in the highly processed category) they are the first thing to be aware of in terms of watching quantity of consumption when weight loss is desired. (See the rules of satiety section in the video presentation How To Amp Down Your Fat Genes With Plant-Based Nutrition for more about energy density in food and how it can affect your weight.)
Here’s where awareness of calorie content is important, which is not the same as calorie counting.
But we’ll get to that in a minute.
For those with health considerations such as heart disease, curtailing or eliminating nuts and high fat plant foods may be advised by your health care provider or dietitian.
Sweeteners and Salt
Sweeteners can also jack up the calorie content of what you eat fast, though not to the extent that high fat foods do. They can make your plate so hyper-tasty that you want to keep reaching for more just for the taste sensation, hampering weight loss.
Though you didn’t mention specific sweeteners, they can vary from maple syrup to agave syrup to date paste. Two out of those three are actually fiber-free.
In my book, that doesn’t make these concentrated sweeteners taboo. It simply puts them in the category of condiment. That means as flavor agent, minimally used.
If modest amounts of these flavor agents helps you be more successful at eating most of your calories from whole plant foods, then they can provide a positive function.
It is the same with salt – it is a flavor agent that, when added to food – just as with sweeteners – drives up your interest in what’s on your plate.
Typical Standard American Diet fare is massively over-salted and over-sweetened, and has been strongly linked to disease of modern western civilization, as reported by the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs:
Too much fat, too much sugar, or salt can be and are directly linked to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and stroke among other killer diseases. In all 6 of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States, they have been linked to our diet. Those of us in government have an obligation to acknowledge this.
When switching to a whole foods plant-based diet, recalibrating your tastes to less salty, sugary fare is a natural progression.
Does this mean that all salt and sugars need to be eliminated from any food you consume? Must everything be sugar-free (already addressed) and salt-free?
The salt and sweeteners discussion is often within the context of ‘food addictions’, a topic I address in more depth in The Plant-Based Journey.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the that.
What about food addictions?
Briefly, “food addictions” can be a serious point of concern and not to be undervalued. For some, eliminating added salts and sugars helps them to control their food intake. They may report that a little salty or sweet seasoning drives them to overeat, and they are better off with plain fare.
Yet if you find salt or sugar does not create such a problem for you, and a little salty or sweet on your food makes your plant-based plate more interesting and delicious, then you can make your decision accordingly.
It is not my intention to diminish the experience of those who have found success with managing overeating from an “addictive” perspective.
However, many people sell themselves short of opportunity by not exploring other potential avenues for redress.
I know this from personal experience.
I used to consider myself horribly addicted to sweets, a helpless emotional over eater. At one time I regularly attended Overeaters Anonymous to try to get a grip on the problem.
Heavens, how things have changed.
Eating well and developing mindfulness have completely shifted this for me. It may well do the same for you.
In short, when it comes to sweet and salt:
Just because the taste of something is compelling doesn’t mean you have to compulsively eat it.
No matter how many times you may have connected these as one and the same in the past.
This may demand you invest in cultivating a mindfulness practice and developing some degree of mastery over eating practices, which is my approach to eating freedom – and at a slender weight.
When a whole grain is broken and goes through the processing to become a flour, the more finely the whole grain is ground, and the more it can present calorie load challenges due to the finer particles of the grains. (See The Processed Continuum chapter in The Plant-Based Journey).
Keep in mind we’re still talking whole grains – not highly processed, de-fibered white flour.
Some people find that when they make most of their whole grain consumption from intact, non-ground whole grains, they have more success with weight loss.
But that can be confounded with the apparent weight-loss effect of upping bread in your diet, quite possibly because it crowds out some lesser-quality fare. The Eat More Starch Challenge: Eat Twelve Pieces of Bread Daily to Lost Ten Pounds Monthly makes an interesting read for that very reason.
It is also heartening to die-hard bread lovers, such as yours truly.
As a matter of fact, as you may have noted on my home page, I ate bread every single day of my fifty pound weight loss.
I didn’t eat twelve pieces a day. But I believe in good bread as fundamental to good living.
So there you have it. Make your own decisions about bread and whole grain flour products in your diet based on your own goals and experience.
Amount of green vegetables in one day
Almost without exception, when my clients start to up the vegetable content of their diets to a minimum six or seven servings a day, weight loss is a result. This is because this practice starts to crowd out the other high calorie, low fiber fare that they may be used to eating.
This is not the same as pounding down massive quantities of green vegetables before dawn in a Herculean effort to drive down the calorie content of your daily intake.
At one time, I aspired to the practice of consuming several pounds of greens and other non-starchy vegetables a day while limiting starchy vegetables.
Without the hunger satisfying quality of enough beans and legumes, brown rice and potatoes, I was one hungry animal and this practice quickly shifted my consciousness into ‘dieter’ mode.
I couldn’t stop thinking about bread and brown rice. This experience is the thinly veiled subtext in my article titled My McDougall Diet Failure, which gives you the full skinny on my experience – and tells you what I did to change it and gain control of my weight.
Between you and me, when a blog article comes across my radar that reads something like “…if I have to gag down another pound of vegetables for breakfast…” I know that I am not alone in this experience.
There are some people who thrive on this practice of mountains of vegetables before noon.
My advice is to adopt the approach that works for you.
To me,”working for me” means hunger satisfaction, eating enjoyment, not forcing myself to graze through a field of greens before my oatmeal and toast, and freedom from obsessing and compulsiveness about it all.
It means never ‘gagging down’ anything.
Though calories do count, a whole food plant-based diet liberates you from obsessive daily calorie counting.
Yes, there are people who swear by counting, weighing, and measuring everything they eat and have a great deal of success with it – and that includes people who eat a plant- based diet. Far be it from me to criticize if that’s what works for them.
Personally, as someone who counted calories for years, I came to a calorie-counting-crossroads years ago when it became clear to me that it was not the way that I wanted to live day in and day out.
I have stacks of journals in the back of my closet that are recorded testimony to years of counting calories, and periodically macronutrients (protein, fats, and carbohydrates) as well. This was all aimed at micromanaging my dietary intake, a testament to my devoted efforts to gain once and for all control over my weight.
Years – decades, even – of these practices not only did not bring me the success at weight management that eating whole foods plant-based have, they also didn’t deliver the eating freedom and quality of life that I craved when it came to food, eating, and my body.
If someone has told you that daily counting of calories is essential for weight management success, then that is because they have found that to be successful for them.
It does not make it a hard-and-fast rule for weight control with a plant-based diet. If you like playing with the numbers, and it delivers to you the quality of life you want, fine.
Personally? Daily calorie counting sucked all the juice out of enjoyment of my food, leaving me with the scraps.
If this has been your experience too, take heart.
There is another way.
Though you didn’t mention smoothies in your list, this question comes across my desk frequently as well.
Dr. John McDougall says “You don’t improve vegetables by hacking them to bits with a steel blade.”
This quip from Dr. McDougall always evokes roars of audience laughter. I appreciate this comment because the good Dr. McDougall is so good at keeping us from getting distracted from the objective – to eat more whole plant foods and less of everything else.
At the same time, a smoothie can have it’s proper place for getting more vegetables on your plate.
Some people thrive on a green drink as a tried-and-trusted way to start their day; some people find too much ‘smoothie’ gets in the way of their weight loss goals. For an in-depth discussion and more on the smoothie issue, see To smoothie or not to smoothie? The skinny on blending your fruits and greens.
But don’t let yourself get distracted and sidelined with this little side trip on the plant-based journey.
Perfection is a back door escape mechanism
Long short, when it comes to these minor variations on the plant-based food plan theme – discover what works best for you.
Don’t be afraid of a little experimentation to find out what that is.
Obsessing over getting it ‘perfect’, and buying into the compulsion to know what exactly what ‘perfect’ is before you get started, only delays your progress. Often it halts progress altogether, because we can use it as an excuse to not take action. Better to simply do your best, trusting that you’ll figure out what’s best for you as you go along.
For the lot of animals and the environment
If your weight and health are not your drivers for your switch to eating plant-based, then many of the above may not be your concern.
You simply want to cause less harm and understand the serious implications to our environmental health and planet that continuing to eat high on the food chain present.
A varied, tasty, and enjoyable variety of foods from the The 5 food groups: My simple plan for a whole foods, low-fat, plant-based diet is all you need.
Which plant-based plan for you?
A big thanks to Curious in the Midwest and everyone else who has written regarding plant-based food plan confusion for prompting this article.
I hope it has cleared some clutter and assisted you in discovering how the commonalities outweigh the differences with these slight different points of emphasis within the plant-based nutrition realm. And I hope it has helped you clear up any confusion.
Enjoy what you eat!
P.S. What have you found to be right for you? Feel free to piggy-back your questions or comments on Curious’ letter and my reply in replies below. Let me know if this has helped clarify and if there are other questions you have that I might help with.