Whole food plant-based diet

Wellness Factsheet

What’s good for the body is good for the mind. Diets high in whole-plant foods can improve your physical (Micha et al. 2015) and mental wellbeing (Beezhold & Johnson 2012).

Did you know?

Nutrients from whole foods act synergistically - they support each other to biologically boost the activity of the individual nutrients, sometimes several thousand-fold.

Michael Pollan, in his book 'In Defence of Food', describes how 'bad' scientific research has led to the idea of 'Nutritionism' that is prevalent today and argues for the idea of looking at foods as whole entities.

A focus on individual food compounds rather than wholistic food habits or healthy diets started in the early 19th century.

  • William Prout, an English doctor and chemist, identified the three principal components of food in the early 19thcentury - protein, fat and carbohydrates – as nutrients that provide the body with energy.
  • A meat extract - Leibig's Extractum Carnis (Bonox) and a baby formula (made up of cow's milk, wheat, malted flour and potassium bicarbonate) were born. But babies fed this formula failed to thrive. Sailors on long voyages fed adequate supplies of these three nutrients also got sick.
  • By the late nineteenth century, scientists believed there was more in foods that were needed for health and to thrive.
  • In 1912, the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk coined the term vitamins.

The idea of consuming nutrients took a leap in 1977 when the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs endeavoured to resolve the question of diet and chronic disease by developing Dietary Goals for the United States.

  • These guidelines called to cut down on consumption of red meat and dairy products.
  • Following a backlash from the red meat and dairy industries, the committee rewrote its recommendations to choose meats, poultry and fish with reduced fat intake.
  • The words eat less were replaced with choose and the idea of foods was replaced with nutrients.

In the 1990s, phytochemical compounds were discovered.

  • Phytonutrients (aka phytoprotectants) from the Greek word phyto (meaning “from plants”) are neither vitamins nor minerals. Only found in plants, they protect them from pests and disease and, thanks to a higher plan, they also protect us too.

We may never know all the nutrients a plant contains but we know that eating whole-plant foods is good for us.

Consuming nutrients in supplement form is inferior to those from natural food sources and can also be harmful (Geller et al. 2015).

The concept of a healthy diet made up primarily of fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds, nuts and herbs has been understood since antiquity.

Less than 4% of the Australian population consume the recommended 5 serves of vegetables and legumes, and less than one-third the recommended 2 serves of fruit a day (ABS 2016).

The Facts

Various studies have shown that eating whole plant foods is associated with lower risk and better management of chronic diseases.

  • Diets that avoid animal foods have been shown to reverse atherosclerosis anddiabetesand to improve mood (PCRM 2015, McMacken & Shah 2017).

Areas around the globe called Blue Zones are home to the healthiest and longest-living people groups - Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; and Loma Linda, California (Beuttner 2015).

  • All have in common a diet that is primarily plant-based. Meat, about the size of a pack of cards, is only eaten about 5 times a month.

Whole plant foods have a range of known nutrients that are important for health – protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants (Carlsen et al. 2010). They also come packaged with fibre and water to enable the control of blood sugars and feeling of fullness (Haber et al. 1977).

Whole plant foods are naturally low in salt, sugar, oils, preservatives and artificial colours and flavours.

There is no magic bullet for preventing and treating chronic disease. The principles of a whole-food plant-based diet are best for addressing the most prevalent and devastating chronic conditions.

What can we do about it

Aim to eat at least 5 serves of vegetables and fruit a day; better still, 10 or more a day provides even greater benefit (Aune et al. 2017). Here are some strategies to help you get more whole plant foods in your day:

Eat an abundance of whole plant foods.

Start by swapping in one plant-based meal every day.

Vary what you eat from day to day and season to season.

Make your plate full of the different colours of the rainbow.

Buy and try something new every week.

Eat with others as often as you can - this provides health, social, personal and sensory benefits from sharing a meal.

Model the enjoyment of eating plant foods to your children, family and friends.

Eating right is a powerful way to enhance your wellness.

Factsheet Contributors

Dr. Lillian Kent

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