Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet Beginner’s Guide + Complete Food List

Our nutrition coach walks us through this clean eating approach to diet.

A whole foods plant-based diet certainly sounds like one of the most nutritious diets in theory, but what exactly is it, and how is it different from a vegan or vegetarian diet?

A whole foods plant-based diet focuses on eating plant-based foods in their whole, natural, unprocessed state.

In this diet guide, we will discuss what a whole foods plant-based diet plan involves, which foods you should eat and which you should avoid, and potential benefits and drawbacks so you can decide whether or not a whole foods plant-based diet is right for you.

Let’s jump in!

A variety of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits and grains.

What Is a Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet?

The term “Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet” includes two different descriptors—whole foods and plant-based—so it can be confusing to understand what exactly this type of diet entails.

First, a plant-based diet is one that centers around eating plant-based foods rather than animal-based foods.

Vegan and vegetarian diets fall under the umbrella of plant-based diets along with other specific iterations of plant-based diets and some slightly more flexible styles of eating that might incorporate occasional animal foods.

So, what does it mean to eat whole foods in regards to the whole foods plant-based diet plan?

Firstly, an important distinction is that we are not talking about whole foods in terms of the upscale natural grocery store chain known as Whole Foods Market.

Rather, a whole foods diet refers to the state of the food that you are eating in your meal plan being barely processed or as natural as possible.

While most people assume that the vegan diet and vegetarian diet are inherently healthy, it is also possible to follow a plant-based diet and still eat many super refined and processed foods such as vegan chicken nuggets, Oreo cookies, and vegan mac & cheese made with processed fake cheese and refined pasta.

A whole foods plant-based diet sidesteps these potential pitfalls of an unhealthy plant-based diet by not only focusing on just eating plant-based foods but rather honing in on plant-based foods that are in their whole, natural, unprocessed state or minimally processed state as much as possible.

A variety of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits and grains.

When nutritionists talk about processed foods vs whole foods, they are referring to how the food product is transformed or changed from its initial state to when it appears on your plate or in your recipe.

A whole food to be considered an unprocessed food, or one that hasn’t really been changed from its initial creation.

Consider the difference between fresh apples and commercial sweetened applesauce.

A fresh apple is picked right off the tree and then washed and eaten. This is a whole food.

In contrast, applesauce in a jar on the shelf is usually made by cooking apples, pureeing them, adding cinnamon, adding a sweetener of some sort, and usually adding some type of preservative such as citric acid.

All of these steps are food processing, so sweetened commercial apple sauce would be considered a processed food.

Note that in the grand scheme of things, applesauce is minimally processed relative to many plant-based processed foods such as Skittles, fruit snacks, or Sour Patch Kids candies.

Therefore, a whole foods plant-based diet is one that focuses on eating plant-based foods in their natural state or minimally processed state.

A variety of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits and grains in heart-shaped ramekins.

What Can You Eat On a Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet Meal Plan?

Ultimately, clean eating emphasizes eating foods in “Mother Nature’s package” rather than a commercial food label package.

There isn’t one rigidly defined plant-based whole foods diet meal plan in the way that many weight loss diets are spelled out with rules, specific foods to eat, foods to avoid, or even how often and how much you can eat.

Rather, a plant-based whole foods eating plan will focus on whole, natural, unprocessed foods or “clean foods“ and potentially small amounts of animal-based foods such as dairy and eggs (like a vegetarian diet).

Here are the types of foods to eat on a whole foods plant-based meal plan:

  • Vegetables: Artichokes, arugula, asparagus, beets, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, celery, cucumber, dandelion greens, eggplant, fennel, leeks, kale, mushrooms, mustard greens, olives, okra, onions, peas, radishes, radicchio, scallions, shallots, tomatoes, zucchini, etc.
  • Fruits: Apples, apricots, avocado, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, clementines, dates, figs, grapefruit, red and green grapes, melons, lemons, limes, mangos, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pears, pomegranates, raspberries, and strawberries.
  • Tubers and Starchy Veggies: Turnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, pumpkin, rutabaga, kohlrabi, carrots
  • Legumes: Lentils, beans (cannellini, lima, fava, green, kidney, and navy), peas, chickpeas, hummus, peanuts, split peas, etc., especially when soaked or sprouted.
  • Whole Grains: Buckwheat, barley, bulgar, quinoa, whole wheat, rye, brown rice, whole oats, farro, orzo, freekeh, amaranth, wheat berries, etc., especially when soaked or sprouted.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, sesame seeds, pistachios, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hazelnuts, cashews, flaxseeds, pine nuts, tahini, peanut butter, almond butter, seed butter, etc.
  • Spirulina, kelp, nori, and other sea vegetables
  • Organic, Cage-Free Eggs
  • Organic Soy Foods: Tofu, tempeh, miso, soy milk
  • Minimally-Processed Dairy: Cheese (asiago, feta, goat cheese, halloumi, gouda, gruyère, manchego, mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, ricotta), cottage cheese, plain Greek yogurt, low-fat milk, kefir
  • Healthy Fats: Olives, olive oil, avocados, flaxseed oil, coconut
  • Herbs and Spices: Basil, anise, bay leaves, clove, crushed red pepper, oregano, dill, mustard seeds, cumin, mint, garlic, parsley, cinnamon, black and white pepper, thyme, sage, paprika, sumac, rosemary, za’atar, etc.
  • Condiments: Vinegar (apple cider, balsamic and red wine), olive oil, stone ground mustard, nut butter, tahini, etc. 
  • Herbal tea or unsweetened caffeinated tea, black coffee
A chickpea salad.

What Foods Should I Avoid on a Plant-Based Whole Food Diet?

Here are the foods you cannot eat on a whole foods plant-based diet menu:

  • Poultry: Chicken, turkey, squab, duck
  • Fish and Seafood: Salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, scallops, mussels, clams, trout, halibut, shrimp, octopus, etc.
  • Meat: Beef, bison, pork, jerky, veal, lamb, etc.
  • Processed Meats: Lunch meats and cold cuts, sausage, pepperoni, chicken wings, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, corn dogs, pigs in a blanket, bacon, hot dogs, etc.
  • Frozen Dinners: Frozen pizza, frozen entrees, frozen prepared lasagna, frozen Chinese food dishes, frozen pot pies, frozen vegan chicken nuggets, frozen vegan Indian food dishes, etc.
  • Heavily Processed Dairy Products: Spray cheese, pudding, reduced-fat ice cream, fat-free cheese, shredded cheese with stabilizers, creamer, etc.
  • Fast Food: Burgers, anything fried, French fries, breakfast sandwiches with sausage, donuts, chicken nuggets, pizza, fast food Chinese, tacos, onion rings, etc.
  • Processed Snack foods: Breaded snacks like mozzarella sticks, pork rinds, microwave popcorn, combos, potato chips, Jiffy pop, tater tots, packaged cookies, toaster pastries, candy, white chocolate, granola bars, protein bars, protein shakes, anything with icing or frosting, cheese dip, etc.
  • Bread Products: Canned and prepared biscuits and croissants, packaged bread with refined grains (such as Wonder Bread), and often even homemade bread, pies, donuts, muffins, snack cakes, cakes, cookies, prepared granolas with oils, danishes, tortillas, sweetened cereals, etc.
  • Pasta, cereal, packets of oatmeal that are sweetened
  • Sauces and Condiments: Mayo, creamy salad dressings, any salad dressing with hydrogenated oils, gravy, sweetened jellies and jams, chocolate syrup, pancake syrup, jarred pasta sauce with added sugar, etc.
  • Beverages: Eggnog, bottled protein shakes, fruit juices, soda, energy drinks, sweetened coffee drinks, sports drinks, diet sodas, diet juices, etc.
  • Fats and Oils: Margarine, olio, lard, shortening, bacon fat, hydrogenated oil, palm kernel oil, fractionated coconut oil, etc.
  • Sugary Foods: Anything with high fructose corn syrup, added sugar, artificial sweeteners, candy, etc.

Note that flexitarians following a whole foods plant-based diet may eat small amounts of poultry or fish occasionally.

A variety of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits and grains.

Is a Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet Good for Weight Loss and Health?

There’s an abundance of research to suggest various health benefits of following plant-based eating, both in terms of supporting weight loss1Tran, E., Dale, H. F., Jensen, C., & Lied, G. A. (2020). Effects of Plant-Based Diets on Weight Status: A Systematic Review. Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and TherapyVolume 13, 3433–3448. https://doi.org/10.2147/dmso.s272802 and overall health.2Ivanova, S., Delattre, C., Karcheva-Bahchevanska, D., Benbasat, N., Nalbantova, V., & Ivanov, K. (2021). Plant-Based Diet as a Strategy for Weight Control. Foods10(12), 3052. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods10123052

These benefits are likely increased by minimizing or completely removing processed foods from the vegetarian or vegan diet plan because plenty of evidence has shown that ultra processed foods are associated with a myriad of health problems.3National Institutes of Health. (2019, June 4). Eating highly processed foods linked to weight gain. National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/eating-highly-processed-foods-linked-weight-gain

Some of the top potential benefits of a plant-based diet include:

  • Reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels two of the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome.
  • Lower risk of heart disease.
  • Lower of diabetes by about 20%.
  • Decreased HbA1c levels (3-month average of blood sugar readings) more than when eating an omnivorous diet in people who have type 2 diabetes.
  • Lower risk of several types of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer.
A person peeling a kiwi.

What are the Downsides of a Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet?

‌The primary downside of a whole foods plant-based meal plan is that it can be expensive to buy healthy natural foods, and there can be a risk of nutritional deficiencies with any plant-based diet, particularly a strict vegan diet.

Veganism, in particular, is associated with higher risks of nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium,4Fontana, L., Shew, J. L., Holloszy, J. O., & Villareal, D. T. (2005). Low Bone Mass in Subjects on a Long-term Raw Vegetarian Diet. Archives of Internal Medicine165(6), 684. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinte.165.6.684 vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and protein.

Studies have also found that vegans tend to have lower bone density. 

This is due to low calcium and vitamin D intake because dairy products are excluded from the vegan diet. 

Supplements may be necessary to help ensure you don’t experience nutritional deficiencies due to having a limited diet on a plant-based whole foods diet.

Finally, just because you are following a plant-based diet with unprocessed foods does not inherently mean that you will lose weight.

Although you certainly don’t have to follow this diet for weight loss, if your goal is to lose weight, you will still need to count calories and watch your servings and portion sizes.

For more information about plant-based nutrition, check out our guide to being a plant-based athlete here.

A runner kicking up dirt.

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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