The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will instruct his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.
Having made the transition to veganism a year ago, I know there will be others in a similar position to the one I was in when deciding whether to take the plant-based plunge! I was curious as to how a whole-food plant-based diet could help me to live an overall healthier lifestyle. But truth be told, I didn’t really know where to start!
Is a vegan diet actually healthy? Will I be missing out on protein or essential nutrients? Will I enjoy it, or will I miss meat and dairy too much? I’m not much of a cook… what do I even buy on my weekly shop?!
In this post, I hope to make all of this clearer as we consider the pros and cons of a whole-food plant-based diet. I worked through a lot of material on my journey towards veganism, including monster (but fascinating) texts like How Not to Diet and The China Study, as well as thought-provoking documentaries like Earthlings, Cowspiracy and What the Health. Whilst I would whole-heartedly recommend these, I completely appreciate that not everyone has the time or inclination to go to such lengths!
With all of this information in mind, I want to boil it down and make it as accessible as possible so that you can start to make your own informed choices. From the bigger picture advantages and disadvantages, to my own individual findings from the past year, this is your research-backed, personally honest and definitive assessment of a whole-food plant-based diet.
What Is a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet?
First things first, what actually is a whole-food plant-based diet?
Whilst there are different kinds of plant-based diets – for example vegetarian diets, lacto/ovo vegetarian diets, pescetarian diets or flexitarian diets – for the purposes of this article I am going to be discussing a strictly vegan diet.
The vegan aspect of this diet means that you won’t eat anything derived from animal sources, i.e. the exclusion of meat, fish and dairy products. Whole-food and plant-based emphasises natural and non-refined ingredients over highly processed foods.
Fruits, vegetables, dark leafy greens, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, are the nutrient-dense food groups which form the basis of this diet. Example foods for your shopping list may include:
- Fruits: berries, oranges, apples, bananas, grapefruit, avocados, dried fruits
- Vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, carrots, beets
- Green leafy vegetables: rocket, kale, spinach, swiss chard, turnip greens
- Whole grains: whole-wheat pasta or rice, wholemeal bread, cereal, quinoa
- Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas, tofu, tempeh
- Nuts: cashews, pistachios, walnuts, almonds, brazil nuts
- Seeds: chia seeds, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Dairy alternatives: oat, almond, soy or coconut milk
Why Is a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet Recommended?
With new research backing up the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, general interest in a vegan lifestyle is on the rise. You’ll probably have noticed this with the explosion of plant-based products now on offer in supermarkets, and the increased options available on menus when dining out.
Recent studies show that around half of the UK population are cutting down on meat, or else eliminating it completely. And 3% of the population now identifies as vegan. This is a number which is only set to continue growing, with a 40% increase in veganism in 2021 alone, and the number of vegans quadrupling between 2014 and 2019.
This should come as no surprise when leading global organisations are pointing to the various health risks posed by eating animal products, as well as the nutritional advantages of eating a vegan diet. The World Health Organisation released a new review of evidence in 2021: Plant-based diets and their impact on health, sustainability and the environment.
Overall, a diet that is predominantly plant-based and low in salt, saturated fats and added sugars is recommended as part of a healthy lifestyle. Such diets are widely associated with a lower risk of premature mortality and offer protection against noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). This advice complements the overall evidence indicating that limiting consumption of red meat (beef, pork and lamb) and processed meat (such as sausages and cured, smoked and salted meats) could protect against various NCDs.
If major organisations are aware that current recommended dietary guidelines are outdated, why are we not seeing more widespread education and change?
Why Is Change Slow?
All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
Arguably, any kind of mass societal shift can’t just happen overnight. This is because systems, processes and industry are tied up in current models of thought. Change starts with radical questioning, which may at first be ridiculed. Then, as it grows in grassroots popularity, it is opposed, before eventually becoming accepted wisdom and embedded in the new fabric of society.
You only have to look at any major historical shifts that we now take for granted. People once thought the world was flat, women weren’t intelligent enough to vote, and that black slavery was normal. This doesn’t make any of these things right, but it should also highlight that whatever age you’re in, traditional thought shouldn’t just be accepted as gospel truth. It is always your responsibility as an individual to make your own informed decisions and challenge the status quo where necessary.
When medical research started questioning the health risks posed by smoking, there was huge backlash because cigarette companies would go out of business if people were to stop smoking. People also enjoyed smoking. You can think about the meat and dairy industries in the same way. Pharmaceutical companies also profit from selling drugs to treat illnesses caused by poor diets.
The truth is that you can start fixing the health of your body as well as the world at large, at their sources, rather than merely treating the symptoms, if you take a balanced look at the evidence.
The Pros & Cons of a Whole-Food Vegan Diet
Now that we’ve discussed the topic more generally, let’s look more closely at the specific benefits and risks of a vegan diet. Whilst the switch to a plant-based lifestyle can overall be recommended, you must ensure you educate yourself to ensure you meet your daily nutritional needs, which can involve more preparation and planning.
Advantages of a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet
NCDs are responsible for 71% of all premature deaths (41 million deaths a year) globally. Of these, 80% are due to the four most common NCDs: cardiovascular diseases account for 17.9 million deaths, followed by cancers (9 million), chronic respiratory diseases (3.9 million) and diabetes mellitus (1.6 million)… Overweight and obesity are a major NCD risk factor.
Numerous studies have proven plant-based diets to be cost-effective, low-risk interventions to prevent some of our major killers, including cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes (to name a few). Rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre, a plant-based diet is full of antioxidants. This protects your cells against free radicals and oxidative stress, which can lead to the onset of disease within the body.
Lowers your risk of cardiovacular & heart disease
Responsible for more than half of deaths across the European region, evidence suggests that a plant-based diet has a protective effect over coronary heart disease. This is because it has lower saturated fat and cholesterol compared to a meat-based diet, therefore supporting lower blood pressure and overall heart health.
Reduces your risk of cancer
When one in two people will develop cancer in their lifetime, you can significantly reduce your risk by eliminating animal products from your diet. The link between red meat and cancer is now becoming more well-documented and understood amongst the general population. In particular, the risk of bowel cancer increases with the consumption of processed meats, as well as meats cooked at high temperatures. High-fat dairy products also increase the risk of developing breast and prostrate cancer when eaten regularly. Incredibly, you can reduce your overall cancer risk by a substantial 10-12% according to this study on plant-based diets.
Helps to prevent diabetes
Research shows that eating a plant-based diet reduces your risk of Type 2 Diabetes. It also helps with the treatment of Diabetes by improving blood glucose control. Diabetes is inextricably linked with obesity rates (a high BMI being the biggest risk factor), so eating a diet comprised of less mono and polyunsaturated fats guards against the development of Diabetes. Plant-based protein has also been proven to reduce insulin resistance and improve blood sugar levels.
Supports weight loss and a healthy BMI
Vegans have the healthiest weight among all dietary groups and received the highest score on the healthy eating scale.
By eating a whole-food plant-based diet, you maintain a healthier weight and your risk of obesity decreases. High-fibre foods keep you satisfied for longer, without the calorie content. A lower saturated fat content also means better digestion and metabolism. This means that those eating a plant-based diet are generally leaner and have a lower BMI than non-vegans.
Globally more than 80 billion land animals are farmed for their meat, milk, and eggs every year.
When I first came across whole-food plant-based lifestyles, I’ll be completely honest that I was mostly interested due to the personal health benefits. Since then, having researched extensively into the ethical concerns surrounding the meat and dairy industries, I would argue that underpinning every argument on this list of pros, should be an advocacy for the right to life of all sentient beings.
Whilst they may not possess the same intelligence as us, or be able to think and reason like human beings, as Peter Singer argues in his seminal text for animal rights, Animal Liberation:
The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
It is easy to remain blissfully ignorant when picking up pre-packaged goods from supermarket shelves. The problem is out of sight, out of mind. But what you don’t see is the billions of animals confined, penned, mutilated, force-impregnated, pumped full of antibiotics and eventually slaughtered, all for the short-term gratification of your tastebuds.
A plant-based diet minimises the cruelty and exploitation of animals. An advantage of a vegan diet is that you can vote with your wallet, clear your conscience, and choose to work towards a more compassionate world.
If the world went vegan, it could save up to 8 million lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, and could lead to health-care related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion.
Opting to follow a plant-based lifestyle is about more than simply your own body and personal health. It is about the large-scale and long-term health of our planet.
Pollution, climate change and deforestation are three major reasons we should consider our dietary choices. Agriculture is the biggest source of air pollution in Europe, animal agriculture causes an estimated 18% of all greenhouse gases (which is roughly equivalent to the emissions of the world’s transport industry as a whole), and 80% of deforested land in the Amazon rainforest is used for cattle grazing.
You will likely be aware of your carbon footprint when it comes to your transport choices, but you might not be conscious that adopting a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for the environment.
Don’t get me wrong, you can pay a premium for mock meats and ultra-processed vegan junk food. However, the basis of a whole-food plant-based diet – fresh produce like fruit and vegetables, and pantry staples like wholegrains and tinned beans – are all relatively cheap to purchase.
Cooking whole foods requires more planning and preparation, but it has also encouraged me to get more creative in the kitchen. And you can make this transition even easier by trying a vegan recipe kit (the brands in this list have some amazing starter offers!).
Before I transitioned to a whole-food plant-based diet, meat, fish and dairy used to easily add up as the most expensive items on my shopping list. So it has also been a positive impact on my monthly grocery budget!
Whenever I hear people breaking down their meals by prescriptive calories, based on whatever fad diet they’re currently following, I desperately want to tell them that there is another way!
What if I told you that my BMI is at the lower end of the healthy range, and I NEVER count calories?
With a whole-food plant-based diet, there are a wide variety of compliant foods that you can eat, and the great thing is that you don’t really have to worry about portion control. Because these foods are rich in dietary fibre, your body will more naturally tell you when it is full, compared to a calorie-rich diet based around meat and dairy. Fruit and vegetables are predominantly made up of water (and a whole lot of vitamins and other goodness!), so you can snack to your heart’s content.
I love big hearty meals, so I will often pile my plate high and even go back for seconds. And the best part about it? There’s no guilt involved!
Disadvantages of a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet
For me, the cons of plant-based diets are all to do with proper education, and making sure you’ve done your research before diving in head-first. As with anything, you need to be intentional to get the best results.
Protein Intake Risk
Contrary to popular belief, it’s a myth that you can only get enough protein from eating meat. However, you do need to educate yourself to ensure you know your sources of vegan protein, so that you can get your recommended daily intake.
Previously, nutritionists thought that due to plants being incomplete proteins, you needed to eat food in the right order for the body to be able to use the essential amino acids found in plants, e.g. beans and rice. However, guidance was updated in 2016 to clarify that eating various plant proteins throughout the day is enough to ensure adequate protein intake.
When transitioning to a plant-based diet, make sure you include ingredients from the below list in your meal planning. The average woman needs around 45g of protein per day, while the average man needs slightly more at 55g. The best sources of plant-based protein include:
- Wholegrains like quinoa, which is a complete protein
- Legumes like beans, peas and lentils
- Soy products, for example tofu, which provides 8g of protein per 100g serving
- Nuts and seeds, such as a tablespoon of peanut butter
- Vegetables like brocolli and kale, which contain a surprising amount of protein
- Plant-based milks, in particular soy and pea-based options
Despite a whole-food plant-based diet being overall rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre, some key nutrients are less easily absorbed by the body from plant-based foods, compared to meat and dairy alternatives. As such, you can obtain the recommended level of nutrients from an appropriately planned vegan diet, but like with getting enough protein, you will need to ensure you know your sources.
As the only vitamin you can’t obtain from a vegan diet – plants don’t contain vitamin B12 – you will need to ensure you get your RDI of this essential micronutrient. B12 is vital for healthy blood cells and energy, so you risk long-term problems if you ignore it. Fortunately, you can easily get your daily intake from fortified foods like cereal, nutritional yeast, or even Marmite. Alternatively, you can take a daily supplement (this is my own personal choice).
The absence of B12 in a vegan diet is often used to question the overall health of a plant-based lifestyle. And it’s a relevant question – if we can get this essential vitamin from eating animal products, surely that means we’re meant to eat animal products as part of a healthy and complete diet?
However, when you look into it further, Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria, not animals or plants. We only get our dose of B12 from animal sources because farmed animals receive it through eating fortified (supplemented) feed themselves, or being exposed to manure and untreated drinking water. By supplementing yourself, you are only doing this directly rather than through the animal products you consume.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids (in particular DHA)
Omega 3 long-chain fatty acids are essential for heart health, vision and brain function. The most widely known source is oily fish, however you might not know that you can also get Omega 3 from ground flaxseed (stir a tablespoon into your porridge in the morning!), or alternatively by taking a supplement.
Whilst many vegetables are high in calcium, there are components in plants that block how easily it can be absorbed by your body. To get enough calcium, nutritionists recommend low oxolate vegetables, for example kale or bok choy, as well as tofu and fortified plant milks.
Plant-based iron (non-heme iron) is not as readily bioavailable as animal-based heme iron, which once again means it isn’t as easily absorbed by the body. You can get your iron from green leafy vegetables and beans, which are surprisingly better per calorie than meat!
Traditionally found in animal products, you can also get your daily dose of Vitamin D through mushrooms, fortified tofu, milks, fruit juices and breakfast cereals, as well as simple sun exposure. Whether eating animal or plant-based diets, most of us are at risk of being Vitamin D deficient, especially during the darker winter months, so try to get outdoors for even a short amount of time each day, and consider supplementing if necessary.
Zinc and Selenium
Plant-based sources of zinc include beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, and wholemeal grains.
Vegan sources of selenium include mushrooms, lentils, wholemeal breads, pastas and brown rice, as well as cashew nuts.
It is worth stating that despite the risks of nutrient defiencies, the vast majority of the population who rely on ultra-processed foods are damaging their health in far more severe ways. You can minimise your risk of chronic diseases, as well as getting all the nutrients you need, from a considered plant-based diet.
Once you understand that plant-based diets can give you everything you need in terms of nutrition, you get to the real stumbling block for most people which is ultimately behaviour change.
Behaviour change is hard enough at the best of times, but it’s even more difficult when you’re going against the grain of your family, friends, and even society at large.
If you’ve grown up in a meat and dairy-eating household where this behaviour was completely normalised and even celebrated, change may not come naturally. Food is not only woven into our daily routines via mealtimes, but on a cultural level, it is at the heart of so much we hold sacred.
Food is central to many of our traditions and social events; it brings people together and nourishes us on a social level as much as it does physically. As the old saying goes, food really is the way to our hearts. To some, it is arguably the sixth love language.
It helps to talk with your loved ones, especially those sharing a house or mealtimes with you, so that they can better understand your reasons and be as supportive as possible during your transition to a plant-based diet.
Food Prep & Eating Out
This is a two-pronged issue because when food preparation takes longer and eating out is harder, it all boils down to one thing… more time spent in the kitchen!
If you lead a hectic lifestyle, or just don’t want to spend your time cooking at the end of the day, then you may struggle with a diet based around minimally processed foods. From proper planning to ensure you get the right nutrients, to the preparation time needed for unprocessed ingredients, I’ll be upfront with you that going vegan (in a way which doesn’t over-rely on plant-based meats and junk food)… takes dedication, willpower and time.
Arguably, putting this kind of attention and time into our eating habits is one of the highest forms of self-love. I have worked hard to change my attitude towards food shopping, get more creative with different ingredients, and utilise batch cooking to minimise the amount I’m preparing food from scratch each week.
Another point to be aware of is that eating out can still be challenging. Whilst in 2023 it’s rare not to find at least one vegan option on the menu, you miss out on choice and the options can be samey. So when you can’t be bothered to cook, it’s difficult to even take the easy option! As you continue to order vegan dishes off the menu, the positive to take away is that you are driving change and demand going forwards!
And last but by no means least – it may actually be the hardest thing for most people transitioning to a plant-based diet (myself included!) – what if you agree with it all on a theoretical level but you just really don’t feel you can live without meat and dairy?!
When you ask most people why they aren’t vegan, this is what they’ll come back with, above all consideration for their own health, animal welfare or sustainability of the planet. When we enjoy something and it feels good, it’s hard to forgo short-term gratification for long-term gain! I was quite possibly the world’s biggest cheese lover before going vegan, so I completely sympathise with this.
That said, I would honestly choose fresh fruits and vegetables now over chocolate or sweets, because I’ve trained my tastebuds that way. We grow to like what we get used to, so whilst it may take a few months to adjust, a diet based on whole foods will curb your addiction to sugary junk foods, and completely change your taste buds in positive ways.
Long-term alignment with your values is truly more satisfying in the long-run, than short-term sensory pleasure in the moment.
Whether you’re just intrigued about plant-based diets with their recent growing popularity, you’re considering giving Veganuary a go, or you want more information so that you can decide whether to try it out full-time yourself, I hope that this post has given you a useful introduction to the world of whole-food plant-based living.
Overall, I would wholly recommend that you make the transition to a vegan diet. Take it easy with high-fibre foods and slowly increase these in your diet over time. As with any major diet change, do also consult a registered dietician first if you’re unsure or have underlying health conditions to take into consideration.
For practical tips on how to create a weekly meal plan, don’t forget to read my post on minimalist whole-food meal prep here.