The WFPB (whole food, plant-based) diet is a lifestyle with numerous health benefits. Here's a break down of common plant-based diets you may have heard of.
Recently, I commented on social media about the health benefits of a WFPB diet. Someone chimed in, ‘What the heck is WFPB?!’ I spend so much time writing about this topic, I apparently forgot that this acronym is not well known or understood outside of the plant-based community.
Back in the day, there were vegetarians and vegans, and that was about the extent of it. But now, there are so many terms floating around out there to describe plant-based eating, I thought I’d break it down. (I won’t go into vegetarianism here; there are plenty of other resources that explain it.)
‘WFPB’ is the acronym for whole food, plant-based.
A ‘WFPB’—or whole food, plant-based—diet is one that promotes the healthful consumption of whole plant foods. These include fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and spices. It excludes animal products and refined or highly processed ingredients. And it recommends only occasional consumption of certain minimally processed, high sugar and high fat foods. Tofu, breads, pastas, nuts, avocados, coconut, dried fruits are avoided or eaten in moderation.
Most people who follow this diet consider it a lifestyle rather than an extreme way of eating to stick to for a short period of time. For example, while you’re likely to lose excess weight, it’s not a fad diet intended solely for weight loss. WFPB eating is a healthy lifestyle that can help you sustain good health, which includes a healthy weight. See the difference?
A WFPB diet also isn’t overly concerned with individual nutrients. This is because since eating foods in their whole (unprocessed) state is key to accessing their nutritional benefits. The healthiest versions of this diet recommend about 10% of calories coming from fat and 10% from protein, with the rest coming primarily from complex carbohydrates.
The health benefits of WFPB eating are substantial. They include the prevention—and often the reversal—of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye, and brain diseases, among others.
For an excellent, detailed explanation of what to eat, avoid and eliminate on a WFPB diet, check out this diet guide by the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.
Okay, so what’s WFPBNO then?
A truly healthy WFPB diet excludes oil. To make it crystal clear that all oil should be avoided in a WFPB diet, there’s a second acronym, ‘WFPBNO.’ This is shorthand for whole food, plant-based, no oil. This includes even those supposedly ‘heart healthy’ oils like olive oil and oils used in for cooking or baking. It also includes those oils you might not realize are present in prepared foods such as breads, tortillas, granola bars, sauces, condiments, and so on.
I personally do my best to follow a WFPBNO diet. Trust me, it’s not always easy to find oil-free prepared foods or to avoid oil when eating out. Oil is a refined product that’s damaging to the endothelial lining of our arteries, which can lead to cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke), diabetes and some types of dementia. So it’s well worth avoiding.
The idea that certain oils like olive oil or coconut oil are good for you is a myth. While it is true that these oils may be less damaging, claims like ‘heart healthy’ are misleading because no oil is healthy for your heart.
All oils are damaging, period.
If you follow at WFPB diet, are you vegan?
Maybe, but not necessarily. By the strictest definition of veganism (some would say the only accurate definition), you eliminate animal products from your diet and from your life. This includes leather, fur, wool, cosmetics and personal care products containing animal products (or tested on animals), wine and other alcoholic beverages processed with animal products, and so on. There is some debate in the vegan community about honey, but by the strictest definition, vegans don’t eat honey or use products that contain beeswax.
There appears to be a growing number of people who call themselves vegan, who avoid eating all animal products but don’t completely avoid them in other areas of their lives. This is controversial in the vegan community, but this diet-only—or even diet-mostly definition—seems to be to gaining momentum. More and more people, especially millennials, refer to themselves as vegan while still occasionally using, or even consuming, animal products.
If you follow a vegan diet, are you WFPB?
Again maybe, but not necessarily. Vegans don’t consume animal products. But there are no restrictions on refined foods, foods high in sugar or fat or highly processed foods. Coke and potato chips are vegan!
While a vegan diet is not necessarily a healthy diet, research shows that even a junk-filled vegan diet is still likely healthier than a diet centered around animal products.
For example, some of the new vegan meat substitutes like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat products may taste a lot like the real thing. But they’re too high in saturated fat to be part of a healthy WFPB diet. Yet even vegan foods like these don’t contain the cancer causing agents found in meat, eggs or dairy. Nor do they contain cholesterol, since cholesterol is only found in animal products.
Many who choose veganism report doing so out of a concern for the wellbeing of animals, followed closely by concerns about the substantial, negative impact of animal agriculture on the sustainability of the planet. The primary driver for people pursuing a whole food, plant-based diet seems to be health. However, there’s significant overlap among these groups in their values and choices. I initially adopted a WFPB diet for health reasons for example. But I’ve come to fully embrace and advocate for this lifestyle for it’s substantial benefits to both animals and the planet as well.
What about ‘plant-based’?
Plant-based is a term coined by T. Colin Campbell (referenced above) to describe a WFPB diet. For the most part, when people talk about a plant-based diet, they’re talking about a diet that excludes animal products.
But again, terms have a way of evolving. I’m seeing more instances where individuals and online communities have co-opted the term ‘plant-based,’ where a term like ‘plant-centered’ (or ‘plant-forward’?) might be more accurate. These people eat some eggs, dairy, and meat, but say that they center their diets more or less around plants.
To be accurate, a true plant-based diet is a plants-only diet.
How about those flexitarians?
Flexitarian is another term being used to describe people who appreciate the benefits—either for their health, the sustainability of the planet or the sake of animals—of a diet that includes more plant foods and fewer animal foods. But advocates of a flexitarian diet apparently find the elimination of all animal-based foods from their diets too restrictive. So this group continues to include them in their diets to some degree.
There’s a wide range of plant vs. animal product consumption among flexitarians. On one end of the spectrum, people eat a diet that’s almost exclusively plant-based. On the other end, eating plant-based meals from time to time or observing ‘meatless Mondays’ is common. This dietary point of view appears to be gaining popularity—probably because it’s so flexible.
Let’s not forget transitioning!
Yet another term you hear around plant-based eating is transitioning. These folks report having an ultimate goal of veganism or eating WFPB for example, but aren’t 100% there yet. There are several social media support groups dedicated to these individuals, many of whom are looking for guidance to switch up their diets.
A WFBP diet sounds pretty good. Now what?
To learn more about the whole food plant-based lifestyle, its benefits, and the science behind it, I highly recommend getting started with these two reads: The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger.
The China Study is a powerful resource for understanding the dynamics of nutrition in society. It also covers why there’s so much misinformation and confusion surrounding the topic—much of it intentional, unfortunately .
Dr. Greger’s book, How Not to Die, offers a deep-dive into specific chronic diseases associated with the Standard American Diet, and how these diseases can be prevented or reversed with a WFPB diet. Dr. Greger also shares the latest nutritional research on his not-for-profit website, NutritionFacts.org.
And of course, if you’re looking for utterly delicious WFPBNO recipes, you can subscribe to Healthy Midwestern Girl. You’ll get recipes delivered directly to your email inbox as fast as I can create them! And I’m always here to answer your plant-based diet questions.
Eat well. Be well.
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