Eating Whole Food, Plant-Based for Weight Loss: 5 Tips For Choosing Foods
A lot of people I encounter seem interested in a whole food, plant-based diet because they see what it has done for me, but they're not entirely sure how it works and what to eat. I’ve put together some tips for reading food labels based on how I’ve been eating for the last 6 months. The first step in switching to a whole food, plant-based diet is knowing what to eat, and what to avoid eating. Here are some of the benefits I’ve experienced by going WFPB:
- lost nearly 70 pounds
- reversed type 2 diabetes
- significantly lowered my blood pressure
- put an end to my chronic heartburn
- put an end to my chronic migraines
- no longer suffer from gout
It’s been about 6 months, but most of those changes began within a few short weeks. As a result… I look better, and I feel great! I’ve gone from a size 44 pants to a size 36! I’ve got more energy, I sleep better, and my quality of life has skyrocketed!
Here’s how I got where I am:
Tip #1: Avoid Food with Labels
As much as possible, I avoid eating foods with labels. I prioritize fresh produce, fresh fruit, whole grains, beans, and greens.
My refrigerator is stuffed with a variety of colorful produce: green kale, red peppers, yellow lemons, orange carrots… to name a few. My pantry contains a wide variety of dried beans, whole grains, potatoes, nuts, and seeds. These foods make up the majority of what I eat.
Salad is a staple for me. I like to make my own, but for convenience, I’ll often buy bagged salads. Each bag is typically a meal, or at least most of a meal. I usually add some nuts, beans, and/or seeds, as well as whatever produce I may have on hand that I need to eat. As far as dressings go, I make my own from whole ingredients, or I’ll use flavored vinegars. I’ll be honest, eating salad as a meal wasn’t easy in the beginning, but after the first three weeks, my tastes began to significantly change. Now I crave salad.
Tip #2: Read the List of Ingredients
When I do buy prepackaged foods, I scrutinize the ingredient list. As a general rule of thumb, fewer ingredients = better for you. There are certain ingredients I avoid altogether. These are:
- Non-whole foods
- Animal Products
- Added sugar
- Added salt
What are “Non-Whole Foods”
Non-whole foods are refined foods. Flour (seen on labels as “flour”, or sometimes “wheat flour”), for instance, as opposed to whole wheat flour, is a refined food. Wheat flour is made from wheat berries. Whole wheat flour contains all three parts of the wheat berry: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. White flour, on the other hand, is produced solely from the endosperm, which is mostly starch. White flour, therefore, is not a whole food.
Why is this important? Humans evolved eating whole grains. When we strip the germ and the bran away we’re modifying nature’s delivery system for the starch contained in grains. Nature pre-packages our food for us, and the packaging is edible! Wheat germ is loaded with nutrients. It’s got vitamins and fiber. The bran has dietary fiber and essential fatty acids. Fiber is your friend, and most American’s don’t eat enough of it. The starch in white flour, delivered to your body without the fiber in the germ and bran, is too easily absorbed by your digestive system and causes spikes in blood sugar. Over time, these spikes may lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Juice Is Not A Whole Food
Fruit juice is another example of a non-whole food. This may sound blasphemous, but juice is not all that healthy. I would suggest smoothies instead. While I may use a little bit of juice here and there in recipes, I do not drink fruit juice. Again, like white flour, juice delivers the sugars in fruit to your digestive system without the fiber and nutrients contained in the original delivery system that nature provided: the whole fruit. Drinking juice isn’t much different than drinking soda.
What’s Wrong With Oil?
While it’s true that many oils are plant-based, oils are not a whole food. Much like white flour is a food modified by removing part of its natural delivery system, so is oil. When you consume oils, you’re putting concentrated fat into your system without the fiber, nutrients, and phytonutrients found in the whole food. Fat has 9 calories per gram. That means just a little bit of a fatty food has a lot of calories. In addition, and of particular concern to me, fat causes glucose intolerance and raises blood sugar levels. It appears that saturated fats are the main culprit here, but I limit intake of all fats because weight loss has been my primary goal.
Why I Avoid Animal Products
Animal products are not healthy for a whole host of reasons that could (and probably will) be the subject of an entire post. The main reasons I avoid animal products are that they cause chronic inflammation, promote inflammatory diseases, are inextricably linked to an increased risk of cancer, and are generally high in cholesterol and saturated fat.
There’s a long list of animal products found in pre-packaged food. There are the obvious ones, like eggs and milk, and the not-so-obvious ones, like whey, casein, and gelatin. With a quick internet search, you can find lots of lists of animal ingredients to avoid. This one is pretty good.
Tip 3: Fiber and the Five to One Rule
There’s a simple, easy-to-remember rule of thumb I try to adhere to when it comes to food labels and carbohydrates. Look for a 5:1 ratio, or less, of total carbohydrates to dietary fiber. Dr. Greger, of nutritionfacts.org (bookmark this site!), explains in this video. For an example of the 5:1 rule, take a look at the following food label:
This food has 18g of total carbohydrates and 6g of dietary fiber. 18 divided by 6 is 3. So the ratio of total carbohydrates to dietary fiber is 3:1. That’s better than 5:1. This food passes the test. How about this one:
This food has 37g of total carbohydrates and only 4g of dietary fiber. 37 divided by 4 is 9.25. So that’s a ratio of 9.25:1, much higher than 5:1. Check the label for added sugars and avoid this food.
Tip #4: Limit Sodium
I try to limit my sodium intake to the sodium found naturally in food. Evidence shows that consuming excessive amounts of sodium causes high blood pressure. I also believe that it numbs our sense of taste. Cutting out all the processed foods that are loaded with salt has had a dramatic effect on my taste buds. Once I got accustomed to the lower sodium levels, food didn't have to be heavily salted to taste good anymore. I actually prefer lower sodium foods now, and I'm very sensitive to heavily salted foods… they don't taste good to me anymore. When reading food nutrition labels I look for a ratio of 1:1, or less, of milligrams sodium to total calories. If a food has 100 calories per serving, for example, it should have 100mg, or less, of sodium. It's that simple.
To be completely honest, limiting sodium is what I struggled with the most, and it continues to be something I “cheat” on from time to time. When I decided to change my diet, I went cold-turkey on everything I used to eat… except for salt. I cut out all animal products, all refined foods, all oils… but I struggled with salt. I love hot sauce, olives, pickles, soy sauce… all loaded with salt. Just eliminating all the fast-food and processed foods I was eating significantly lowered my daily sodium intake, and over time, I feel like I’ve naturally gravitated towards less and less salt. Olives? They don’t taste good to me anymore. I’ve got a jar in the fridge that’s been there for months. Pickles? Same thing. I like them, but only occasionally.
Tip #5: Limit Fat
As I mentioned before, if you’re trying to lose weight, or dealing with type 2 diabetes, limiting fat (especially saturated fat) is important. Fat is calorie-dense, and it’s very easy to consume a lot of calories when eating fatty foods. When choosing pre-packaged foods, I look for those that provide 15%, or less, of their calories from fat. To calculate, divide the calories from fat on the nutrition label by the total calories and multiply by 100. In the example below the nutrition label shows 30 calories from fat, and a total of 100 calories per serving. 30 divided by 100 is 0.3. 0.3 times 100 is 30. So this food delivers 30% of its calories as fat.
Tip #6: Zero Cholesterol
Cholesterol is only found in animal products, and it’s wise to avoid those. If the nutrition labels shows any amount of cholesterol, avoid that food.
WFPB for Life
I’m not on a diet. Whole food, plant-based is how I eat, and I plan on sustaining this lifestyle permanently. The problem with traditional, calorie restriction diets is that they end at some point. If you are able to lose weight, you inevitably put it back on after the diet ends. To enjoy lasting health we need a sustainable lifestyle change. We need to rethink our relationships with food and take a good look at the evidence which overwhelmingly supports adoption of a whole food, plant-based diet.
It took a little while, but my attitude has adjusted to my new eating habits. For the first few weeks I was hung up on all the foods I was giving up. Eventually, I realized that I didn’t really give anything up, I’ve actually added. I changed what I considered to be food, and it’s opened up a whole new world of culinary possibilities for me. There are a lot of WFPB options, and a wide variety of foods to try. There’s an endless supply of recipes on the internet and social media. At this point, I’ve probably tried hundreds of them, and I’m not even scratching the surface. They’re not all keepers, of course, but I’ve got quite a few that have made the normal rotation, and I’m trying new ones all the time. I have a new-found love for food! And instead of feeling bloated and guilty after a meal, I feel great! And the weight keeps coming off!