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Foods with benefits

Wholefoods may just save your life, and at the very least, they will deliver a host of health benefits. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

Article first published in Nourish Magazine.

There are many ways to approach a plant-based diet, but from a medical perspective, the gold standard is wholefood plant-based nutrition, often simply called WFPB. This eating pattern includes an abundance of fruits, vegetables, intact wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices while excluding all animal products, including red and white meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. It eliminates fast foods, fried foods, refined and processed foods (including refined flour, oil, and refined sugars), and highly processed foods like chips, lollies, and chocolate – even if they are vegan. Salt, caffeine, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners are also avoided.

We might think of this way of eating as a nutrition prescription for wellness. The evidence-backed benefits of WFPB nutrition include:

  • Reduced overall mortality (dying from any cause)
  • Lower risk for many types of cancer
  • Lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus
  • Significantly less cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks or strokes
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Healthier body weight.

We might think of this way of eating as a nutrition prescription for wellness.

For those struggling with diet-related chronic disease, switching to a WFPB pattern of eating can often significantly improve, or even reverse the disease process. In fact, a report prepared by the EAT-Lancet Commission, consisting of 37 world-leading scientists, suggested shifting to a plant-based diet could save 11 million lives per year. It’s the number one eating pattern with the potential to save lives!

Tomatoes and greens

Cut the calorie counting

Calorie counting and weighing or measuring foods is unnecessary for health, however, if you are transitioning from a refined, calorie-dense standard Western diet to a WFPB nutritional pattern, understanding calorie density in order to thrive is important.

Typically the majority of foods eaten on a WFPB nutritional plan are lower in calorie density, which simply means that larger portions need to be eaten to make up the same amount of calories. For example, one tablespoon of oil (high calorie density) contains 120 calories, whereas you’d need to eat four cups of broccoli (low calorie density) to consume the same calories. Likewise, 85 grams of steak has the same calories as an entire cup of lentils.

As a very general guide, when looking at your average day of eating on a plate, fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits and the other half with whole grains, starchy vegetables (such as potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, and peas), and legumes (such as lentils, beans, and chickpeas). Nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices can be used in smaller quantities for additional flavour and texture.

Switching from more refined and calorie-dense foods to whole plant foods often leads to effortless and hunger-free weight loss. However, if you feel more tired, hungry, or potentially start losing weight you don’t want to, it can be helpful to increase portions of healthy, more calorie-dense plant foods, such as legumes, wholegrains, nuts, and seeds.

Smart switches

Let’s consider the healthiest plant-based alternatives for a few common items you’ll be looking to replace.


Choose a plant milk with minimal ingredients, ideally containing just the main ingredient and water, free from added sugars, oils, additives, preservatives, or synthetic vitamins and minerals.

Oat milk


Blitzing nuts, seeds, or even oats can substitute for parmesan, especially if you add in some herbs and spices. Nut and seed butters, such as cashew or sunflower, can substitute for soft cheeses in recipes when thinned out with water. Just remember, nuts and seeds are high in fat, so be mindful of portion sizes. Homemade hummus, blended beans, and sauces made with potato, carrot, pumpkin, or cauliflower can also make delicious cheese-like sauces.


Try frozen banana, mango, and other fruit blends to make a sweet dairy-free dessert.


Some vegetables and fungi can provide the chewy, meat-like texture many people are used to – mushrooms are a great example, especially shredded oyster or king oyster. Beans and other legumes work well to provide the ‘filling-factor’ that meat often contributes to meals. This works perfectly for many family favourites, including bolognese, tacos, and burger patties. Grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and oats can also be a substitute for minced meat.


Artichoke hearts, jackfruit, and banana blossom can provide the ‘flaky’ texture in seafood dishes, while adding a small amount of dried celery, seaweed, lemon, or dill can give the right flavour boost.

Nutrient know-how

You might have questions or even preconceptions about meeting your nutritional needs when switching to a WFPB nutritional pattern. The reality is, calorie for calorie, those eating animal-free diets typically get higher intakes of nearly every nutrient – fibre; vitamins A, C, E, and B; folate; potassium; and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron.

Calorie for calorie, those eating animal-free diets typically get higher intakes of nearly every nutrient.

WFPB eating also comes with dramatically less sodium and saturated fat, and no dietary cholesterol. A well-designed plant-based nutritional plan is appropriate for all ages and all stages including children, athletes, the elderly, and during pregnancy. Despite this, common myths remain. Let’s debunk a few.


Protein is the number one nutrient of concern for many, and typically of the least concern for medical professionals skilled in WFPB nutrition. Plant-based dietary patterns, especially wholefood plant-based dietary patterns, easily contain more than sufficient protein, and also come packed with other health-promoting nutrients. For example, one cup of cooked lentils comes with 22 grams of protein, 2 milligrams of iron, and 18 grams of fibre. On the other hand, a 100 gram serve of beef has a similar amount of protein and iron, zero fibre, and also comes with 12 grams of saturated fat.

The common myth that plant foods need to be combined or complemented to meet protein and amino acid requirements has been long disproven. We can easily meet the requirements needed for optimal health without considering percentages or types of amino acids, protein quality, availability, or digestibility. If you are eating enough calories, you’ll mostly likely get all the protein you need, and well above the recommended daily requirement.


While iron deficiency and anemia can be a real medical concern, there is no evidence that plant-based nutritional patterns increase the risk for iron deficiency, anemia, or iron store depletion. In fact, many people consuming omnivorous diets still get much of their dietary iron from non-heme iron (or plant-derived iron sources). Too much iron, especially too much heme iron (from animal flesh), actually translates to an increased cancer risk, so the optimal goal is adequate iron, not excess.

Guidelines suggest men and postmenopausal women require approximately 8 milligrams of iron per day, menstruating women require approximately 18 milligrams per day, and pregnant women have the highest requirements at around 27 milligrams per day. To put this in context, a breakfast of one cup of oats, lunch of a baked potato topped with one cup of beans and with leafy greens, dinner of a lentil and kale soup, and a snack of a half cup of raisins and nuts would provide over 30 milligrams of iron. To optimise absorption, consume iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C, such as citrus, strawberries, capsicums, or tomatoes.


Dairy consumption is not associated with stronger bones, despite the high levels of calcium it contains. Only about 30 percent of the calcium listed on the label for cows’ milk will actually be absorbed and used by our bodies, compared to 50 percent of the calcium in a plant food like bok choy.

The recommended daily intake for calcium in most Western countries is 1,000 to 1,300 milligrams per day. However, the World Health Organization recommends a much lower intake of 400 to 500 milligrams, noting that calcium needs increase with increased intakes of animal protein and sodium. Therefore, calcium recommendations in Australia are likely excessive for those enjoying a healthy wholefood plant-based diet. Regardless, there are plenty of nutritious plant sources of calcium to ensure sufficient intake – oranges, almonds, beans, greens, tahini, and chia seeds.


What about supplements?

Besides vitamin B12, there are no specific supplements necessary for those following a WFPB nutritional pattern beyond those recommended for the general population. However, standard nutrients of consideration (such as iron and vitamin D) should be tested and included via supplementation if they cannot be gained through diet and lifestyle alone.

Supplementation with Vitamin B12 (also known as cobalamin) is recommended for people following a plant-based diet. It is required for normal blood function and neurological health, and deficiency can be serious. B12 deficiency is relatively common in the general population, and not just in those following plant-based nutritional patterns. Fortunately, we can all safely maintain adequate B12 levels by supplementing and having our levels checked annually by an MMA blood or urine test (as opposed to a serum vitamin B12 blood test).

Nutritional needs can vary throughout our lifespan, such as during childhood, pregnancy, or later in life. It is always best to discuss nutritional needs and supplementation recommendations with your healthcare provider, regardless of your dietary habits. WFPB nutrition is a simple way of eating that can certainly be delicious and will definitely deliver health benefits. Over time you will be happy to skip the processed foods and head straight for the fresh produce. Give it a try and feel the difference!

This article is republished with permission from

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