What is a plant-based diet?

What is a whole food plant-based diet?

A diet is a way of eating – it is the food and drink that a person regularly consumes. A whole food plant-based diet includes whole – or minimally processed – vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, and seeds. This way of eating also minimises – or completely excludes – products derived from animals (i.e. meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs), as well as refined and processed foods and ingredients, such as added salt, oils, and sugar.

How is a whole food plant-based diet different from a vegan diet?

Although someone may choose to follow a whole food plant-based diet, this does not mean that they identify as being vegan.


Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals. - The Vegan Society


In this same sense, someone that identifies as a vegan may choose not to follow a whole food plant-based eating pattern. Instead, including more refined and/or processed foods and ingredients in their diet.

Why choose a whole food plant-based diet?

Shifting your current eating pattern towards a whole food plant-based diet offers a number of well-studied health benefits. Eating more plant foods has been shown to help in the prevention, management, and even reversal of a range of chronic diseases – including:

  • Cardiovascular (heart) disease – lowering the risk of stoke and heart attack

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Hypertension and high cholesterol

  • Inflammatory conditions

  • Overweight and obesity – promoting healthy long-term weight loss; and

  • Certain cancers – including bowel, breast and prostate.


Following a plant-based diet has also been shown to improve overall health and mental wellbeing.

Appropriately planned plant-based diets are suitable for all stages of life.

Is a whole food plant-based diet nutritional adequate? Will I need to take dietary supplements?

Leading dietetic organisations around the world – including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (USA), Dietitians of Canada, and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, hold the position that appropriately planned plant-based diets are suitable for individuals during all life stages. As long as energy needs are met, and a variety of plant foods are consumed throughout the day, plant-based diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.


In addition to meeting recommended nutrient intake levels, plant-based diets are also rich in protective compounds such as:

  • Dietary fibre – particularly soluble fibre, which acts as a food source for the beneficial bacteria that inhabit your gut, optimising the health of the gut microbiome; and

  • Beneficial phytochemicals – such as flavonoids, isoflavones, indoles, saponins and lycopene.


This way of eating is also free from cholesterol (which is found only in meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs) and is often lower in saturated fat – which has been found to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, elevate LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, and promote inflammation and oxidative stress.

We eat food, not nutrients. Think food first.

Nutritional needs should be met through an appropriately planned, varied diet. As already noted, foods contain a range of beneficial substances in addition to the energy, protein or vitamins and minerals they may provide.


Where it is not possible to meet nutrient needs through the diet – due to a medical condition, increased needs (e.g. during pregnancy or breastfeeding), or absence in the food supply (B12 in plant-based foods) – dietary supplements may be required.


The use of dietary supplements, however, should be based on medical advice (i.e. where deficiency, or an increased risk of deficiency, has been identified by an appropriately trained health professional). They can be expensive and potentially harmful, if taken when not needed.


If you are following an entirely, or mostly, plant-based diet, a vitamin B12 supplement is essential. In general, a daily supplement that contains 100-250 mcg of B12 will ensure adequate intake. A higher-dose supplement can also be used on a less frequent basis (e.g. 1,000 mcg bi- or tri-weekly or 2,500 mcg once a week). If not using iodised salt, you may also need to supplement your diet with iodine.


When planning meals, ensure you are regularly including calcium-, iron- and zinc rich foods, and a regular source of plant-based omega-3 (e.g. flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts).

How do I follow a healthy whole food plant-based diet?

I recommend a whole food plant-based diet that is centred around a variety of minimally-processed plant foods. This includes:

  • Vegetables - various colours and types, both cooked and raw

  • Legumes (e.g. black beans, kidney beans, split peas, lentils, chickpeas) and soy foods (e.g. soy milk, tofu, tempeh)

  • Whole grains and their products (e.g. oats, wholemeal pasta, brown/red/black rice, wholemeal or whole-grain breads, wholegrain cereals, quinoa, polenta, etc.)

  • Fruits; and

  • Nuts and seeds and their products (e.g. nut butter, tahini)


If you are following an entirely, or mostly, plant-based diet, a vitamin B12 supplement is essential. In general, a daily supplement that contains 100-250 mcg of B12 will ensure adequate intake. A higher-dose supplement can also be used on a less frequent basis (e.g. 1000 mcg bi- or tri-weekly or 2500 mcg once a week). If not using iodised salt, you may also need to supplement your diet with iodine.


When planning meals, ensure you are regularly including calcium-, iron- and zinc rich foods, and a regular source of plant-based omega-3 (e.g. flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts).


Definition of veganism. (n.d.). The Vegan Society. Retrieved July 10, 2021, from https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism

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