The most common questions I get in my inbox go like this...
“hey, your food looks so yummy! I am thinking about trying the whole food plant-based thing to lose weight, but I really can’t do it 100%. Are there any benefits to just eating WFPB like 70%?”
“I have been eating WFPB about 75% for 5 months but I can’t seem to lose weight. I might just give up because I don’t see the point anymore. Any advice”
The answer is two-fold. First off, the more unprocessed foods and plant-based foods you eat the more nutrients you are putting into your body, so yes of course eat more plants please, always! But if you are looking at all the research that explains why people like me have been able to reverse or slow disease, it is all based on people getting 95% of their calories from WFPB diets. There is a host of things going on when you eat Whole Food Plant-Based (WFPB) – you are upping your fiber intake, lowering your fat calories, getting proper protein levels, allowing your body to manage its iron levels, showering your cells with nutrients in their natural form, eliminating disruptive animal hormones, removing fat from your cells allowing insulin to work properly… the list goes on.
There are things that physically change when you start eating Whole Food Plant-Based. Many people start feeling hungry between meals when they didn’t before. At the same time, they can’t wrap their mind around how anyone could eat the Daily Dozen – which in fact is only around 1200-1600 calories. This doesn’t add up. They get frustrated and give up. Or they still eat meat, dairy, or processed foods a few times a day to “feel full” What is actually happening here?
Here is where the problem lies. We have a few systems in our body that tell us when we are full. One of the main systems includes stretch receptors in our stomach. You may be familiar with the popular graphics showing what 500 calories of various food types look like in your stomach. This is referred to as “caloric density”. 500 calories of plant-based foods fill a healthy stomach. 500 calories of processed foods sit at the base of the stomach cavity and do not give that “fullness” signal to the brain. So, it would lead you to believe that you will feel fuller eating Whole Food Plant-Based right? What it actually means is that your stomach, which has been eating the Standard American Diet most of its life, is used to never being physically full or only feeling physically full with over 1000 calories. So, when you stuff your stomach with plants for the first 4-6 weeks you likely will feel very full on much fewer calories. This is part of the magic of how people with higher BMIs lose weight effortlessly when eating this way initially. It is almost like a reverse gastric surgery – restricting how much food you can physically consume.
Forks Over Knives Calorie Density Graphic
That is just part of the story though. Our digestive systems are not designed to eat a predominantly animal-based and processed food diet. If you compare the anatomy of a human’s digestive tract to other mammals, ours is in line with a fiber-rich herbivore style digestive system. Herbivores digestive tracts are about 8 times the length of the body, carnivores are much shorter at around 3 times the length of the body. You can look up where a human falls within these categories to get an understanding of why we just are not built to be consuming such high amounts of animal foods (if any). I think we can all agree that there is nothing natural about eating processed foods, so both animal-based foods and processed foods are not optimal for our digestive process.
So, while Standard American Diet foods will not stretch our stomachs "full" receptors, they also completely slow our digestive systems down. This has become so common, that Doctors now convey the idea of “normal” to anyone having one bowel movement a day or even a few a week. They say “whatever is normal for you is your normal” Just because something is normal does that mean it is optimal? No. It simply means you are very similar to the rest of society. Well, guess what else is normal? Heart Disease, diabetes, struggles to maintain a healthy weight, autoimmune diseases, cancer … and so on. We need to recognize that having “normal” digestion is not our goal.
So now your stomach, that can only hold 500 calories of healthy plant foods, also moves those foods through your digestive system effectively. So, you are fuller faster when you eat, but your stomach is empty sooner than you are used to on your old way of eating.
So, what happens when you mix 75% Whole Food Plant-Based with 25% Standard American Diet? You never truly heal your gut; your digestion remains skewed to the “normal” inability to move food through and our stomach cavity gives mixed signals at every meal.
This is especially true if you’re using that 25% of SAD calories for “cheat meals” that are predominantly animal-based, processed foods. We eat around 28 times a week – so if 21 of those times are whole food plant-based, and then you are throwing in 7 meals/snacks of meat, ice-cream, eggs, yogurt, etc your digestive system is going to be confused with these foreign things. Where is the fiber? Why is my stomach not full? Bacteria in your gut that is looking for their fiber will not be happy and you’ll suffer from gas pains. Anyone who has been eating WFPB awhile can tell you stories about what happens when they accidentally have dairy. It is actually painful.
Here is the kicker for weight loss in particular though. If you eating WFPB for a while, your stomach gets used to that full feeling that is signaled to the brain from the stretch receptors. Most people who eat WFPB eat a much larger volume of food than those on the Standard American Diet. So now when you eat a chicken breast or bag of chips, that used to be enough – your stomach is now looking for that “stretch receptor” full feeling and you are physically able to put more processed foods into this WFPB belly of yours. Your digestive system may also be healthy enough now to pull that unhealthy meal out of your stomach faster and you are again sitting feeling hungry 2 hours after consuming 1000 SAD calories.
In contrast, if you are eating Whole Food Plant-based and at every meal and you have 5% or less of calories coming from animal foods or processed foods, it is mixed in with a generous amount of plant nutrients – including large amounts of fiber. For example, if I make my tomato and carrot bisque and have a small slice of whole-grain brain that has 5 ingredients in it – but it happens that the bakery I bought it with glazes the bread with an egg wash – guess what? My digestive system will not be impacted by that. My stomach's ability to signal fullness will not be affected. The small amount of cholesterol and animal proteins present in that egg wash is not going to cause any harm. Dr. Campbell himself talks bout this in his book “The China Study”
I find the key here is not deliberately planning to incorporate animal BASED foods into your diet and expecting a WFPB outcome.
So, my answer to the question, if you want to know if you should eat a semi-Whole Food Plant-Based diet? The answer is there is really no such thing! That would be referred to as Flexitarian. This is a great option for many people wanting to change up their eating habits - but just don’t build up your Flexitarian expectations from Whole Food Plant-Based research. I know the root of the questions I get stems from people looking for someone to give them permission to try the plant-based thing a different way – which I fully support! My only concern is I do see people give up because they had these high expectations going into a flexitarian style of eating. They get frustrated when they don’t see results and blame it on WFPB.
For myself, I am glad I jumped in at around 90% (100% vegan and 10% processed plant foods) because I very quickly could analyze the results for myself and make a long-term decision about sticking to this way of eating. It has been a constant curation of food since getting to the 95% Whole Food Plant-Based and it has been so worth it! My advice will always be been “try it for a month, all in, and let me know! Be your own proof of concept!”
I always love chatting with anyone considering a Plant Based diet so inbox me anytime here, on Facebook or Instagram. Even if you have this same common question! I can point you to resources and help you find the right way of eating for your goals.