The 3 Food Groups

As you can probably imagine, I’m often answering questions about what to eat. A whole food plant-based way of eating focuses initially on thinking of foods as belonging to just three groups. This makes it pretty simple to start out with. To make it optimal and get your best results, and sometimes also to make your change more fun and sustainable, there’s a few distinctions between various items that fit into the groups (and we’ll talk about those some other time), but for the most part:

Animal foods

Processed plant foods

Whole plant foods

The first is the easiest. It includes all foods of animal origin, whether those be free-range, organic, corn-fed, cage-free, ‘sustainably farmed’ or otherwise. So that’s meat, eggs, dairy, poultry, fish, shellfish, and seafood. Obviously a plant-based way of eating does not include these foods.

There are too many reasons for this really to go into huge amounts of detail as to why. But to understand that these do not promote health, and also seem to contain elements that we know are detrimental to health is a good start. Whether it’s because of the high energy density, cholesterol, high fat content, saturated fat, animal protein, absence of fibre, lack of antioxidants, inflammatory properties, antibiotic residues, heavy metal contamination, or biomagnification of pesticide residues for example is not so important from a practical perspective. Note that almost all of these concerns would still be an issue whatever type of animal product we’re considering, and whether or not the animal was raised organically, even if it were particularly effective in reducing pesticide residues,.

Yes, it’s possible that there are some animal foods that are ‘healthier’ than others, but this is splitting hairs. Remember that the healthiest and longest living peoples in the world generally make animal products such a very tiny and infrequent part of their diets as to be virtually non-existent, and that our closest non-human ancestors the chimps and bonobos have about 3% of their diet from animal sources.

Add on top of the health concerns the issues relating to animal welfare and the extraordinarily large contribution the animal agriculture industry is making to global warming, and this group just isn’t worth messing with.

Let’s move on to our second category. Essentially everything we eat nowadays is processed to some extent, but the best way to think about this is how different the food is now from how it would have been found in nature. Is it looking anything like what you would have found growing on a tree or a bush, or in the ground? The more certain you are that the answer is ‘no’, the more likely the food or the ‘food’ is to be a processed plant food. At the far end of the spectrum we have oils and sugar, which are as highly processed as it gets. They are joined in this category by the more highly processed grains including white rice and white flour. Stuff like meat-substitutes, tofu, and plant-based milks also count as processed plant foods.

A whole food plant-based way of eating aims to limit and minimise these processed plant foods, especially oils and sugar. So this doesn’t necessarily mean ‘never’, and there are some pre-made minimally processed products that are major time savers – especially when you are transitioning to eating like this, these can be lifesavers. As a general rule you’re still doing yourself and the environment a favour if you are replacing your animal products with processed plant foods, so if you find you’re relying on these a bit at first no worries. What are the issues with these foods? They’re high in energy and lower in nutrients and other good stuff so they won’t have you looking and feeling your best. A large part of the problem’s the sheer quantity of them in most people’s diet, with over 60% on average coming from processed plant foods.

Finally, the ‘good stuff’, that’s your whole plant foods. The majority of these (with the exception of the ‘high fat’ plant foods: nuts and seeds, avocado, and coconut) can and should be eaten as often as you feel like: vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. These are the most minimally processed foods available and what you should base your diet upon. Currently most people get less than 12% of what they are eating from this category. But of course whole plant foods make up the majority of what people in the longest living and healthiest places eat, and almost all of what our non-human ancestors eat. So it’s small wonder really that increasing how much of these things you’re getting is the best thing we can do for how we look and feel.

Next time I write about this we can look more closely at each of the categories and introduce a ‘traffic light’ system for working out exactly what kinds of foods are going to get us the best results. But just keeping these three food groups in mind you’re already most of the way there!

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