Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet Guide

Are you curious about a whole food, plant-based diet?
The T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies is here to help you get started

So you’ve heard about the benefits of a plant-based diet. Perhaps you’ve seen one of the compelling documentaries out there or read one of the compelling books. More likely than not, you’ve known someone who has done well by their own health by improving their nutrition. And now you want to learn how you too can be healthier by eating a more whole food, plant-based diet?

Upfront, we need to tell you that you shouldn’t dramatically change your diet without consulting your physician, particularly if you are on medication or have significant medical issues. Changing your nutrition can change your body so quickly that some medication (particularly diabetes medications) needs to be monitored and adjusted within a short period of time. Be smart about changing your diet and seek professional consultation for whatever your personal situation may be!

What Do I Eat?

It’s pretty simple: whole, unrefined plants.
That’s it. But let’s break it down into what can and can’t be on your plate.

Food Guide

Non-starchy Vegetables
Leafy greens, broccoli, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, etc…
Starchy vegetables
Potatoes (all kinds – sweet potatoes are best), legumes (all kinds of beans and lentils), whole corn, root vegetables, quinoa
All whole fruits, as found in nature (not dried, juiced, etc…)
Whole Grains
100% whole wheat, oats, brown rice, etc… *
Water, unsweetened plant “milks,” decaffeinated coffee and tea, green tea
All spices
Omega 3 sources
Chia seeds, ground flax seed
* Choose whole, cooked grains and pastas rather than bread or crackers for weight loss
Fish, poultry, seafood, red meat, processed meat
Yogurt, milk, cheese, half and half, cream, buttermilk
Added fats
Liquid oils, coconut oil, margarine, butter
Vegan replacement foods
Vegan “cheese” and “meats” containing any oil
Refined flours
All wheat flours that are not 100% whole wheat
Predominantly “added sugar” foods
Candy bars, many types of snack/energy bars, cookies, cakes, pastries
Soda, fruit juice (even 100% pure fruit juice), sports drinks, energy drinks, blended coffee and tea drinks (Frappuccino, chai tea, and similar sweetened drinks)
Peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts
Seeds (except omega-3 sources)
Sesame, sunflower, pumpkin
Dried fruit
Added sweeteners
Maple syrup, fruit juice concentrate, added sugars (including natural sugars)
Caffeinated coffee and tea
Occasional alcoholic beverage
Refined soy protein and wheat protein
Soy protein isolate, seitan (wheat gluten protein), tofu

The good news: you can eat when you’re hungry and eat until you’re full. Let us repeat that in a different way: there’s no portion control, calorie counting or carb counting. Simply choose from the right food categories, and you can eat until you’re full. Now are there going to be exceptions and tweaks to this rule? Of course there are exceptions and tweaks to everything for particular individuals.

A Sparingly Category? Can I Eat These Foods?

Many of the foods in the “sparingly” list are healthy foods. Lots of evidence suggests nuts are healthy, for example, and avocados and seeds have many valuable nutrients. But there’s a unique circumstance with people used to the standard American diet who suddenly are trying to avoid added fats, cheeses, and rich cuts of meat. They still crave rich, fatty meals, and if they realize they can put a ½ cup of cashews in every meal, or a ½ of an avocado on everything, then they can “follow the rules” and still love the taste of their food. And guess what? They won’t lose as much weight as they want or necessarily get the maximal benefit. We want you to change your tastes and change your habits to change your health forever. Get used to - and then enjoy - meals that aren’t loaded with fat and now you’re getting somewhere.

Coffee… well, that’s a different topic. Let’s just say that if you drink coffee, approved additions include unsweetened plant milks. Don’t add dairy or added sweeteners or artificial sweeteners and flavors.

If you want to lose maximal weight, consider abstaining from these ‘maybe foods’ until you’re at a healthier weight. If you are at a low weight and want to put on weight, by all means, add lots of nuts, natural nut butters, seeds, and avocado to your diet to minimize weight loss!

If you have a strong craving for sugar that smells a bit like an addiction, and LOTS of people fall into this category, then sometimes it’s easier to avoid added sweeteners than to keep it around you and dabble now and then. And don’t be fooled. Sugar is sugar is sugar is sugar. Whether it is agave syrup, maple syrup, honey, table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or organic, free trade, sustainably-farmed, ancient grain, brown rice syrup - it’s ALL sugar. It’s all basically just glucose and fructose.

Do I Need to Drastically Change How I Grocery Shop?

Well, you may need to go to the “natural,” or “health” section of the grocery store for a few items. But a lot of the products in the “health” section of a supermarket are mostly processed junk marketed as trendy superfoods. You don’t need those things. Processed, vegan, organic, frozen waffles are way more expensive than the typical frozen waffle, but they probably aren’t that much healthier. Skip both, buy some oatmeal, and save a gob of money.

Check out our Plant-Based Shopping Guide

Grocery Store Walk Through With Dr. Tom Campbell

Grocery Store Walk Through

Excerpt from the Plant Based Nutrition Certificate

Cooking Resources

Whole Foods, Plant-Based Diet Sample Menu

Looking for a plant-based sample menu? The Center for Nutrition Studies has put together some tasty recipes for you to explore on our website.

Easy Plant-Based Meal Prep for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Only after diagnosis did I begin learning how certain foods can help prevent, fight, and even reverse various cancers. Beyond Cancer introduces the reader to the whats, whys, and hows of plant-based eating.

Plant-Based Food Tips: Healthy Recipe Substitutions

Not sure how to take eggs, meat or dairy out of recipes to make them healthier? There are plenty of delicious plant-based options.

Plant-Based Diet in a Hurry: Time-Saving Tips & Tricks

These easy cooking tips will save you time and enrich your plant-based diet.

What About Eating Out?

Dining out while eating plant-based can be wholesome and enjoyable. While many restaurants now offer vegan options, it’s important to choose whole food, plant-based options (minimize oil and processed foods). Realize that the more you go out, the worse you’ll do. There’s no sugarcoating that fact. But when you do go out, you can make much healthier choices. Here’s some suggestions:

Prepare Ahead
  • Check the restaurant menu online before you arrive
  • Identify the dishes that are most likely to be low-fat and full of vegetables
  • Look for steamed, baked, and grilled choices
  • Avoid dishes described as crispy, fried, rich, and creamy
Ask for What You Want and Need
  • Don’t be shy about asking for a different side dish or salad dressing on the side
  • Ask to leave off cheese or other sauces
  • Ask for whole wheat bread instead of white bread
  • Ask for brown rice instead of white rice
  • Ask for oil-free meals (it is not always possible but sometimes they accommodate)

Restaurant Guide

Veggie Bowl or Veggie Salad
Order either choice with Cilantro-Lime Brown Rice and plenty of beans, veggies, and salsa of your choice.
Steamed vegetable dumplings Steamed vegetables of your choice with or without steamed tofu
Specify steamed tofu when ordering tofu. Order with sauce on the side and brown rice instead of white rice if available. Use sauces sparingly. Noodle dishes are often very oily and refined, order vegetable dishes instead.
Seaweed Salad
Steamed Vegetable Gyoza (dumplings)
Miso or Vegetable Yasai Zosui Soup
Vegetable Sushi Meal or individual vegetable rolls of your choice.
Order soups vegetarian style. Ask that sushi not include fried (tempura vegetables or tofu skins) or egg fillings.
Veggie Burrito Bowl or Veggie Salad
Order either choice Streaker (no tortilla or shell) with beans, rice, veggies, and salsa. Ask to not to have tortilla chips.
Pecans Steel Cut Oatmeal with Blueberries & Granola
Ask for sweetened oatmeal toppings on the side and no granola (quinoa, fruit, and nut toppings are ok). Add honey and cinnamon crunch sparingly to taste. Vegetarian sandwiches and soups at Panera are extremely high sodium, don’t eat these on a regular basis or at all if you are watching your sodium.
Veggie Delite
Order your sub on 9-Grain Wheat or 9-Grain Honey Oat. Gluten-free is also available at some franchises. Top with plenty of veggies of your choice. Choose a fat-free sauce: Mustard, Vinegar, or Sweet Onion.
Classic Whole-Grain Oatmeal
Hearty Blueberry Whole-Grain Oatmeal
Order drinks with soymilk and no syrups (regular or sugar-free). Many drinks have a surprising number of calories – check online.
Plain Baked Potato
Baked potatoes and malt vinegar (many restaurants, especially diners)
Make your own oil-free salad dressing: Ask for balsamic vinegar or lemon juice, mustard, and honey or real maple syrup; combine to taste or use 3-2-1 ratio, or just use balsamic vinegar Bring your own mini bottle of flavored balsamic vinegar At nicer, independent establishments, call ahead for a vegan, oil-free meal. Many chefs are more than happy to create a meal.

Launch a New Lifestyle and Live a Whole Life

You now have enough information to think about starting a whole food, plant-based diet. Realize that this effort you’re making is a marathon, not a sprint. If you are one of the majority of Americans with chronic health problems, you certainly didn’t get yourself into poor health overnight. It can take a good long while to untangle yourself from the habits and patterns you’ve had your whole life. We do suggest that you make the biggest improvements in your nutrition as quickly as you possibly can, because you won’t really change your habits until you change the rules. Take into account the inevitable bumps and hurdles along the way. However, as you find foods you like, and you’ve found the efficiencies of new habits in shopping and cooking, this will just be a new lifestyle. The sense of deprivation rapidly melts away and the sense of enjoyment rapidly increases. And if you have health problems, you may find that some of them improve as you improve your nutrition, and that can be a wonderful reinforcement.

Good luck on your whole food, plant-based journey.


Is eating a whole food, plant-based diet more expensive?
Plant-Based Food Guide: How to Eat Well on a Budget

What about Vitamin B12?
12 Questions Answered Regarding Vitamin B12

What about Vitamin D?
Shining a Light on Vitamin D

How do I get calcium without eating dairy?
How to Get Calcium Without Dairy

Will I get enough protein?
The Mystique of Protein and Its Implications

Success Stories

My Aging Parents’ Shocking Health Improvements Through Food

My parents (both in their 80’s) moved in and began a whole food, plant-based diet. The outcome? It’s never too late to overcome serious health issues!

Nurse Loses Over 100 Pounds and Overcomes Food & Sugar Addiction

Amanda, a critical care nurse with swollen feet, PCOS and hypothyroidism turned her life around after reading The China Study & watching Forks Over Knives.

From Colds, Flus and Acid Reflux to Healthy on a Plant-Based Diet

My wife and I stumbled across a life altering movie which changed our minds about how we eat. I lost weight, spend less time in the gym and am more energetic.

Patricia’s Plant-Based Health Story

I completed the Plant-Based Nutrition Program in April 2014. I started my journey Nov. 22, 2013 after seeing Forks over Knives.

Get Educated

Check out our online Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate in partnership with eCornell. As the most comprehensive plant-based nutrition program we offer:

  • Easy online access, self-paced schedule
  • World-renowned lecturers including lessons from 20+ experts
  • Research based discussions on diet and disease

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