With nutritionists and health experts warning of the dangers of eating too much processed food, many people are turning towards a whole food, plant-based diet.  

Not surprisingly, the whole food movement has become big business, with the US-based supermarket chain Whole Foods Market recording $17 billion in revenue in 2021. So, what exactly are the benefits of switching to a whole food, plant-based diet?  

The Chief Medical Officer of Psychiatry UK, Adam Joiner, has co-authored a paper (Good for the planet and good for our health: the evidence for whole-food plant-based diets) on this subject, which forms the basis of this blog.  

What is a whole food, plant-based diet? 

Consisting mostly of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruits, nuts and seeds, a whole food, plant-based diet will contain very little, if any, food derived from animals. The idea is to consume foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. 

Research has suggested that a diet with a high intake of fruit and vegetables, such as a Mediterranean diet, has significant health benefits. 

Are whole foods good for the environment? 

The food industry has a huge impact on the local and global environment, being a key contributor to climate change. For example, food production accounts for: 

  • 26% of anthropomorphic greenhouse gas emissions
  • 70% of freshwater use 
  • 40% of arable land use 
  • 32% of acidification and 78% of eutrophication (over-enrichment of bodies of water with minerals and nutrients). 

From land-system change to the loss of biodiversity, the environmental effects of food production can depend on food types. Evidence has shown that meat from ruminants (i.e., cows, goats, sheep) has the biggest negative impact on the environment. 

While livestock contributes more than half of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, it only provides 37% of our protein and 18% of calories. Farms producing dairy, meat and eggs account for a staggering 83% of greenhouse gas emissions in the average European diet, compared to just 17% from plant-based foods 

It’s no surprise that plant-based foods cause the lowest levels of environmental impact. 

Looking ahead, improvements to farming methods can reduce the damage to the environment, but only by around 10% by 2050. This is not enough to create a more sustainable food industry. The real change needs to happen to our dietary habits, as higher consumption of plant-based foods could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80%. 

What are the health benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet? 

Changing your diet to include more whole foods is not only good for the planet, but it is also good for your body. For example, two-thirds of premature deaths are caused by physical health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, which are linked to obesity and poor diet. 

Whole food, plant-based diets, and other similar vegetarian diets, have shown to be an effective way to prevent and manage obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

Plant-based diets can also improve glycaemic control in type 2 diabetes sufferers, while also reducing the risk of complications. In fact, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology recommends that people with type 2 diabetes adopt a plant-based diet. 

As well as the physical health benefits, a whole food diet can also improve your mental health: whole plant foods can reduce the risk of developing depressive symptoms and increase mood for those with low mood. 

Recently, large observational studies have also shown a link between plant-based diets and a lower risk and severity of COVID-19 disease. 

However, it is important to note that only healthy whole food, plant-based diets are associated with reducing the risk of disease. Plant-based diets which include a large amount of processed and sweetened foods have been associated with an increased risk of disease.  

If you are thinking of switching to a whole food, plant-based diet, it is important to focus on choosing healthy options.  


Reviewed by Dr Adam Joiner 

August 2022