Part IV: Considerations

The health benefits of a whole food, plant-forward diet


Food quality

Not all plant-based ways of eating are created equal. As the popularity of plant-based eating has increased, so too has the availability of food products. Just because someone has adopted a plant-forward diet does not mean that they are eating whole foods that are nutrient dense. How a plant-forward diet is constructed is of critical importance to health status. More research is needed on the health benefits of a whole foods plant-forward diet versus a diet of so-called ultra-processed plant foods, but there is evidence that the latter does not support optimal health.

Highly processed or ultra-processed foods (UPFs) have many added ingredients, such as sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors, and preservatives. They are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, including fats, starches, added sugars and hydrogenated fats. They can also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers.

In 2019, several studies linked UPFs to poor health and even death. In one large observational study, higher consumption of UPFs was linked to higher risks of cardiovascular and coronary heart disease and stroke. And another study concluded that high consumption of UPFs – more than four servings a day – was associated with a 62 percent higher hazard for all-cause mortality. In 2020, a systematic review of epidemiological studies focused on the consumption of UPFs and health outcomes found a positive association between these foods and risk of several health outcomes. UPFs also contribute the to the intake of added sugars in the U.S. One study found that consuming less UPFs could help lower the consumption of added sugars.

While more research is needed on the health benefits of a whole foods plant-forward diet compared to an ultra-processed plant foods diet, there is some evidence that the latter does not support optimal health. For that reason, we strongly suggest that the quality of plant-based food and food products be considered when new policies are set.

Culinary and nutrition health care

Based on the research, it’s evident that a whole foods plant-forward diet, if well-planned, can meet all nutrient needs across the life cycle. It can also mitigate the risk for chronic disease.

For this reason, we advise consideration of policies that support programs and services whereby Americans are offered credible and effective culinary and nutrition healthcare, including dietary assessment and supplementation, menu planning, shopping education and cooking instruction for those looking to adopt a vegetarian way of eating.

About the author

Stefanie Sacks is a nationally recognized Culinary Nutritionist, author, educator, speaker, consultant and leading authority on eating to prevent and manage illness. She is also the Founder + CEO of WTFORK, the no B.S. Roadmap for Healthier Choices. She received her Master of Science in Nutrition from Teachers College, Columbia University, is a Certified Nutrition Specialist®, Certified Dietitian Nutritionist, and a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts. She has collaborated with prominent integrative functional MD’s to help their patients use food to heal, and for nearly three decadesshe has helped transform the way people eat using hands-on experiences to inspire and educate, while offering practical tools for food lifestyle change.

Her book What the Fork Are You Eating (Tarcher/Penguin Random House) is a must-read guide for anyone looking to make small changes in food choice for optimal health. Stefanie also contributed to multiple books as well as creating and hosting “Stirring the Pot,” a radio show on NPR affiliate WPPB that explored food, cooking, nutrition and health. Recent projects with Environmental Working Group and Cornell Cooperative Extension focus on matters related to healthy food choices for consumers.

As an authority on eating to prevent and manage illness, Stefanie is often a media guest expert on the topic of healthy choices and has an extensive list of contributions. She is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Les Dames Escoffier and sits on the advisory boards of A Greener World and The East End Food Institute.