Consider skipping that meaty dish and opt instead for a bowl of leafy greens, vegetables and beans—it’ll lower your salt and fat intake and boost your fiber and nutrients. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

The whole foods­ philosophy continues to be one of the most misunderstood concepts in nutrition circles these days.

And that’s too bad, said Holly Dykstra, RD, a Spectrum Health dietitian.

“Eating a whole-food diet, entirely based on plants, is different than being labeled a vegetarian or even a vegan. It emphasizes the importance of whole foods,” Dykstra said. “It is a very nutritious eating pattern, and it could have the power to reverse some chronic illnesses, including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”

Two different components power that healing magic, she said.

First, it’s about the plants, injecting phytonutrients and valuable fiber into our diets.

Second, it’s about what isn’t there.

“There’s very few added sugars, fats or any processed food, which is what makes it different,” she said. “A vegan diet, for instance, may include refined versions of plant-based foods, like potato chips or French fries.”

On a whole foods plan, those are off the menu or eaten in very limited amounts. If that sounds daunting, that’s because it is—especially when people are first getting started.

“This is really different from the standard American diet,” Dykstra said.

The benefits of whole foods are clear.

Solving the fiber crisis

Plants are loaded with fiber, something that is not present in animal foods. Fiber can increase feelings of satisfaction and fullness at meals, which could help someone trying to manage their weight.

This includes soluble fiber, the type found in black beans, broccoli, oats and sweet potato, for example. But it also provides insoluble fibers, such as those found in wheat bran, cauliflower, green beans and potatoes.

Both are essential for good health.

Even though diets higher in fiber are known to reduce the rates of heart disease and some cancers, including colorectal cancers, most people don’t get enough.

The average American adult eats 10 to 15 grams per day, far short of the recommended 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men.

Naturally reduce sodium and sugar

Because plants contain little sodium and all those salty processed foods are eliminated, a person’s tastebuds get a chance to realize how good food tastes with less salt.

Considering that an estimated 47% of American adults have high blood pressure, whole foods can offer valuable medicine.

Eliminating processed food also drastically cuts the amount of sugar people consume. That reduces inflammation, a condition that’s linked to heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.

Boost heart health

By eliminating meats, cheeses and eggs, a whole foods plan reduces saturated fats. When eaten in excess, saturated fats are linked with higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. Fewer fats also means fewer calories, which could help someone who is trying to get to a healthier weight.

Make the switch

If all these health benefits sound appealing, by all means dive in.

Dykstra suggests getting clear on your motivation.

Are you hoping to reduce blood pressure? Improve lipids? Or just drop a few pounds and feel better?

“We recommend meeting with a registered dietitian to review goals and eating habits,” she said. “Understanding that a whole foods plan can feel restrictive, they can help find ways to make it more sustainable.”

She also thinks it’s important to discuss it with a doctor and get bloodwork done before starting.

“That way, you’ve got a benchmark for comparison moving forward,” Dykstra said. “And that can be really motivating.”

Some people embark on a whole foods plan because of a pressing health concern, such as a diagnosis of heart disease or Type 2 diabetes. Dykstra works closely with the Spectrum Health Medical Group Preventive Cardiology program, led by Thomas Boyden, MD.

“He recommends the whole foods approach to many of his patients,” Dykstra said.

And while the whole foods plan must be followed very closely to achieve the most dramatic benefits, others might prefer to tiptoe toward this philosophy.

There’s no reason to go whole-hog on whole foods if it feels too drastic, Dykstra said.

“A really good first step is simply becoming aware of how much you eat animal-based foods,” she said. “Then begin incorporating more whole plants into the diet in a comfortable way.”

From there, it’s easy to make small adjustments.

“People find themselves saying, ‘Maybe I could have beans or lentils at lunch, instead of meat,’” she said.

Meaningful change

Dairy, an animal food whole foods devotees shun, is also worth watching.

“Some people just love it and can’t imagine giving it up,” she said. “Others are happy to experiment with plant-based alternatives.”

While much of the research has shown that people need to adhere to a strict version of the whole foods approach to achieve big health gains, more studies need to be done, she said.

Until then, there’s no clear evidence that an all-or-nothing approach is required.

“People are still doing themselves a lot of good simply by eating meat less often, or reducing their meat portions at meals,” Dykstra said.

She points to the Mediterranean diet, which allows for some animal-based foods such as chicken and fish. It has plenty of proven health benefits.

“Even by starting to eat a few meatless meals a week, it can be the start of meaningful health changes,” Dykstra said.