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Do Giraffe's All Eat the Same Diet? (aka WFPB Eating Habits)

In my last post I talked about the general principles of eating a whole food plant-based diet. Here I will get more specific about my observations.

One thing that intrigued and confused me when I first became vegan is how people defined whole food.

What is the definition of whole food? Where is the line drawn between whole food and processed food? Technically the definition of a whole food is: Food that has been processed or refined as little as possible and is free from additives or other artificial substances. This is a broad definition and begs the question of what is a food that has not been processed or minimally processed? The most clear cut unprocessed plant-based foods are organic or IPM grown fruits/vegetables (plant foods grown using Integrated Pest Management techniques rather than insecticides and pesticides.)

It is safe to say that if you grow and eat only organic raw vegetables and fruits you are a WFPB eater. Raw vegans do not eat anything that is cooked.

That is where the clarity ends. There is so much debate and controversy over "organic" labeling and the term "natural" it is hard to trust anything you haven't grown yourself and short of that, you must trust the growers you believe are doing the right thing. So pick wisely.

The most common forms of food transformation are cooking and the addition of other ingredients such as thickeners, sweeteners, seasonings etc. For that matter, grains, beans, potatoes and even some non-starchy plants such as mushrooms require cooking to be eaten ( mushrooms can technically be eaten raw but should not be consumed without cooking). Once you cook any plant-based food, you are changing the organic structure and it becomes a minimally processed food.

Let's take beans for example. Ideally, you purchase your dried organic beans from a local farmer. You rinse and soak them overnight with pure water and then cook them. When cooked you eat them in that unadulterated form. This is the purest form of beans you can eat even though they have been heat processed. However, what if you use canned beans? Alternately, what if you took the raw beans you bought from the farmer and pulverized them in a food processor to make a bean flour? In both of these scenarios you have altered the pure food . What about spices we buy in bottles? Certainly they have been processed in some way, even if they are only dried - how are they dried?

Of course it is possible to eat only unaltered foods but is it realistic? I try to stick to the purest form of eating I can. For me, the best food is the simplest food. When I see a recipe with more than 6 ingredients I tend to ignore it. I think a lot depends on how easily you get bored with eating the same things over and over. It is also really important to vary your fruit, veggie, and protein sources for ultimate health. Remember the expression 'eat the rainbow'.

As my journey has matured, being vegan now for almost 2 years, I have sought out WFPB chefs, and have learned that my definition of whole food differs quite a bit from others.

Most of us agree on the use of only plant-based foods but it is the 'whole food' piece that is muddled to me and where cooks differ.

One example is in using sweeteners and flours. Most WFPB cooks agree that sugar is highly refined and not a whole food. Honey is not plant-based. However many WFPB chefs use maple syrup, date paste, raisins etc. These have all been processed at some level. The same applies to flours. Most PB chefs do not use regular white flour as it is highly processed. However, they do use alternatives like almond flour, chickpea flour, brown rice flour, oat flour, cornmeal, or flours made from other grains.

If you have a nut or coffee grinder you can easily make the flour yourself right before using it ( personally I keep a separate grinder for my coffee for 'easy cleaning' purposes. )

If you use flour in any form however, it has been changed from its original state and is digested by the body differently than eating the whole grain or nut, e.g., whole grain brown rice or chickpeas.

There is another factor involved, glycemic index (GI). GI is a number from 0 to 100 assigned to a food, with pure glucose is arbitrarily given the value of 100, which represents the relative rise in blood glucose level two hours after consuming that food. Glucose is a sugar that is the most abundant monosaccharide, a subcategory of carbohydrates. Glucose is mainly made by plants and most algae during photosynthesis from water and carbon dioxide, using energy from sunlight, where it is used to make cellulose in cell walls, the most abundant carbohydrate in the world (Wikipedia for formal definitions). There was a craze in the early 2000s that focused dieters (in this case defined as those trying to lose weight ) on carbs with low glycemic indices. This helped consumers determine the foods that are digested by the body slowly, thereby avoiding spikes in released insulin and maintaining fullness longer. The lower the GI the more slowly it will be digested.

One chef I follow will not eat brown rice as it contains small amounts of the antinutrient phytic acid and contains arsenic. Many others use rice liberally. Each WFPB cook picks their "usable" ingredients.

If you are just starting down the WFPB path, you will be making choices that are right for you. As your journey progresses, you may find that what works for you changes and that is perfectly fine.

As you can see in the diagram below the "Least Processed" foods are on the far left and the "most processed" on the far right.

The middle grey area contains plant-based foods processed into a different form. Are they whole foods? That is for you to answer for yourself.

Coffee beans, like nuts, legumes, and seeds are usually grown and cultivated by others. Coffee beans are roasted. Adding a plant-based milk complicates it further. All plant-based milks are processed to some extent. You can make your own but the chemical structure is still changing from the whole nut, bean, or grain. Likewise with the healthy juice and green smoothie crazes. The juice shown above was created from the veggies in the picture but now the form is different and it will be used differently by the body.

Beans, grains, winter squashes, potatoes, rhubarb, mushrooms are examples of whole plant-based foods that must be cooked to be edible. Although the form is changing they are still processed as little as possible. "Raw Vegans"do not consume these foods as obviously, they are not raw.

Food combinations are also important. Most of us have heard that eating beans and rice together provides all of the amino acids needed by the body, being a complete protein. When you eat a meal containing multiple foods, they may combine and be processed by the body differently than WFPB foods eaten alone. An example beyond beans and rice is pickling or fermenting.

Many vegans are trying to create an eating experience that mimics a typical American diet. So they often use expressions like 'tastes just like chicken', yes indeed a very often used cliche. Nice cream is a vegan alternative to ice cream and is always compared to ice cream but it really does not taste like ice cream. It has its own flavor profile that is still delicious. My favs are people who use a lot of vegan butter, mayo, yogurt, cheese and BACON!! It is true that the easiest way to describe flavors is to compare them to familiar tastes. I, however, am not trying to mimic bacon because I don't eat the real thing. I try to stay away from comparisons because it can cause disappointment, especially as a whole food vegan who stays away from all sugars, flours and flavor enhancers. What cooks are really trying to duplicate is a flavor profile. Bacon is smoky, fatty and salty. Do you want to duplicate this?

I take a slightly different approach. I may make a mayo using silken tofu instead of eggs and oil but I am not trying to duplicate that food exactly. If I wanted to be even purer I could make my own tofu from soybeans. I pick and choose where I will take the easy way out.

My mayo will never taste the same as Hellman's. I am not striving for that. My goal is to love the vegan "mayo" without having to compare it to store-bought mayo. My veganism is a lifestyle decision and my goal is not to eat plant-based versions of everything I ate as an animal food consumer.

Many cooks avoid gluten by using chickpea, almond or oat flours. They do the same for thickeners and sweeteners. Rather than using flour and butter to make a roux or gelatin to thicken desserts, they use tapioca starch, arrowroot powder, or agar agar (among others). They create cheesy consistencies using cashews, potatoes, nutritional yeast. To claim to be WFPB they substitute sugar with maple syrup, dates, date syrup, etc. All of these alternatives fall into the grey region. We also can't forget all of the foods we consume that are combinations of many ingredients. Maybe the first ingredient is raw broccoli but there are 10 other ingredients that either fall into the gray or highly processed category. They are not unprocessed but some are more processed than others.

There are no hard and fast rules about where the WFPB designation ends and highly processed begins. It is a very personal journey.

I am still figuring out where I stand. I drink coffee, cook legumes, grains, veggies, and starches. I also eat a lot of raw fruit and vegetables. To me the variety prevents boredom. I love to cook so this is not an issue. However, I don't eat flour products such as pasta and bread and I also don't consume sweeteners. If I really need to add sweetness to my food I use banana or dates. Nice Cream is an example of a minimally processed food I do eat because something about the cold creaminess in summer is appealing. However I will never try to compare it to full-fat ice cream.

Here is one recipe:

  1. Freeze some ripe cut up bananas

  2. When ready to make nice cream, remove the bananas from the freezer and allow them to sit for 5-10 minutes just until they soften a small amount. Put them in a food processor and add whatever flavors you want. I usually add frozen berries and some cocoa or peanut butter powder (processed but I do buy raw peanut powder with nothing added), cinnamon and vanilla. Think of all of the flavors that ice cream comes in and use your imagination here. No candy allowed!

  3. Process until fully blended. Remove from food processor and freeze whatever you don't eat (or if you are food-obsessed you might eat the whole thing!)

  4. Here are some variations:

a. Use frozen sweet potatoes as a base for your ice cream instead of bananas.

b. Add cooked/canned&drained chickpeas for creaminess and thickness.

d. Add nuts, fruit, chocolate sauce (water, vanilla, cocoa powder, banana or date mixed in a blender.)

e. Add a cup of frozen cauliflower to your concoction. You really can't taste it and it adds a low calorie density food to the nice cream. It's great for getting kids to eat vegetables.

I have been tempted to try other minimally processed foods but it is a slippery slope. I don't want to land in the grey area too often. The only 'flour' I have used is oat flour to make a "bread". I soak whole oats in 1.5 x the water as the oats for 1/2 hour in a blender and then blend until smooth. I cook them in a non-stick pan until they are bubbly and cooked on one side before flipping and cooking on the other side. I rarely use thickeners but when I do it is agar agar or tapioca starch. I have not yet tried vegan cheese or yogurt. Somehow I think it crosses the point on the continuum where I want to be. I consume no oil whatsoever but many WFPB eaters do. Again, personal preference.

There is so much variety in a WFPB diet, the combinations are endless. Whether you are just starting your journey or a devoted plant-based eater, STICK WITH IT. It may take some getting used to but it's worth it.

PS. I should mention that it can be a little tricky to go out to eat. Many restaurants are creating vegan options that are listed as such on their menus. I often ask to customize a dish or salad to make it vegan and I find most restaurants very accomodating. If I go out for breakfast I almost always order oatmeal with fruit or a grain bowl of some sort. I don't let my veganism stop me from joining activities that involve food if it's the event I am interested in attending. Depending on where I am going, I often bring my own food and my friends expect that.

Salad restaurants are usually a safe bet - I bring my own dressing that I make in 2 minutes. It is simply a mixture of balsamic vinegar and dijon mustard. The funny thing is that the taste varies depending on the brands you use so experiment with different combinations until you find one you like.

I will say however that I don't go out very often. I like to cook and it is easier since I know exactly what is in the food I am eating. I have a tried and true black bean "burger" that I love but this week I tried a new recipe using red lentils. After mixing everything together, my end-product was too runny. I couldn't shape it into patties. So I poured it into a baking dish instead and baked it for 30 min on each side. Turned out to be dry - I cooked it too long. It was tasty, but I removed this recipe from my app. BTW - I use the Paprika app to store and download recipes and it has been great!

DON'T GET DISCOURAGED. Just laugh at your failures and try try again!

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