For Better Immunity and Natural Weight Loss, Follow The Vegan Food Pyramid
This year marks the 30th birthday of the (now-defunct) USDA Food Pyramid. Contrary to that model’s large allotments for high-fat meat and dairy and generous portions of processed grains, recent scientific studies have shown that a whole-food, plant-based diet is the most beneficial for human health, not to mention the planet.
As COVID-19 cases surge and Omicron spreads like a wildfire, focusing on the aspects of health that are within our control is of utmost importance. Once you're vaccinated, boosted, masked, and socially distanced, you can still do more to help your immune system fight off a virus or infection. Get plentiful sleep, exercise often, manage stress, and eat a nutrient-dense plant-based
The vegan food pyramid is a simple model you can follow to ensure you're packing in as many immune-boosting phytonutrients as possible. (As timely bonuses, a diet that follows the vegan food pyramid will also help you achieve your New Year's weight loss goals – and battle the effects of climate change, too.) Follow this simple graphic as a way of planning your meals and adding more antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to your plate.
For Immunity and Weight Loss, Follow the Vegan Food Pyramid
For anyone who wants to eat to improve immune function and promote effortless weight loss an optimal approach is a whole-food, plant-based diet. Yet there is no easy-to-follow infographic that dictates which foods to eat in abundance, or in what quantities.
The closest thing to a new food pyramid is the vegan food pyramid, created to help remedy this. We asked Jill Edwards, MS, Director of Education for the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, for the latest version of a vegan food pyramid based on scientific studies and research that shows which types of food to eat the most of and the least of, for your healthiest day of plant-based eating. Here is her take on what foods would appear on the Vegan Food Pyramid, and in what order of priority, as well as a few examples of satisfying meals that comply with these guidelines.
What Foods Make Up the Vegan Food Pyramid?
The short answer is vegetables and fruits on the largest (bottom) row, whole grains, legumes, and seeds on the next level up (meaning eat them freely and make them the second biggest part of your diet), and whole-food fat sources at the top (so you'd eat these the least), according to Edwards. These foods appear on the pyramid in order of how nutrient-dense – and also immune-boosting – they are.
The idea of eating the largest quantities of foods that have the greatest immune benefit is not new, though it’s never been more important than it is today, in this latest wave of rising COVID cases.
Back in 2003, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, MD, created the Nutritarian Food Pyramid, a diagram that organized foods by their Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) score. Foods that had the highest number of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) per calorie, such as kale and collard greens, scored 1,000 on the ANDI scale. Foods that were calorie-dense and had no nutritional value, like soda added sugar, and fried chips, scored in the single digits.
Dr. Fuhrman’s pyramid was not designed to be vegan or even plant-based, but because plant foods are by nature the most nutritious, the pyramid was made up almost completely of them. Here, we take it a step further to create the ideal 100% vegan, disease-preventing, weight loss-inducing food pyramid.
Vegan Food Pyramid Tier 1: Leafy Greens, Vegetables, and Fruits
The base (largest part) of the vegan food pyramid is made up of vegetables and fruits, with a focus on leafy greens. These are the foods that should be consumed in the highest quantities, filling the majority of your plate at every meal.
One revelatory study showed immune cells vital for gut health are produced in response to our eating cruciferous vegetables — and these same cells are also believed to help control food allergies, obesity, and some cancers. Collard greens, kale, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower are all examples of superfoods that have this magical effect on the gut microbiome. These nutrient-dense vegetables are credited with a plethora of other health benefits – from improving brain function to fighting belly bloat – and should be eaten as often as possible. But don’t get stuck in a dietary monochromatic way of eating.
“You want to eat as many different colors of fruits and vegetables as possible each day because every color provides us with different nutrients and phytonutrients,” she said, noting that starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes and potatoes, for example) are included on this tier of the pyramid. Sweet potatoes are an uber-rich source of beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A — a crucial nutrient for fighting inflammation and supporting your body’s immune response to viruses and other infections. Potatoes, often misconstrued as a non-nutritive food, are a good source of folate, potassium, and vitamins B6 and C.
Red bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, oranges, and spinach are also rich in vitamin C, and vitamin C intake has been linked to increased white blood cell production. Since white blood cells are crucial warriors in fighting off harmful bacteria and viruses like the coronavirus, it makes sense to eat foods from this category every day for a natural immune boost.
Berries are also among the fruits that pack the biggest immune-boosting punch, and many nutrition experts recommend eating them daily. The humble little blueberry you’ll find on any grocery store shelf is one of the biggest standouts. Blueberries have been linked to lower blood pressure and higher metabolism, mostly due to the fruit’s powerful anthocyanins (the pigment that gives them their deep periwinkle hue).
One study showed berries to be effective in improving memory and cognitive function, making them a possible aid in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Many others have found them to lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and improve a number of other markers of cardiovascular health.
There are too many powerhouse immune-boosting foods on this tier of the pyramid to call out individually, but suffice it to say that eating a rainbow (that’s salads, not Skittles!) is a crucial component of building your body’s defenses against illness and chronic disease.
Vegan Food Pyramid Tier 2: Whole Grains and Legumes
The second tier up from the bottom is split between whole grains and legumes. Brown and black rice, quinoa, amaranth, barley, oats, whole wheat, and sprouted grains are examples of whole grains to seek out; white flour, white rice, and other highly processed and refined grains are best to avoid, Edwards said.
As far as legumes, focus on eating beans, peas, and lentils which are also a cheap source of clean protein. They’re also full of fiber (a cup-and-a-half of beans supplies your minimum daily intake of 30 grams a day), which makes them a superior food for weight loss.
Fiber has no calories, but makes you feel satisfied by filling you up and slowing digestion, which keeps blood sugar levels steady, and prevents them from spiking, which in turn leads to insulin spikes and signals the cells to store excess energy as fat. Legumes are also high in prebiotics, meaning they “feed” the good bacteria in the gut, and therefore help prevent gut-related illnesses — and there are a lot of illnesses associated with the gut.
Seeds also fall into this food pyramid rung (such as chia, flax, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds). since although they’re not legumes, seeds are powerful protein sources and contain fiber and heart-healthy fats —including omega-3 fatty acids. These so-called good fats help regulate heart rate, lower blood pressure, improve blood vessel function and potentially reduce inflammation —and should therefore be eaten regularly.
This second tier of the pyramid is vital to healthy eating and especially for anyone trying to lose weight, since they may assume that because these foods are thought of as full of carbs they need to be avoided. But in fact, these foods help the body regulate energy use and can be beneficial to helping the body burn fuel steadily, and that can help with natural weight loss.
Foods on this tier of the pyramid are low on the glycemic index, meaning they won’t cause the blood sugar spikes you’d experience with refined carbohydrates (like white bread, white rice and added sugar). Instead, whole grains and legumes help stabilize blood sugar and provide a significant source of plant-based protein and overall calories vegans need to function at their best.
Failure to include whole grains and legumes at every meal is one of the most common reasons people abandon attempts at going plant-based since they end up hungry and reach for the wrong foods. “Nine times out of ten, they’re not eating enough of the right foods that are satiating, so they’re not getting full," Edwards explains. "Whole grains and legumes are the foods that are going to really fill people up.”
And eating these complex carbohydrate foods won’t cause weight gain, she adds, especially if you’re filling most of your plate with fiber-rich vegetables and fruits from the base of the vegan food pyramid.
“When we look at the evidence and the research, predominantly plant-forward, minimally processed diets are the ones that are going to aid long-term weight loss the best,” Edwards said. “Trying to drastically limit carbohydrates on a keto diet may work for short-term weight loss, but it also comes with long-term health implications and is hard to sustain.”
Vegan Food Pyramid Tier 3: High-Fat Whole Foods
Avocados, nuts, olives, coconut, and other high-fat whole foods sit at the top of the pyramid and should be eaten sparingly, Edwards said. While some dietary fat is essential, low-fat diets have been shown to provide the biggest health benefits, especially when it comes to lowering the risk of heart disease.
Not on the Vegan Food Pyramid: Extracted Oils
Notably absent from this pyramid are oils — even olive and coconut oils. This may be confusing for those who have long read about the amazing health benefits of coconut oil or olive oil. But if you’re scoring foods based on nutrient density, these fats are too calorie dense for the bargain and don’t make the cut. While each packs 100 calories of pure fat per tablespoon, their micronutrient contents are negligible. It’s better to get your dietary fats from whole foods (even a cup of oats has five grams!) than from extracted oils.
Also missing from this version of the pyramid are sugar and highly processed foods (like store-bought plant-based meat alternatives and cheeses made from cashew or coconut or oat milk, for example). But if you can’t imagine life without these goodies, don’t be deterred.
“Those faux animal products have a place," says Edwards. "They’re fantastic for the transition for people trying to eat less meat for health reasons, and their environmental impact is better than beef burgers. Just use them as a treat and sparingly, because, from a health perspective, they’re not fantastic.”
How Much Should I Eat on the Vegan Food Pyramid?
If you like to eat, there’s good news: In terms of quantity, you’ll likely be eating more on a whole-foods, plant-based diet than on a meat-and-dairy centric diet. As far as exact portion size, Edwards offers guidance but advises that you put the measuring cup and scale aside.
As long as you’re eating a varied whole-food, plant-based diet, you don’t have to get caught up in measuring and counting servings and portions. Just follow the pyramid.
Fruits and vegetables: Six to seven servings per day (a serving equals one cup, cooked). These are the most crucial foods for building a healthy immune system and they’re as calorie-light as they are nutrient-dense, so they’re great for weight loss as well.
- Whole grains: Between six and eight servings (a serving is a half-cup, cooked or a slice of bread). Oats, quinoa, and amaranth are among the most potent disease-fighting foods in this category, though amaranth and quinoa are technically seeds).
- Legumes and seeds: Three half-cup servings per day of cooked legumes and a tablespoon of seeds. Beans are essential for weight management and gut health.
- High-fat foods: These are at the top of the pyramid. Limit the intake of these foods, such as nuts and avocados, to one small serving per day.
What Do You Eat Following the Vegan Food Pyramid?
Edwards does not especially like to cook, so she favors recipes that require a minimum of time and effort, while still checking all boxes for nutritional excellence.
For a healthy plant-based breakfast, she favors easy banana pancakes made from bananas, oats, and plant milk, and topped with antioxidant-rich berries and applesauce; or a green smoothie with frozen banana, flaxseed, cucumber, and carrot.
“Smoothies are a great way to get in those base-of-the-pyramid items,” said Edwards, who makes a priority of consuming inflammation-fighting leafy greens with every meal, which goes a long way toward keeping her rheumatoid arthritis in check.
For lunch, black beans over brown rice, with greens, tomatoes, avocado, or another authentic Mexican-style meal is plant-based, satisfying, and delicious. Another bowl she favors – this time with a Japanese spin – is the Vegan Sushi Power Bowl.
As far as snacks, Edwards, who touts the myriad benefits of intermittent fasting, thinks it best not to graze all day. “Our digestive system needs a break,” she explained. But if snacking is a necessity, she said reaching for carrots and hummus; a piece of fresh fruit; roasted chickpeas; or a whole-food packaged snack like a Larabar would be the best bet.
What’s the Macronutrient Breakdown of a Healthy Vegan Diet?
The Vegan Food Pyramid breaks down to about 70 to 80 percent carbohydrates, 10 to15 percent protein, and 15 percent fat.
Is That Enough Protein?
The USDA guidelines support a diet in which fewer than 10 percent of calories come from protein, even for people who are active. This is easily achievable on a plant-based diet, as many plant-based foods are composed of more than 10% protein. Oats, for example, are around 13% protein; lentils are about 25% protein, and spinach is 50% protein. (Calorie for calorie, that’s higher than steak’s protein composition.) The point is, if you eat a variety of plant-based foods – including many from the second tier of the vegan food pyramid – you will easily meet your protein needs.
And besides, as much attention as the vegan protein question gets, most Americans are actually getting much more than they need.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is .8 grams per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight. Some experts recommend slightly higher amounts or about .9 to 1 g/kg of body weight, and fitness enthusiasts may also need more, or closer to 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg of body weight. If you weigh 145 pounds that equals 66.7 kg of body weight. An active person would need about 9 x 66 = about 59 grams of protein a day.
“People in this country don’t have health issues because of protein deficiency. They have health issues because of fiber deficiency. There are decades of misinformation on this,” Edwards said.
Bottom Line: To Boost Immunity and Weight Loss Follow the Vegan Food Pyramid
Whole plant foods are naturally packed with immune-boosting phytonutrients and fiber to regulate blood sugar. When you eat according to the Vegan Food Pyramid you naturally boost your immunity and make it possible to lose weight effortlessly. The closer you can get to a diet that aligns with the Vegan Food Pyramid, the better your odds of reaping the many health benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet.