Plant-Based Diets For Weight Loss
Plant-based diets are good for your health, but can they also help you lose weight? We’re looking at the research on vegan/vegetarian diets and weight loss in this week’s episode of The Sitch!
Happy New Year, Friends! I hope everyone has had a happy, healthy holiday season!
Since the start of the new year is a prime time for people to make big changes in their health habits, I figured today was the perfect time to address the topic of plant-based diets and weight loss.
Let me preface this by saying, I discourage my clients from making weight loss their primary health goal or from adopting eating habits solely aimed at achieving weight loss.
But let’s be honest — no matter how much I blather on about how important a plant-based diet is for preventing chronic disease and contributing to longevity, it always comes back to the same question: “But will it help me lose weight?”
People are always concerned that eating plant-based means eating more carbohydrates which means gaining weight.
I don’t blame them. The protein-pushing, carb-a-phobic message that is heavily promoted in the weight loss and fitness world is pretty powerful.
But I’m here to tell you, if you believe that, you’ve been brainwashed.
Carbs don’t make you fat, just like protein doesn’t make you skinny.
A healthy body weight is the product of balanced food choices and positive behaviors.
Any diet out there will help you lose weight.
Anytime you focus on controlling your intake or your cut out a major food group, you’re inevitably going to lose weight initially. It’s whether or not that weight loss is sustainable that’s important.
As I mention in my video on my Predominantly Plant-Based Nutrition Philosophy, diets in general often actually make people gain weight in the long run!
So what does work? Adopting a healthful eating pattern that is enjoyable and sustainable. For me, that’s Predominantly Plant-Based, and research backs up my choice.
So let’s get into it.
RESEARCH ON PLANT-BASED DIETS AND WEIGHT LOSS
Studies show that vegans and vegetarians generally have lower BMIs than meat-eaters. For those who don’t know, BMI stands for body mass index and it’s a measure of weight for height. It’s not the best tool for measuring body composition, which takes into account fat and muscle, but it is a helpful measurement of general health in large populations.
One observational study of 38,000 healthy adults found that vegans have BMI’s that are about 2 points lower than meat-eaters. This association remained even when controlling for other healthy lifestyle factors.
They also identified another trend in the data. Fiber intake was inversely associated with BMI. So the more fiber people ate, the lower their BMI.
The meat-eaters in this study had much lower fiber intakes than the vegans.
This is to be expected as fiber, which found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, is rich in plant-based diets.
Studies consistently show that individuals with higher fiber intakes have lower body weight and gain less weight over time. This is likely due to fiber’s ability to provide satiety after meals, aka fullness.
Emerging research also suggests that the products of fiber fermentation in the gut provide additional benefits. When the bacteria in your gut breaks down fiber, it produces short-chain fatty acids, which have been shown to decrease liver synthesis of triglycerides and additionally increase satiety by influencing hormones that affect hunger/fullness.
An 18-week study of overweight employees with Type 2 Diabetes in a corporate wellness program showed that a low-fat vegan diet was able to improve body weight, cholesterol, and glucose control without calorie restriction.
The participants lost about six pounds on average while eating as much food as they wanted, and lowered their LDL cholesterol and HBA1c level, which a marker of diabetes management.
Finally, a recent meta-analysis – aka the mother of all studies – combined the results of 12 different experimental trials and found that vegetarian dieters lost significantly more weight than non-vegetarian dieters.
In the longer-term studies, they also showed that the plant-based dieters were able to keep the weight loss off for over a year.
LOW-CARB/PALEO DIETS AND WEIGHT LOSS
So why do some people think that a low-carb, Paleo diet is the way to go for weight loss? Well, there are a few reasons.
One, when you stop eating carbs, you lose a ton of water weight.
When you eat protein, your body has to get rid of the nitrogen you’re producing from breaking down amino acids. To do this the liver converts this nitrogen into urea, which is then excreted in urine. More protein means more urine which means more water loss.
Secondly, carbohydrates are stored in your liver, fat, and muscle cells as a molecule known as glycogen. This happens so your muscles have a quick source of energy. However, glycogen holds on to water. When you stop eating carbs, you deplete your body of this muscle glycogen and you lose water in the process.
Each gram of glycogen is stored with about 3 grams of water and the average person has about 500 grams of glycogen total. Therefore, the body holds about 3.5 cups of water in its glycogen stores on average.
This is basically what happens when bodybuilders “cut.” They’re dehydrating their muscles. This may be aesthetically pleasing in the fitness competition world, but in real life, it makes your muscles work less efficiently.
The next reason that a Paleo diet may appear to help with weight loss is due to the filling effect of protein.
Protein, like fiber, helps you feel more satisfied after a meal and stay fuller longer than carbohydrates alone. People eating low-carb diets typically have a very high protein intake.
However, eating a plant-based diet shouldn’t mean skimping on protein! A well-planned plant-based diet should include a good source of protein and high-fiber carbohydrates at every meal.
Lastly, low-carb diets may help people take in fewer calories initially than a plant-based diet, due to behaviors surrounding the consumption of the types of foods in these diets.
Think about it this way – when you overeat, what are you usually eating? If the answer is chips, crackers, candy, pastries, or pasta, you’re not alone. Carbs are easy to binge on.
I mean, think about how many times you’ve cracked open a bag of chips with the intention of having one serving, only to finish off the whole bag. I’ll admit it, it’s happened to me.
Now think how many times have you ever binged on baked, boneless skinless chicken breast?
Not so appetizing right?
So it’s not necessarily the nutrient itself that may be contributing weight gain, but the behaviors associated with these types of foods.
You can prevent falling into bad eating behaviors however by practicing a mindful, plant-based diet, or as we call it here in #WhitsKitch – Predominantly Plant-Based.
Ditching the notion that carbs make you fat and giving yourself permission to eat them regularly is the first step to forming a healthy relationship with this important food group that will ultimately prevent you from overeating and jeopardizing your health goals.
So let’s sum up what we’ve learned about plant-based diets and weight loss.
- Plant-based diets are just as effective as other diets for weight loss and weight maintenance.
- The fiber found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains will help you maintain a healthy body weight.
- Make sure to balance plant-based meals with good sources of plant-protein in addition to complex carbohydrates and fat, to prevent over-eating later.
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Weigh In: What do you think about the research on plant-based diets and weight loss?