One of the reasons people will begin looking into nutrition is that they want to lose weight, and they appropriately recognize that diet plays a big role.
Unfortunately, there is a 72 billion dollar industry out there that is trying to get anyone interested in weight loss to buy their books, takes their pills, buy their cardboard food, and sign up for their exercise programs, for a ridiculous amount of money of course!
It's so easy to be fooled by these marketing schemes. After all, if that famous person So-and-So claims this is what helps them look like a model or a bodybuilder, then surely it will work for me too!
Our grocery store checkout aisles are full of magazines with titles like, "5 Foods That Will Melt Away Fat", or "How a Keto Diet Helped me Lose 50 lbs". How is a regular Joe or Josephine supposed to be able to filter through the nonsense and truly grasp what good nutrition is?
I hope that is where I can come in! I have studied nutrition for close to 10 years now, and have learned what type of nutrition human bodies thrive off of. While I dive into this optimal nutrition in a lot of other articles, this article is focused on one particular health concern, which is excess weight and weight loss.
Have you ever wondered which way of eating is truly best for weight loss?
Today's society would probably have you believe that you need to eat Keto, or at least lower-carb in order to be healthy and lose weight. We have made carbohydrates the enemy, without having the decency to actually listen to research. We throw all carbohydrates out and don't differentiate between those found in whole foods versus those in highly processed foods. It was a similar story a few decades ago, except the target was fat. But in the process of making fat the enemy we pushed people towards meat and dairy and more processed foods, which in the end increased the amount of fat we had been eating as a society.
There is also a recent diet craze called paleo, which tends to emphasize protein, with the rationale being that our ancestors ate a mostly carnivorous diet before farming became commonplace... what they don't emphasize is that 1) they didn't live very long and 2) they were hunters and gatherers, aka they ate everything, and meat was likely the rarest thing in their stone bowls.
So, there we have it, every modern diet craze has attacked one of the macronutrients, stating our diet should be either low-fat, low-carb, high-protein, or some other good-sounding idea.
But when we zoom out and look at the healthiest people on the planet we see that what keeps people thin, healthy, and able to stay active until very old age is a diet that is founded on a wide variety of whole, plant foods.
What Doesn't Work
When it comes to weight loss, there are hundreds of scientific articles exploring calorie restriction, portion control, exercise, all of which DO actually lead to results. That's right, cutting calories and increasing exercise will lead to weight loss. This is generally how keto and paleo diets see results as well. You may be eating more of one macronutrient, but overall you are limiting your diet and therefore eating less. You may be able to lose weight, but the question is, "for how long?".
A large number of participants who lose weight using calorie and portion restriction gain the weight back after a number of months or years. Why? Because starving yourself (even if it's just 300 calories a day) is just not a very sustainable lifestyle practice. Your body will make it very difficult for you to sustain long-term hunger, no matter how psychologically resilient you are. We are hardwired to preserve our lives by eating an adequate amount of calories, and when we restrict calories over a long period of time, we will end up fighting against our own fleshy nature.
Not only this but when we go into a period of caloric restriction, we trigger natural biological pathways that will slow down our metabolism and make it even harder to lose weight over the long run (our bodies want to conserve and use every last calorie, as you aren't giving it much to work with).
On top of these, our bodies and especially our minds rely on a sufficient supply of calories, especially from carbohydrates, and so by reducing total calorie intake we can undermine many of our body's necessary daily functions like immunity, cellular regeneration, mental functioning, and more!
What Does Work
We've known for potentially all of human history that a diet founded on plants was 1) either what our bodies were designed for or 2) at least a very healthy way to eat. Consider the creation account in Genesis or the story of Daniel, who ended up proving a diet of solely vegetables and water was superior to one rich in all kinds of food and wine.
If you don't believe that the Bible is a reliable source of information, then consider Hippocrates, who recognized that food was the likely culprit behind our many diseases. Or Albert Einstein, who once said, "Nothing will benefit health and increase the chances of survival on Earth as the evolution to a vegetarian diet".
In terms of weight loss, we see that a plant-based diet works for many reasons. Let's explore these here.
#1 Plant-Based Diets Are Low in Calories and High in Fiber
Consider the diagram below, borrowed from ForksOverKnives.com.
This illustrates a concept called caloric density, or the number of calories present per pound or volume of food. We see here that plant-based foods tend to be relatively low in calorie density and that animal foods and oil tend to be high in caloric density. You can eat lots of plants, without adding many calories to your daily intake.
Plants also tend to be high in fiber (or fibre for you Canadians) which leads to your stomach being full and stretched out, signaling to your brain that you have had a nice satisfying meal, again, without contributing many calories.
Instead of telling you to severely limit portions of meat, cheese, and oil (a typical diet approach), and trying to keep your calories to some impossibly low level of 1500 calories (a typical weight loss level), I tell you EAT MORE, but of the right low-calorie foods.
In case you missed it, this is a weight loss approach that leaves you with NO HUNGRY FEELING at the end of a meal or day. As long as you follow a few simple rules, you can eat as much as you want, and still end up eating fewer calories and losing weight.
If you start to swap out foods like meat, dairy, oils, and processed food for whole plant foods, you will naturally eat fewer calories while feeling fuller and more satisfied. It may seem challenging at first, or perhaps very restrictive, but the reality is that you are making room for MORE variety in your diet. Instead of limiting yourself on how many and what types of vegetables and fruits we consume (let me guess, you eat bananas, apples, carrots, maybe broccoli, and like 5 other things?), we open ourselves up to a world of plant diversity, where we can eat up to 50 different types of plants each week.
#2 Taking Care of Our Gut Microbiota
Have you heard the story of someone who became obese after receiving a fecal transplant from an overweight individual? What about the mice raised in a germ-free environment who also became obese after receiving a fecal transplant from obese mice?
Research is indicating that there are bacterial phenotypes that lead the host to either hold more of a lean, normal, or overweight presentation, which may be the reason some people try and fail to lose weight over and over again.
This news isn't bad! I hope it is actually hopeful because we know we can alter the balance of gut microbes and lead to a healthier phenotype by eating a wide variety of plants! By exposing our gastrointestinal tracts to a wide variety of fibers, we will shift toward having more of the microbes that we need to break down those intricate fibers. By having a diversity of microbes, we will set ourselves up for not only gastrointestinal health but overall health. An unhealthy microbiome has been linked to endocrine disorders, excess weight, poorer cardiovascular health, cancer, and so much more.
#3 Plant-Based Diets are Low in Weight Gain Triggers
The food industry doesn't want you to believe that there are foods that lead to weight gain. No, they want you to think that what is causing your weight gain is your own lack of exercise or self-control. The research shows that we are exercising more than we ever have, and still our society is becoming heavier and heavier. No, it has to be the food!
Some of the foods that trigger weight gain are animal-based foods (meat, dairy, eggs, etc.), processed foods, high-fat/fried foods, oil, and sugar-sweetened beverages. While they do this through a variety of mechanisms, we can summarize their main downfall which is that they are calorically dense. You don't have to eat or drink very much from this category in order to overconsume and when we overconsume calories (take in more than we burn) we will begin to gain weight.
Plant-based diets emphasize getting foods from whole, plant foods. No, not vegan chicken tenders, beyond meat burgers, or chips (technically vegan), but from whole, minimally processed foods that are eaten close to how they were grown in nature.
When we eat this way, we crowd out the room on our plate for these other calorically dense foods. While we can still consume them occasionally, they do not make up a majority of our calories, and therefore we consume a relatively low-calorie diet that can lead to weight loss.
#4 Plant-Based Diets Are Simple!
Okay, okay. I know that it may not appear simple to switch to a plant-based diet if you are used to a standard way of eating. But what I mean is this. By choosing the plant-based approach to weight loss, you:
Can eat all you want if you follow 2 simple rules: no animal products and limited oil.
Don't have to count calories, track intake, or eliminate a whole macro group.
Don't have to follow an intense exercise program, you can just include moderate activity most days of the week.
Can still eat out (given you follow the same principles of choosing whole, minimally processed foods). For more info on dining out read this.
#5 I Feel Good... Dununununununuh
The last reason plant-based diets work so well for weight loss is that generally, people start feeling so good (due to the other health effects of following a plant-based lifestyle) that they don't lose motivation.
Many diets lead to weight loss, but generally don't leave people feeling all that good. Many participants end up tired of being hungry, tired of being the oddball at a social event, tired of drinking juice or smoothies, or tired of spending every waking hour thinking about what foods they are or are not allowed to eat.
However "challenging" following a plant-based diet is, people tend to find that the results outweigh (pun intended) any of the challenges. They start feeling so good that they adopt this lifestyle forever, even if the initial goal was just to lose weight.
If you would like to know more about losing weight on a plant-based diet, I recommend checking out these resources:
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