Is It Too Late To Change Your Diet?

You Can Improve Your Health At Any Age

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fast Food ExamplesIf you are like most Americans, your dietary preferences as an adult are based on the foods your family ate while you were growing up.

  • Your favorite foods…
  • Your comfort foods…
  • The foods you always avoid…

…are based on your family heritage, not on your genes. And if you are like most Americans, your diet isn’t healthy.

  • It’s high in fat and cholesterol…
  • It’s high in sugar and refined carbohydrates…
  • It’s high in processed foods…
  • It’s low in whole, unprocessed foods…
  • It’s high in calories, so your waistline keeps growing.

You know your diet isn’t healthy, but you keep coasting along through your 30’s and 40’s until…the unthinkable happens. You are diagnosed with a deadly disease, like heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes, and your doctor says that unless you change your diet, you are doomed to a short unhealthy life. You have reached a fork in Food Choicesthe road.

Changing the diet you grew up with, the diet you love, is a daunting task. It’s tempting to think, “Why bother…

  • It’s probably too late to change my diet…
  • The damage has already been done…
  • I can’t reverse it now.”

If this scenario describes you or someone you love, you aren’t alone. There are millions of Americans just like you. You want to know whether changing your diet is worth the trouble. You want to know whether it is too late, or whether you can still change your health for the better.

Most clinical studies don’t answer this question. Most clinical studies do a diet assessment at the beginning of the study and look at health outcomes 20 or 30 years later. If they do more than one diet assessment during the study, the purpose of these assessments is to show that most people stick to the same diet throughout the study.

These studies measure the effect of habitual diets on health outcomes. They tell you that good diets lead to good health outcomes, and bad diets lead to bad health outcomes. But they don’t tell you whether changing your diet from bad to good in your 30’s or 40’s can have a significant effect on your health.

Fortunately, a recent study has answered this question. This study (Y Choi et al, Journal of The American Heart Association, 10e020718, 2021) started with people in their mid-20s. It looked at whether changing their diet from bad to good in their 30s and 40s had any effect on their risk of developing heart disease in their 50s and 60s.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from the CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults). The study enrolled 4946 young adults (average age = 25, 55% female and 45% male, 50% black and 50% white) and followed them for 32 years (average age of participants at the end of the study = 57).

Diet was assessed by a trained interviewer at year 0, year 7 (average age of participants = 32), and year 20 (average age of participants = 45).

Adherence of the participants to a healthy, plant-centered diet was assessed using an analytical tool called APDQS that divided the foods eaten by the participants into 3 groups based on their known influence on heart disease:

1) Beneficial.

    • These foods included fruit, avocado, beans/legumes, green vegetables, yellow vegetables, tomatoes, other vegetables, nuts and seeds, soy products, whole grains, vegetable oil, fatty fish, lean fish, poultry, moderate alcohol, coffee, tea, and low-fat milk/cheese/yogurt.
    • This is what the investigators considered a plant-centered diet. It encompasses diets ranging from vegan to Mediterranean and DASH.

2) Adverse.

    • These foods included fried potatoes, refined grain desserts, salty snacks, pastries, sweets, high-fat red meats, processed meats, organ meats, fried fish/poultry, sauces, soft drinks, whole fat milk/cheese/yogurt, and butter.
    • This could be considered a typical American diet.

3) Neutral.

    • These foods included potatoes, refined grains, margarine, chocolate, meal replacements, pickled foods, lean meats, shellfish, eggs, soups, and fruit juices.
    • These foods are not the healthiest, but the evidence that they have a negative effect on health disease risk is inconclusive.

The participants were divided into 5 quintiles based on adherence to a plant-centered diet, with quintile 1 having the lowest adherence and quintile 5 having the highest adherence to a plant-centered diet.

The effect of diet on heart disease was measured in two ways:

1) The dietary data from years 0, 7 and 20 were averaged and the effect of average adherence to a plant-centered diet on the risk of developing heart disease by the time the participants were 57 was measured. This is similar to the design of most other studies looking at the effect of diet and heart disease.

2) The effect of an improvement in adherence to a plant-centered diet between ages of 32 and 45 on the risk of developing heart disease by age 57 was also measured. This is what makes this study unique. Basically, the investigators were asking if you could eat a bad diet for 30 years or more and still reduce your risk of heart disease by switching to a good diet by the age of 45. That is the question that millions of American are asking themselves right now.

Is It Too Late To Change Your Diet?

Heart Healthy DietAs I described above this study asked two distinct questions:

1) What effect does your habitual diet have on your risk of developing heart disease?

For this portion of the study, the investigators averaged the dietary data collected in years 0, 7, and 20 of the study and ranked the participants diet from 1 to 5 based on their adherence to a plant-centered diet. When they compared the group with best adherence (group 5) with the group with worst adherence (group 1):

    • Adherence to a plant-centered diet reduced their risk of developing heart disease by 48%.
    • This is consistent with previous studies looking at the beneficial effects of plant-centered diets on heart disease.

2) What effect does changing your diet from bad to good when you are in your 30s or 40s have on your risk of developing heart disease? 

For this portion of the study, the investigators compared the dietary data collected at years 7 and 20 (corresponding to average ages 32 and 45 for the participants) and ranked the participants from 1 to 5 based on improved adherence to a plant-centered diet. When they compared the group with best improvement in adherence (group 5) with the group with worst improvement in adherence (group 1):

    • Improved adherence to a plant-centered diet reduced the risk of developing heart disease by 39%.
    • This answers the questions I posed at the beginning of this article. In short, it is never too late to change your diet for the better.

The authors concluded, “In summary, our study shows that long-term consumption of a nutritionally rich plant-centered diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Furthermore, increased [adherence to a] plant-centered diet in young adulthood is associated with a lower subsequent risk of heart disease throughout middle age, independent of the earlier diet quality” [In short, they are saying that changing to a more plant-centered diet in your 30s and 40s reduces your risk of heart disease.]

You Can Improve Your Health At Any Age

I titled this section, “You Can Improve Your Health At Any Age” for a reason. I wanted to make the point that it is never too late to change your diet, and your health, for the better.

Yes, I realize that the study I described above only shows:

  • The effect of changing to a more plant-centered diet in your 30s and 40s.
  • The benefit of changing to a more plant-centered diet on heart disease outcomes.

However, we have ample evidence that changing to a more plant-based diet at any age is likely to reduce the risk of many diseases. For example:

  • There are multiple reports in the literature of people in their 60s and 70s who had a health scare, changed to a more plant-centered diet, and dramatically improved their health.

While neither type of study can be considered definitive by itself, together they suggest it is never too late to change your diet for the better.

But what changes should you make? As I said above, anything from Vegan to Mediterranean or DASH fits the definition of a plant-centered diet (something I have previously referred to as a primarily plant-based diet).

You could choose the plant-centered diet that best fits your preferences and lifestyle and read books or go online to find details and recipes that will help you transition to that diet…or you could simply:

  • Eat more fruit, avocado, beans/legumes, green vegetables, yellow vegetables, tomatoes, other vegetables, nuts and seeds, soy products, whole grains, vegetable oil, fatty fish, lean fish, poultry, moderate alcohol, coffee, tea, and low-fat milk/cheese/yogurt.
  • Eat less fried potatoes, refined grain desserts, salty snacks, pastries, sweets, high-fat red meats, processed meats, organ meats, fried fish/poultry, sauces, soft drinks, whole fat milk/cheese/yogurt, and butter.
  • Eat these foods in moderation: potatoes, refined grains, margarine, chocolate, meal replacements, pickled foods, lean meats, shellfish, eggs, soups, and fruit juices.

The Bottom Line

If you are like most Americans, you know your diet is unhealthy. But it is the diet you grew up with. It’s the diet you love. So, you keep eating it anyway.

Then you have a wake-up call. You find yourself in your doctor’s office, and your doctor is advising you to change your diet. But giving up the diet you love is difficult, and you wonder if it is worth it. Can you really improve your health significantly by changing your diet now, or is it too late? Has the damage already been done?

Fortunately, a recent study has answered these questions. This study started with people in their mid-20s. And it looked at whether changing their diet from bad to good in their 30s and 40s had any effect on their health in their 50s and 60s. This is what the study found.

  • Improved adherence to a plant-centered diet in their 30s and 40s reduced their risk of developing heart disease in their 50s and 60s by 39%.

While this study was very specific in terms of age and disease, I have discussed in the article above why changing to a more plant-based diet at any age is likely to reduce your risk of multiple diseases. In short, it is never too late to change your diet, and your health, for the better.

For more details about this study and how to change your diet for the better, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Are Vegan Diets Bad For Your Bones?

The Secrets To A Healthy Vegan Diet

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Frail ElderlyOsteoporosis is a debilitating and potentially deadly disease associated with aging. It affects 54 million Americans. It can cause debilitating back pain and bone fractures. 50% of women and 25% of men over 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis. Hip fractures in the elderly due to osteoporosis are often a death sentence.

As I discussed in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”, a “bone-healthy lifestyle requires 3 essentials – calcium, vitamin D, and weight bearing exercise. If any of these three essentials is presence in inadequate amounts, you can’t build healthy bones. In addition, other nutrients such as protein, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids may play supporting roles.

Vegan and other plant-based diets are thought to be very healthy. They decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. However, vegan diets tend to be low in calcium, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. Could vegan diets be bad for your bones?

A meta-analysis of 9 studies published in 2009 (LT Ho-Pham et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90: 943-950, 2009) reported that vegans had 4% lower bone density than omnivores, but concluded this difference was “not likely to be clinically relevant”.

However, that study did not actually compare bone fracture rates in vegans and omnivores. So, investigators have followed up with a much larger meta-analysis (I Iguacel et al, Nutrition Reviews 77, 1-18, 2019) comparing both bone density and bone fracture rates in vegans and omnivores.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe investigators searched the literature for all human clinical studies through November 2017 that compared bone densities and frequency of bone fractures of people consuming vegan and/or vegetarian diets with people consuming an omnivore diet.

  • Vegan diets were defined as excluding all animal foods.
  • Vegetarian diets were defined as excluding meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and flesh from any animal but including dairy foods and/or eggs. [Note: The more common name for this kind of diet is lacto-ovo vegetarian, but I will use the author’s nomenclature in this review.]
  • Omnivore diets were defined as including both plant and animal foods from every food group.

The investigators ended up with 20 studies that had a total of 37,134 participants. Of the 20 studies, 9 were conducted in Asia (Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Korea, and Hong-Kong), 6 in North America (the United States and Canada), and 4 were conducted in Europe (Italy, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom).

Are Vegan Diets Bad For Your Bones?

Here is what the investigators found:

Unhealthy BoneBone density: The clinical studies included 3 different sites for bone density measurements – the lumbar spine, the femoral neck, and the total body. When they compared bone density of vegans and vegetarians with the bone density of omnivores, here is what they found:

Lumbar spine:

    • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 3.2% lower bone density than omnivores.
    • The effect of diet was stronger for vegans (7% decrease in bone density) than it was for vegetarians (2.3% decrease in bone density).

Femoral neck:

    • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 3.7% lower bone density than omnivores.
    • The effect of diet was stronger for vegans (5.5% decrease in bone density) than it was for vegetarians (2.5% decrease in bone density).

Whole body:

    • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 3.2% lower bone density than omnivores.
    • The effect of diet was statistically significant for vegans (5.9% decrease in bone density) but not for vegetarians (3.5% decrease in bone density). [Note: Statistical significance is not determined by how much bone density is decreased. It is determined by the size of the sample and the variations in bone density among individuals in the sample.]

Bone FractureBone Fractures: The decrease in bone density of vegans in this study was similar to that reported in the 2009 study I discussed above. However, rather than simply speculating about the clinical significance of this decrease in bone density, the authors of this study also measured the frequency of fractures in vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores. Here is what they found.

  • Vegans and vegetarians combined had a 32% higher risk of bone fractures than omnivores.
  • The effect of diet on risk of bone fractures was statistically significant for vegans (44% higher risk of bone fracture) but not for vegetarians (25% higher risk of bone fractures).
  • These data suggest the decreased bone density in vegans is clinically significant.

The authors concluded, “The findings of this study suggest that both vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with lower bone density compared with omnivorous diets. The effect of vegan diets on bone density is more pronounced than the effect of vegetarian diets, and vegans have a higher fracture risk than omnivores. Both vegetarian and vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.”

The Secrets To A Healthy Vegan Diet

Emoticon-BadThe answer to this question lies in the last statement in the author’s conclusion, “Both vegetarian and vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.” 

The problem also lies in the difference between what a nutrition expert considers a vegan diet and what the average consumer considers a vegan diet. To the average consumer a vegan diet is simply a diet without any animal foods. What could go wrong with that definition? Let me count the ways.

  1. Sugar and white flour are vegan. A vegan expert thinks of a vegan diet as a whole food diet – primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. A vegan novice includes all their favorites – sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods. And that may not leave much room for healthier vegan foods.

2) Big Food, Inc is not your friend. Big Food tells you that you don’t need to give up the taste of animal foods just because you are going vegan. They will just combine sugar, white flour, and a witch’s brew of chemicals to give you foods that taste just like your favorite meats and dairy foods. The problem is these are all highly processed foods. They are not healthy. Some people call them “fake meats” or “fake cheeses”. I call them “fake vegan”.

If you are going vegan, embrace your new diet. Bean burgers may not taste like Big Macs, but they are delicious. If need other delicious vegan recipe ideas, I recommend the website https://forksoverknives.com.

3) A bone healthy vegan diet is possible, but it’s not easy. Let’s go back to the author’s phrase “…vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.” A vegan expert will do the necessary planning. A vegan novice will assume all they need to do is give up animal foods. 

As I said earlier, vegan diets tend to be low in calcium, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. Let’s look at how a vegan expert might plan their diet to get enough of those bone-healthy nutrients.

    • Calcium. The top plant sources of calcium are leafy greens and soy foods at about 100-250 mg (10-25% of the DV) of calcium per serving. Some beans and seeds are moderately good sources of calcium. Soy foods are a particularly good choice because they are a good source of calcium and contain phytoestrogens that stimulate bone formation.

A vegan expert makes sure they get these foods every day and often adds a calcium supplement.

    • Protein. Soy foods, beans, and some whole grains are the best plant sources of protein.soy

It drives me crazy when a vegan novice tells me they were told they can get all the protein they need from broccoli and leafy greens. That is incredibly bad advice.

A vegan expert makes sure they get soy foods, beans, and protein-rich grains every day and often adds a protein supplement.

    • Zinc. There are several plant foods that supply around 20% the DV for zinc including lentils, oatmeal, wild rice, squash and pumpkin seeds, quinoa, and black beans.

A vegan expert makes sure they get these foods every day and often adds a multivitamin supplement containing zinc.

    • Vitamin D and vitamin B12. These are very difficult to get from a vegan diet. Even vegan experts usually rely on supplements to get enough of these important nutrients.

4) Certain vegan foods can even be bad for your bones. I divide these into healthy vegan foods and unhealthy “vegan” foods. 

    • Healthy vegan foods that can be bad for your bones include.
      • Pinto beans, navy beans, and peas because they contain phytates.
      • Raw spinach & swiss chard because they contain oxalates.
      • Both phytates and oxalates bind calcium and interfere with its absorption.
      • These foods can be part of a healthy vegan diet, but a vegan expert consumes them in moderation.
    • Unhealthy “vegan” foods that are bad for your bones include sodas, salt, sugar, and alcohol.
      • The mechanisms are complex, but these foods all tend to dissolve bone.
      • A vegan expert minimizes them in their diet.

5) You need more than diet for healthy bones. At the beginning of this article, I talked about the 3 Weight Trainingessentials for bone formation – calcium, vitamin D, and exercise. You can have the healthiest vegan diet in the world, but if you aren’t getting enough weight bearing exercise, you will have low bone density. Let me close with 3 quick thoughts:

    • None of the studies included in this meta-analysis measured how much exercise the study participants were getting.
    • The individual studies were generally carried out in industrialized countries where many people get insufficient exercise.
    • The DV for calcium in the United States is 1,000-1,200 mg/day for adults. In more agrarian societies dietary calcium intake is around 500 mg/day, and osteoporosis is almost nonexistent. What is the difference? These are people who are outside (vitamin D) doing heavy manual labor (exercise) in their farms and pastures every day.

In summary, a bone healthy vegan lifestyle isn’t easy, but it is possible if you work at it.

The Bottom Line 

A recent meta-analysis asked two important questions about vegan diets.

  1.     Do vegans have lower bone density than omnivores?

2) Is the difference in bone density clinically significant? Are vegans more likely to suffer from bone fractures?

The study found that:

  • Vegans had 5.5%–7% lower bone density than omnivores depending on where the bone density was measured.
  • Vegans were 44% more likely to suffer from bone fractures than omnivores.

The authors of the study concluded, ““The findings of this study suggest that…vegan diets are associated with lower bone density compared with omnivorous diets, and vegans have a higher fracture risk than omnivores…Vegan diets should be appropriate planned to avoid dietary deficiencies associated with bone health.”

In evaluating the results of this study, I took a detailed look at the pros and cons of vegan diets and concluded, “A bone healthy vegan lifestyle isn’t easy, but it is possible if you work at it.”

For more details about study and my recommendations for a bone healthy vegan lifestyle read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

A Vegan Diet And Weight Loss

Is A Vegan Diet The Secret To Permanent Weight Control?

New Year DietThe new year is here, and you, like millions of other Americans, have decided this will be the year to get your weight under control. But how to do that is the question.

You have tried lots of diets over the years. You have given up sugar, then high-fructose corn syrup, then carbs in general. You have eliminated whole food groups from your diet. You have restricted your eating to between noon and 4 PM. You have eaten cabbage on Tuesdays and grapefruit on Thursdays (Just kidding about that one, but some fad diets are almost that bizarre).

You lost weight at first, but none of those diets were sustainable. You started adding back your favorite foods. Then the pounds you lost came back – and brought their friends with them.

At this point you may be desperate. You may be tempted to try one of those “magic” supplements that promises to rev up your metabolism and make those pounds melt away. Resist that temptation! Those supplements are either dangerous or worthless – sometimes both.

Or you may be tempted to sign up for one of those expensive diet programs that sends you low calorie versions of all your favorite junk foods. Don’t waste your money. You don’t really need more highly processed food in your diet. And you aren’t learning healthier food choices.

But what if…

…you could rev up your metabolism just by eating a healthy diet?

…you could lose weight naturally without counting calories or reducing portion sizes?

…you could keep most of the weight off permanently?

The study (H Kahleova et al, JAMA Network Open.2020; 3(11): e2025454) I will review today says there is diet that does all of these things. It is not the latest, greatest fad diet. In fact, it has been around for years. It is called the vegan diet.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis was a small, but very well-designed, study. It enrolled 244 obese (average BMI = 33), middle aged (average age = 54) subjects (87% female, 48% white). They were randomly assigned to a vegan diet or control diet and followed for 16 weeks.

The control group was told not to change their diet and exercise routine.

The vegan group was also told not to change their exercise routine. In addition, they were given printed materials and attended weekly classes that provided detailed instructions and cooking demonstrations to help them follow a vegan diet.

The vegan diet consisted of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes with no animal products or added fats. 75% of the calories came from carbohydrate, 15% from protein, and 10% from fat.

The diets of both groups were assessed by a 3-day dietary recall at the beginning of the study and 16 weeks later, at the end of the study. In addition, dietitians made unannounced telephone calls at random times during the week and weekends to assess the participant’s adherence to the diet.

In the vegan diet group, mean intake of carbohydrate and fiber increased, while intake of fat, protein, and cholesterol decreased. There was no significant change in intake in the control group.

The other parameters measured at the beginning of the study and week 16 were:

  • Body composition:
    • Weight and BMI (a measure of obesity).
    • Fat mass and lean muscle mass.
    • Belly fat.
    • Fat stores in liver and muscle (accumulation of fat stores in the liver and muscle is associated with insulin resistance).
  • Parameters of blood sugar control and insulin resistance:
    • Fasting blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c levels were measured.
    • Insulin secretion and blood glucose levels were measured during a 3-hour oral glucose tolerance test. Insulin secretion was used as a measure of insulin resistance, and blood glucose levels were used as a measure of insulin sensitivity (Note: This is a very simple explanation of complex calculations.)
  • Lipid Levels:
    • Total cholesterol.
    • HDL and LDL cholesterol.

A Vegan Diet And Weight Loss

Vegan FoodsThe study results were impressive:

  1. The vegan group lost 14 pounds, while the control group lost only 1 pound. There were two reasons for the greater weight loss in the vegan group:
    • The vegan group decreased their caloric intake by almost 500 calories per day. This was most likely due to the lower caloric density (calories per serving) of plant foods.

In other words, the vegan group consumed fewer calories without focusing on weight loss or portion size. They ate until they were full and consumed fewer calories in the process. Isn’t this what everyone wants from a weight loss diet?

    • The thermic effect (calories burned due to digestion) of the food they ate increased by 14% in the vegan group. This is because it requires more energy to digest foods when your digestive system has to break down the cellular matrix found in unprocessed plant foods.

In other words, the vegan group burned more calories every day just by eating healthy foods. No other diet can promise this.

2) Fat mass decreased by 10% (9 pounds) in the vegan group but was unchanged in the control group

3) Lean body mass (muscle mass) decreased by 1 pound in the control group and 4.6 pounds in the vegan group. There are two important observations here:

    • All the weight loss in the control group came from muscle.
    • 33% of the weight loss in the vegan group came from muscle. This is the only negative outcome from this study and is likely due to the decreased protein intake in the vegan group. Previous studies suggest this loss of lean body mass could be prevented by increasing the protein content of the diet with a plant-based protein supplement.

4) Belly fat decreased by 15%, liver fat was decreased by 31%, and muscle fat was decreased by 19% in theBelly Fat vegan group. All three parameters were unchanged in the control group.

    • This is perhaps the most significant observation from these studies since these are the three deadliest forms of fat in our bodies. Any diet that significantly reduces these forms of fat is likely to dramatically improve our health.
    • These parameters have not been measured in most studies of other weight loss diets, so we have no idea whether other weight loss diets have this effect.

5) Fasting blood glucose decreased by 11%, insulin resistance decreased by 40%, and insulin sensitivity increased by 22%. These parameters were unchanged in the control group.

    • Note: While insulin resistance and insulin sensitivity are opposite ways of measuring the same phenomenon, they were measured in different ways in this study. That is why the percentage change was different for these two parameters. The important thing is that both parameters changed by a significant percentage in a direction that reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes.
    • These data show that just 16 weeks on a vegan diet is sufficient to significantly reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Previous studies have shown that a vegan diet can reverse type 2 diabetes for many people.

6) Total cholesterol decreased by 11% and LDL cholesterol decreased by 16%. Both parameters were unchanged in the control group.

Is A Vegan Diet The Secret To Permanent Weight Loss?

As I said, the results of this study are impressive. But you have probably heard similar claims for other diets like keto, paleo, etc. To put this into context for you I am going to discuss “The Truth (about weight loss diets) Nobody Talks About” and The Questions (about weight loss diets) Nobody Asks”.

truth signThe Truth Nobody Talks About: Why are there so many conflicting claims about weight loss diets? They can’t all work, or can they? Here is the truth nobody talks about.

If you just focus on short term weight loss and improvement in health parameters like cholesterol and blood sugar levels, the very low fat vegan diet and the very low carb keto diet give virtually identical results.

That statement is true for any restrictive diet, but I chose the vegan and keto diets because they are as different as any two diets can be. That means you can forget all the scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo about why each diet is best and focus instead on what they have in common. Here is what they have in common.

  • They all compare themselves to the typical American diet. The American diet is high in saturated fat, high in sugar, high in refined carbs, and high in junk foods. Almost any diet is better than the typical American diet!

Unfortunately, none of these diets compare themselves to each other, so we don’t know which is best. We just know that all of them are better than the typical American diet.

  • All of them are whole food diets. Any diet that cuts out sodas, junk foods, and highly processed foods will result in weight loss and better health.
  • All of them are restrictive diets. Some restrict sugar. Others restrict fat. Some eliminate particular foods. Others eliminate food groups. Some restrict the time of day you can eat. When you do any of these things you are forced to focus on what you eat.

And when you focus on what you eat, you lose weight. That is why diets that force you to count calories, count carbs, or keep a food journal are successful.

Don’t misunderstand me. Although the vegan and low carb diets have not been directly compared in clinical trials, vegan diets may have some unique benefits that other diets do not. For example, this study shows that:

  • Because of the low caloric density of unprocessed plant foods, you can eat more food and consume fewer calories on a vegan diet. You don’t get this benefit from low carb diets. They are high in fat and have, therefore, a high caloric density.
  • Digestion of unprocessed plant foods increases your metabolic rate. This benefit also doesn’t exist for low carb diets. They contain less unprocessed plant foods than a vegan diet.
  • Belly fat, liver fat, and muscle fat are all decreased in just 16 weeks with a vegan diet. This may occur for other diets. But most studies of other diets have not looked at these parameters, so we don’t know if they have this benefit.

QuestionsThe Questions Nobody Is Asking: Since all these diets result in short-term weight loss, there are two questions we should be asking.

  1. Which of these diets are healthy long term? Numerous studies have shown people who consume vegan diets and other primarily plant-based diets for 10, 20, or 30 years weigh less and have a lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers than people who consume the typical American diet.

Although the Atkins diet has been around for more than 50 years, there is still no evidence that the Atkins diet or other meat-based low carb diets are healthy long term. I have summarized these studies in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”.

2) What happens when you get tired of the restrictions in these diets and start adding back a few of your favorite foods? If you start with a vegan diet and add a little dairy, eggs, and meat to it, you end up with a semi-vegetarian diet. People following a semi-vegetarian diet weigh less and are healthier than people consuming the typical American diet.

Keto diets are high in meat and saturated fat. If you add carbs, even healthy carbs, to that diet, you end up with the typical American diet, which is characterized by weight gain and poor health.

Vegan BurgerOne Final Thought: Big Food has noticed that many Americans want to eat vegan but still crave the taste and convenience of their favorite foods. Big Food has been only too happy to oblige with a wide selection of highly processed “vegan” foods. Avoid these foods like the plague!

I have discussed the shortcomings of the “vegan” burgers found in your local supermarkets and fast food restaurants in a recent issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.

The biggest problem with all these “vegan” food substitutes is that they are highly processed foods. The benefits of a vegan diet come from eating unprocessed plant foods. None of us need more highly processed foods in our diet.

Of course, it isn’t just vegan food substitutes. Any hope that the Atkins diet might have been healthy evaporated with the advent of “Atkins” processed foods. Now I am starting to see the same trend with “keto” and “paleo” foods.

The Bottom Line 

The new year is here, and you, like millions of other Americans, have decided this will be the year to get your weight under control. But how to do that is the question.

You have tried lots of diets over the years. You have given up sugar, then high-fructose corn syrup, then carbs in general. You have eliminated whole food groups from your diet. You have restricted your eating to between noon and 4 PM. You have eaten cabbage on Tuesdays and grapefruit on Thursdays (Just kidding about that one, but some fad diets are almost that bizarre.

You lost weight at first, but none of these diets were sustainable. You started adding back your favorite foods. Then the pounds you lost came back – and brought their friends with them.

But what if…

…you could rev up your metabolism just by eating a healthy diet?

…you could lose weight naturally without counting calories or reducing portion sizes?

…you could keep most of the weight off permanently?

We know people who eat a vegan diet for 10, 20, or 30 years weigh less and are healthier than people consuming the typical American diet. Could the vegan diet be the diet you have been looking for?

The study I review this week was designed to answer this question. The investigators randomly assigned obese, middle-aged Americans, to follow either a vegan diet for 16 weeks or to continue eating their typical American diet.

The study results were impressive:

  • The vegan group lost 14 pounds, while the control group lost only 1 pound. There were two reasons for the greater weight loss in the vegan group:
    • The vegan group decreased their caloric intake by almost 500 calories per day. This was most likely due to the lower caloric density (calories per serving) of plant foods.

In other words, the vegan group consumed fewer calories without focusing on weight loss or portion size. They ate until they were full and consumed fewer calories in the process. Isn’t this what everyone wants from a weight loss diet?

    • The thermic effect (calories burned due to digestion) of the food they ate increased by 14% in the vegan group. This is because it requires more energy to digest foods when your digestive system has to break down the cellular matrix found in unprocessed plant foods.

In other words, the vegan group burned more calories every day just by eating healthy foods. No other diet can promise this.

  • Fat mass decreased by 10% (9 pounds) in the vegan group but was unchanged in the control group
  • Belly fat decreased by 15%, liver fat was decreased by 31%, and muscle fat was decreased by 19% in the vegan group. All three parameters were unchanged in the control group.
    • This is perhaps the most significant observation from these studies since these are the three deadliest forms of fat in our bodies. Any diet that significantly reduces these forms of fat is likely to dramatically improve our health.
    • These parameters have not been measured in most studies of other weight loss diets, so we have no idea whether other weight loss diets have this effect.
  • Fasting blood glucose decreased by 11%, insulin resistance decreased by 40%, and insulin sensitivity increased by 22%. These parameters were unchanged in the control group.
    • These data show that just 16 weeks on a vegan diet is sufficient to significantly reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Total cholesterol decreased by 11% and LDL cholesterol decreased by 16%. Both parameters were unchanged in the control group.

For more details and a more in-depth comparison of the vegan diet with other popular diets read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor