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.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

Vegan BurgerAmericans love their meat. In 2018 we averaged over 200 pounds of meat per person. If we just focus on beef, we eat about 54 pounds per year. That’s equivalent to four quarter pounders a week!

But we are also getting the message that too much meat, especially red meat, may be bad for us. Nearly 40% of us are trying to eat a more plant-based diet.

The problem is that we love the convenience of fast food restaurants, and we love our burgers. Plus, in the past the meatless burgers on the market were, in a word, disappointing. Their taste and texture left something to be desired. You really needed to be committed to a plant-based diet to eat them in place of a regular burger.

That all changed a few years ago with the introduction of the and new generation of meatless burgers – the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. They had the taste and texture of a real burger, but they were completely plant-based. What wasn’t to like?

  • Both companies claimed that their meatless burgers were healthier for the planet than regular burgers. For example, Impossible Food’s mission statement is: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems. So, we’re doing something about it: We’re making meat using plants, so that we never have to use animals again”.
  • Neither company claims their burgers are healthier for you. However, because their burgers are plant-based, the almost universal assumption has been that they are healthier than regular burgers.

Since their introduction they have taken the world by storm. You can find them in almost every supermarket and in many of your favorite fast food restaurants. Now that they are omnipresent, it is perhaps time to step back and take a closer look at this new generation of meatless burgers. In this article, I will ask two questions:

  • Are they healthier for you than regular burgers?
  • Are they healthier for the planet than regular burgers?

For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the Impossible Burger with occasional comparisons with the Beyond Burger. It is beyond the scope of this article to compare these burgers with the many other meatless burgers that are now starting to flood the marketplace.

What’s In The Impossible Burger?

  • When we think of a burger, the first thing we think of is protein. The Impossible Burger gets its protein from soy, while the Beyond Burger gets its protein from peas.

Coconut OilHowever, soy and pea protein don’t give you the mouth feel, flavor, red color, and texture of a beef burger.

  • The mouth feel of a burger comes from its saturated fat. Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger use coconut oil as their source of saturated fat.
    • Coconut oil has gained a reputation as a “healthier” saturated fat. However, as I have discussed in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, we have no long term studies on the health effects of diets high in coconut oil. We don’t really know whether it is healthier than other saturated fats.
  • The taste and color of a beef burger come from its heme content. Heme does not occur in the parts of plants we eat. However, heme is involved in nitrogen fixation, so it is found in the roots of some legumes.
    • The Impossible Burger has genetically engineered yeast to produce a type of heme called leghemoglobin that is found in soy roots. The Beyond Burger uses beet juice extract and annatto for the color and unspecified “natural flavor” for the flavor.
  • To get the texture of a beef burger, both the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger use maltodextrin, modified food starch, and a variety of other ingredients. They are both highly processed foods.
  • Iron is another important nutrient you expect to get from a beef burger. The Impossible Burger contains 4.5 mg of iron and the Beyond Burger contains 5.4 mg of iron.
    • However, that is only part of the story. When iron is attached to a heme molecule, it is more efficiently absorbed by our bodies. Beef burgers and the Impossible Burger contain heme iron. The Beyond Burger does not.
  • In addition, the Impossible Burger adds in the vitamins, including B12, that we would expect to get from a beef burger. The Beyond Burger does not.

What Are The Pluses Of The Impossible Burger?

thumbs upThere are some definite pluses for the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger:

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are made from plant-based ingredients rather than from meat.
  • Both are cholesterol free.
  • Both contain modest amounts of fiber (3 grams for the Impossible Burger and 2 grams for the Beyond Burger), while a meat burger contains none.
  • Both are good sources of iron, and the iron in the Impossible Burger is heme-iron, which is efficiently absorbed by our bodies.

What Are The Minuses of the Impossible Burger?

thumbs downThere are, however, some definite minuses as well.

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are high in saturated fat. The Impossible Burger is higher in saturated fat and the Beyond Burger contains the same amount of saturated fat as a real burger. That’s important because the latest advisory of the American Heart Association warns that saturated fat increases our risk of heart disease (I have discussed this finding in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”).
    • The saturated fat in both burgers comes from coconut oil. However, as I discussed above, we don’t know whether coconut oil is better or worse for us than other saturated fats. The relevant studies have not been done.
  • Both the Impossible and Beyond burgers are high in sodium. They have almost 5-times more sodium than a beef burger.
  • The heme in red meat catalyzes the formation of N-nitroso compounds in our gut which increase the risk of colon cancer. We do not know whether the form of heme added to Impossible Burgers catalyzes the same reaction, but it is likely.
  • Both plant-based burgers are low in protein compared to a beef burger (~20 grams versus 27 grams). On the other hand, 20 grams of protein is reasonable for a single meal.
  • The plant proteins used for these burgers (soy for the Impossible Burger and pea for the Beyond Burger) are highly processed. They lack the phytonutrients found in the unprocessed proteins.
    • The isoflavones found in soy are thought to decrease the risk of cancer and osteoporosis.
    • The phytonutrients found in peas have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. They are also thought to decrease the risk of certain cancers.
  • The Impossible Burger is GMO. The leghemoglobin is produced by genetically engineered yeast, and the soy is also GMO.
  • Neither the Impossible Burger nor Beyond Burger are certified organic. Organic certification refers to how the plant was grown. Both burgers are highly processed. Many of the ingredients in both burgers came from factories, not farms.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Eating Impossible BurgerNow, it is time to return to the original question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for you?” Since it is plant-based, it would be easy to assume that it is healthier than a burger made from beef. However, when you look more closely, it is not clear that it is healthier.

The manufacturers of the Impossible Burger and similar burgers have gone to the laboratory and have been successful at creating meatless burgers with the taste, mouth feel, and texture of real burgers. However, these improvements have come with a price.

  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are higher in saturated fat than a beef burger. This means they may be just as likely to increase the risk of heart disease as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger contains as much heme as a beef burger, which means it may be just as likely to increase the risk of cancer as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are highly processed. That means:
    • The plant proteins no longer contain the phytonutrients thought to be responsible for some of their health benefits.
    • They also don’t contain the vitamins you would expect to find associated with the plant proteins.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are not organic. Even worse, the Impossible Burger is GMO.

On balance, we can’t really assume the Impossible Burger is any healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. Plus, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

For example, I looked up the Organic Sunshine brand South West Black Bean burgers. It only provides half as much protein as an Impossible Burger, but all the ingredients are organic, non-GMO, and minimally processed. Note: I am not recommending a particular brand. However, with a little research I am confident you can find a healthy meatless burger with a taste you will enjoy.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

impossible burger good for planetNow, let’s look at the second question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for the planet?” The answer to this question seems obvious. As the Impossible Burger company states in their mission statement: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems”. It seems logical that any meatless burger would be an improvement.

If we are talking about a minimally processed black bean burger, like the one I described above, the answer is a clear yes. It is healthier for the planet. However, when you look more closely at the Impossible Burger, the answer isn’t as clear.

  • As coconut oil has increased in popularity massive areas of untouched, forested land have been cleared for coconut plantations.
    • These forested areas provide an essential ecosystem for animals and provide natural storm protection by absorbing rainwater. Therefore, coconut oil, like beef, also destroys our ecosystems.
    • In addition, many of the coconut plantations use large amounts of chemical fertilizers which contribute to phosphate pollution and algae overgrowth in lakes, rivers, and coastal ocean areas. This also degrades our environment.
  • The Impossible Burgers and similar meatless burgers contain many highly processed ingredients. Each of these ingredients imposes its own environmental burden. For example:
    • Coconut oil is often processed with hexane, which is categorized as a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.
    • In addition, coconut oil is primarily grown in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. Transporting it to this country generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.
    • And, of course, coconut oil represents only one of the many highly processed ingredients in the Impossible Burger and similar meatless burgers.

In short, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

The Bottom Line

Two weeks ago, I wrote about recent headlines claiming that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much red meat as they like. I looked at the study behind the headlines and pointed out the many flaws in that study.

Last week I wrote about headlines claiming that red meat was just as heart healthy as white meat. I looked at the study behind the headlines and showed it was an excellent example of how the beef industry influences the design of clinical trials to minimize the health risks of red meat. It is also an example of how the media misleads and confuses the public about the effect of nutrition on their health.

What the studies I reviewed the last two weeks really showed was that very small amounts (2-3 ounces) of very lean red meat is probably OK as part of a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet. Larger servings of fattier cuts of red meat as part of the typical American diet is problematic.

However, if you love your burgers, what are you to do? Are the meatless burgers like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger that are showing up in your favorite fast food restaurants the answer? Specifically, you are probably asking:

  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for you?
  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for the planet?

I looked at the composition, pluses, and minuses of this new generation of meatless burgers in this article. The bottom line is:

  • On balance, the Impossible Burger is only slightly healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. And, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that are organic, non-GMO, and use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

  • Similarly, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

For more details, 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.

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