With each new year there is an plethora of new fad diets offering promises to help us shed those unwanted pounds. Excluding food groups, drastically cut calories, eating pre-prepared meals or following a new celebrity trend, it may all sound enticing yet do these diets actually work? The answer is no. Fad diets may help you lose some weight in the short-term, but these approaches do not lead to long term success. Plus the weight loss often comes with consequences such as deprivation, frustration, nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, irritability, and eventually a sense of failure because the pounds creep back once the diet is over.
One dietary strategy that is healthy and seems to offer benefits for weight loss and disease prevention is going green, in other words, following a vegetarian diet.
Going Green for Weight Loss
Numerous studies have shown that a vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of many chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Mounting evidence has found this healthy way of eating can also help us slim down.
Vegans and vegetarians consume diets that are higher in fibre and lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol compared to people on eating a non-vegetarian diet—factors that reduce disease risk and help facilitate weight loss. In fact, a scientific review of 87 studies concluded that a vegetarian diet is highly effective for weight loss, independent of exercise.
The authors of this review found that the body weight of both male and female vegetarians is, on average, 3 to 20 percent lower than that of meat-eaters. The researchers also found that a low-fat vegan diet leads to weight loss of about 1 pound per week, even without additional exercise or limits on portion sizes, calories, or carbohydrates.
According to the authors of this review “There is evidence that a [vegetarian] diet causes an increased calorie burn after meals, meaning plant-based foods are being used more efficiently as fuel for the body, as opposed to being stored as fat.” The reviewers also reported that insulin sensitivity increased for vegetarians, easing the absorption of nutrients into cells.
Choose Your Carbs Carefully
Advocates of low carb dieting spread the idea that carbohydrates were responsible for obesity, diabetes, and lots of other health problems. As a result, many dieters cut out vegetables, whole grains and fruits from their diet, thinking that these foods were making them fat. While this was a hot trend for many years, studies on low carbs diets yielded mixed results, and the health concerns (constipation, nutritional deficiencies, depression and bad breath) outweighed any short-term benefits. Plus it is now known that not all carbs are equal. Those that break down quickly into sugar, such as white bread and products made with refined flour, can cause rapid increases in blood sugar and insulin levels, which is associated with weight gain, increased risk of diabetes
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates, such as those found in vegetables, whole grains, and beans are absorbed slowly and do not cause rapid increases in blood sugar levels. Although fruits naturally contain sugar, they are also high in fibre and thus are broken down into sugar more slowly in our bodies compared to refined starches and sweets (cookies, candy, and soft drinks). The bottom line is that carbs provide us with good nutritional value (vitamins, minerals and fibre) and they can play an important role in a healthy diet.
If you are thinking of going vegetarian, here are some tips on how to make the diet work with a busy lifestyle:
- Stock your cupboards with an assortment of dried and canned beans, nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, sunflower and pumpkin seeds)
- Have brown rice, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, cous cous, hemp hearts, and barley handy
- For breakfast, protein shakes made with whey protein, berries (or other fruits) and yogurt will take only a few minutes to prepare. Oatmeal, whole grains toast with poached eggs or almond butter are other great breakfast ideas.
- Pack your lunch the night before so that you aren’t stuck resorting to a fast-food lunch. Salads with grilled vegetables, chickpeas, beans and nuts are healthy and satisfying. Leftover soups and stews make great lunches. Or try sandwiches on sprouted bread or pita wraps with grilled veggies.
- Use a slow cooker. There are tons of great recipes for soups and stews and you can prepare the ingredients the night before, put it in the pot when you leave for work and have dinner ready for when you get home.
- Other quick, healthy dinner ideas include stir-fried vegetables, lentils, and tofu with steamed brown rice or baked vegetarian lasagna which can be prepared the night before. There are lots of great cookbooks for vegetarian meals in minutes.
- Bring along some healthy snacks to work such as veggie sticks, nuts, fresh or dried fruit, yogurt or energy bars.
Here are some other helpful tips to keep in mind:
Don’t skip breakfast. It really is the most important meal of the day and studies have shown that those who do skip breakfast are at a greater risk of becoming obese and diabetic.
Eat small frequent meals to keep energy levels high and blood sugar levels balanced. Aim for 3 meals and 2 snacks between meals so that you are eating something every 3 hours. This will also keep your metabolism revved and prevent hunger cravings.
Try not to eat too late in the evening as our metabolism is slower in the evening and calories can be stored as fat rather than be burned for energy.
Drink lots of water (8 to 10 glasses per day). Water works with fibre to fill you up, it helps cleanse the body and a lack of water (dehydration) can be mistaken for hunger.
A vegetarian diet is a sensible and proven way to reduce to facilitate weight loss and improve many other aspects of health. For further advice on becoming vegetarian consult with a dietitian or nutritionist.
Pereira MA, Kartashov AI et al. Eating breakfast may reduce risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease. Mar 6, 2003 Miami, FLAvailable at: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3009715.
Romon M, Edme JL et al. Circadian variation of diet-induced thermogenesis. Am J Clin Nutr . 1993 Apr;57(4):476–480.
Barnard ND, Scialli AR, Turner-McGrievy G, et al. The effects of a low-fat, plant-based dietary intervention on body weight, metabolism, and insulin sensitivity.
Am J Med 2005;118(9): 991-97.
Berkow, S. Nutrition Reviews, April 2006. News release, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.