A preoccupation with weight can be unhealthy, and for many, the societal pressure of weight-shaming can be debilitating. But it’s possible to discuss the benefits of healthy lifestyle changes—including weight loss—without focusing on appearance. Following a whole-food, plant-based vegan diet can leaded to improved overall health and reduce the risk of chronic illness and obesity.
Obesity has been defined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 and above. More generally, obesity is considered to be approximately 20 percent more than the “ideal” or healthy weight for an individual. There are several common criticisms of these definitions, not least that the BMI does not take into account overall body composition.
Muscle mass, bone density, and countless other factors make every-body different. However, despite the difficulty of definition, several links have been made between obesity and chronic illnesses. Healthy dietary and lifestyle changes do not need to be synonymous with a singular, idealized body type, and all of us can enjoy the benefits of a varied diet and staying active—however that looks for you.
The risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke is increased by obesity. According to a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excess body fat can also increase the risk of 13 different types of cancer. The authors of the study suggest preventative treatment in the form of exercise and healthy eating.
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a whole-foods plant-based diet is one of the healthiest available. Nutrient-dense, plant-based foods are thought to maximize nutrition while minimizing the risk of certain health conditions. Minh Nguyen, a registered dietician with PCRM, says that no amount of meat is safe for human consumption.
“At PCRM we advocate a plant-based diet for many conditions including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes,” Nguyen told LIVEKINDLY. “You have to think about what the diet excludes, but also what it incorporates.” Nguyen added that plant-based foods are rich in dietary fiber, which “can significantly reduce colorectal cancer risk.”
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) study from 2017 looked at the link between meat consumption and weight for U.S. adults. The results showed that those with the highest meat consumption were approximately 27 percent more likely to classified as obese.
Separately, researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit in the UK reported that waist circumference is independently associated with an elevated risk of type two diabetes. The World Health Organization (WHO) also says that obesity can lead to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and musculoskeletal disorders.
What Is Healthy Weight Loss?
According to the WHO, obesity has nearly tripled worldwide since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight, and of these over 650 million people were obese. “The fundamental cause of obesity and overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended,” says the WHO.
The organization suggests maximizing the consumption of vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. WHO also recommends engaging in regular physical activity of some kind, depending on ability. By adopting a plant-based diet and engaging in regular exercise, or improving diet and lifestyle, in general, many people find that they naturally lose weight.
However, how much varies from person to person, based on many different factors. While weight loss does not happen for everyone, making healthy choices has benefits, even if they do not manifest in the form of lost weight. Staying active is important, in general, dependent on personal ability and circumstances.
“Individual responsibility can only have its full effect where people have access to a healthy lifestyle,” says the WHO. “Therefore, at the societal level it is important to support individuals in following the recommendations.”
PCRM specifically recommends a high-carb, vegan diet for healthy weight loss.
Vegan Diet and Weight Loss
Whether weight loss happens naturally when switching to a vegan diet varies based on a variety of contextual, lifestyle, and genetic factors. It depends, in particular, on the diet and lifestyle previously followed. For example, if someone consuming a diet consisting primarily of meat, dairy, and fatty animal products were to switch to a whole-foods plant-based diet, some weight loss is possible—and perhaps likely.
PCRM tested the impact of a vegan diet on weight with a group of 64 women by cutting out animal products and reducing oil consumption. “They lost about a pound per week,” says PCRM. “Without calorie counting or exercise. After two years, they maintained the weight loss.”
“Plant-based diets lead to weight loss, even without exercise or calorie counting,” says PCRM. “Replacing high-fat foods with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes naturally reduces calorie intake.”
Healthy vegan foods are often naturally lower in saturated fat. A whole food, plant-based diet is also high in fiber and nutrients. For a healthy diet, variety is paramount. PCRM recommends filling up on fibrous foods like legumes and vegetables, eating plenty of greens, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep.
“Fad diets often lead people to fear carbohydrates. But the research continues to show that healthy carbohydrates–from fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains–are the healthiest fuel for our bodies,” said Hana Kahleova, M.D., Ph.D., director of clinical research for PCRM.
9 Best Tips for Weight Loss
These tips for vegan weight loss focus on some of the healthiest, most nutrient-dense plant-based foods available. A high-carbohydrate, whole foods, plant-based diet is also favored by several prominent athletes looking to build strength and muscle. And this diet is widely considered suitable for a variety of different lifestyles, body types, and needs.
1. Pulses and Legumes
Beans, legumes, and pulses are extremely versatile complex carbohydrates. When combined with whole grains like rice and quinoa, legumes are an effective, affordable, and accessible high-protein meal. They are high in fiber, iron, folate, and are low in fat. Including these in your diet is an easy way to minimize calories while maximizing nutrients.
“A 100-gram serving of cooked chickpeas provided 18 percent of the daily value for protein, 30 percent of the daily fiber, 43 percent of the daily folate intake, and 52 percent of the trace mineral manganese,” says plant-based cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn.
2. Dark Green Vegetables
Dark green vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals and even contain protein. Spinach, kale, and other cruciferous vegetables are low in calories but nutritionally dense, helping you feel fuller for longer. This makes them perfect for health-conscious, low-fat diets.
“Kale contains fiber, antioxidants, calcium, vitamins C and K, iron, and a wide range of other nutrients that can help prevent various health problems,” says Medical News Today. “Antioxidants help the body remove unwanted toxins that result from natural processes and environmental pressures.”
Oats are naturally low in both calories and fat. Regular consumption of oatmeal reduces the risk of heart disease and colorectal cancer. Oatmeal is rich in thiamin, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, selenium, and iron, as well as fiber and protein.
Edible sea-vegetables, or seaweed, is extremely high in fiber and low in calories. It is high in iodine and tyrosine, both of which can support healthy thyroid function. According to Healthline, a single teaspoon (approximately 3.5 grams) of dried kelp can contain 59 times the recommended daily amount (RDA) of iodine. Seaweed also contains fucoxanthin, which some studies suggest may help prevent obesity and diabetes.
Tofu is extremely high in protein and lower in calories and fat than many animal proteins. According to Livestrong, a 3.5 ounce serving of soft tofu has just 61 calories, compared to a 3.5 ounce serving of fat-trimmed tenderloin which has 168. Tofu is a versatile, low-fat, high-protein ingredient used in dishes from curries to cheesecakes. Already a staple in many vegan diets, tofu is low in calories and can help healthy weight loss.
6. Sweet Potato
Sweet potatoes contain more fiber and fewer calories than white potatoes, making them a healthier option. They are low-glycemic, which means that they won’t cause a spike in blood sugar levels. Irregular blood sugar levels can contribute to weight gain and diabetes.
7. Whole Grains
Eating whole-grain carbohydrates such as brown rice, pasta, and quinoa is also central to many healthy diets. Whole grains contain more dietary fiber than their refined counterparts. Whole-grain foods contribute to good cardiovascular and bowel health. Regular consumption of whole grains has also been linked to weight loss and increased metabolism by some studies.
8. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are high in calories and fat, but they are extremely healthy and can still support weight loss. They contain unsaturated fat, which has been linked with a reduced risk of heart disease. They are high in protein and a concentrated source of healthy energy.
Fruit is naturally sweet and high in vitamins and minerals. Eating fruit as part of a generally healthy diet can significantly reduce the risk of chronic diseases. And everal studies indicate that regularly consuming whole fruits can help prevent weight gain in general.
“Fruit and vegetables are important components of a healthy diet,” says the WHO. “Their sufficient daily consumption could help prevent major diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers.”