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Weight Loss on a Plant-Based Diet: Dropping Pounds the Healthy Way

Weight loss can be an attractive benefit of a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet.

But it’s not a fad, miracle cure, or quick fix; it’s a complete lifestyle, and its benefits go far beyond shedding a few pounds. The primary goal of a WFPB lifestyle is not to lose weight, but instead to achieve optimal health that lasts.

The good news: you can do both. Here’s what the research shows and how you can use the findings to reach your weight loss goals while also improving overall wellness.

The Science of Plant-Based Weight Loss

Studies comparing plant-based diets to other dietary patterns suggest that a high-carbohydrate, low-fat vegan approach has the greatest benefit for overall weight loss and fat mass reduction.[1]

Why? Fiber might be one of the biggest factors.

In one 16-week clinical trial, 75 overweight or obese participants were randomized to eat either a high-carbohydrate, low-fat vegan diet or remain on their usual diets. Those following the plant-based pattern had lower BMI, fat mass, and visceral fat by the end of the study. Higher insoluble fiber intake in this group appeared to play a significant role in lowering both BMI and fat mass.[2]

Higher fiber intake can also improve gut microbiome diversity and lead to increased short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) production. Having higher SCFA levels may help you feel full and satisfied on a plant-based diet, which makes it easier to control portion sizes and caloric intake without battling hunger.[3]

Insulin sensitivity—how well cells respond to insulin—appears to be important for plant-based weight loss. Being overweight is associated with insulin resistance and high blood sugar, but losing even a moderate amount of weight reduces resistance and makes it easier for sugar to enter cells, where it is metabolized to generate energy.

Polyphenols in plant-based foods may contribute to better insulin sensitivity by reducing the amount of fat in the blood. This can lead to increased heat production, known as thermogenesis, which also helps you lose weight.[4]

How Much Weight Loss on a Plant-Based Diet is Healthy?

Although these benefits can be seen as soon as you start making plant-based foods a central part of your diet, keeping the weight off is important for long-term health. According to the CDC, you’re more likely to maintain a healthy weight over time if you aim for a slow and steady loss of 1 to 2 pounds (2.2 to 4.4 kilograms) per week.[5]

At first, you may see a more rapid loss as you shed water weight. Don’t get discouraged when the loss starts to slow! Dropping weight too quickly can result in muscle loss, which can negatively affect bone health and increase your risk of falling and frailty as you age.[6]

To prevent this, pay attention to protein intake. Eating more protein during weight loss helps preserve muscle while reducing body fat. Instead of the RDA of 0.8 grams per kilogram, aim for at least 1.6 grams per kilogram.[7] Some research shows that 1.8 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram, or up to 1 gram per pound, can help you stay satisfied and maintain muscle while losing weight on a plant-based diet.[8]

Plant Based Weight Loss

Plant-Based Tips for Sustainable Weight Loss

Thanks to their satiating effects, high fiber and adequate protein make a winning combination for weight loss on a plant-based diet. Focusing on whole and minimally processed plant foods also reduces caloric density, which means you can eat a large enough volume of food to avoid feeling hungry without exceeding the caloric intake required to lose weight.

Another key factor in reducing calories? Cutting out sugary drinks. Swap caloric beverages like soda and sports drinks for water or one of the many delicious unsweetened, flavor-infused waters on the market. This simple change can cut several hundred calories per day from your diet.

Avoiding added oils, processed sugars, and excessive salt can be especially helpful. Avoiding salt and sugar gives your taste buds a chance to reset so that you can begin enjoying the natural flavors of plant-based foods, and cutting out oil in favor of fats from whole foods like nuts, seeds, and avocados can help reduce overall fat and calories.

However, it’s important not to drop your fat intake too low. Healthy fats have several benefits, including:

  • making food taste better;
  • increasing the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins; and
  • keeping LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, total cholesterol, and blood pressure low while increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol[9]

Since fat is more calorie dense, it may be helpful to track your food for the first couple of weeks on a plant-based diet to get an idea of what a balanced intake looks like.

But again, keep in mind that weight loss shouldn’t be your only reason for going plant based. Eating this way is a lifelong change, not a “quick fix” fad. To sustain your weight loss and see lasting benefits, go into your weight-loss journey with the goal of establishing habits you can stick with in the long term. Practice these habits as you lose weight, and eating plant based will become second nature in no time.

References

  1. Turner-Mcgrievy, Gabrielle M., Charis R. Davidson, Ellen E. Wingard, Sara Wilcox, and Edward A. Frongillo. “Comparative Effectiveness of Plant-based Diets for Weight Loss: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Five Different Diets.” Nutrition 31, no. 2 (2015): 350-58. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2014.09.002.
  2. Kahleova, Hana, Sara Dort, Richard Holubkov, and Neal Barnard. “A Plant-Based High-Carbohydrate, Low-Fat Diet in Overweight Individuals in a 16-Week Randomized Clinical
  3. Byrne, C. S., E. S. Chambers, D. J. Morrison, and G. Frost. “The Role of Short Chain Fatty Acids in Appetite Regulation and Energy Homeostasis.” International Journal of Obesity 39, no. 9 (2015): 1331-338. doi:10.1038/ijo.2015.84.
  4. Najjar, and Feresin. “Plant-Based Diets in the Reduction of Body Fat: Physiological Effects and Biochemical Insights.” Nutrients 11, no. 11 (2019): 2712. doi:10.3390/nu11112712.
  5. “Losing Weight.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 17, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/.
  6. Lang, T., T. Streeper, P. Cawthon, K. Baldwin, D. R. Taaffe, and T. B. Harris. “Sarcopenia: Etiology, Clinical Consequences, Intervention, and Assessment.” Osteoporosis International 21, no. 4 (2009): 543-59. doi:10.1007/s00198-009-1059-y.
  7. Dieter, Brad. “How Much Protein Should You Eat Per Day?” NASM. https://blog.nasm.org/nutrition/how-much-protein-should-you-eat-per-day-for-weight-loss.
  8. Roberts, Justin, Anastasia Zinchenko, Krishnaa Mahbubani, James Johnstone, Lee Smith, Viviane Merzbach, Miguel Blacutt, Oscar Banderas, Luis Villasenor, Fredrik Vårvik, and Menno Henselmans. “Satiating Effect of High Protein Diets on Resistance-Trained Subjects in Energy Deficit.” Nutrients 11, no. 1 (2018): 56. doi:10.3390/nu11010056.
  9. Zhu, Ruixin, Mikael Fogelholm, Sally D. Poppitt, Marta P. Silvestre, Grith Møller, Maija Huttunen-Lenz, Gareth Stratton, Jouko Sundvall, Laura Råman, Elli Jalo, Moira A. Taylor, Ian A. Macdonald, Svetoslav Handjiev, Teodora Handjieva-Darlenska, J. Alfredo Martinez, Roslyn Muirhead, Jennie Brand-Miller, and Anne Raben. “Adherence to a Plant-Based Diet and Consumption of Specific Plant Foods—Associations with 3-Year Weight-Loss Maintenance and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors: A Secondary Analysis of the PREVIEW Intervention Study.” Nutrients 13, no. 11 (2021): 3916. doi:10.3390/nu13113916.
  10. Copyright 2022 Center for Nutrition Studies. All rights reserved.

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