Where V means veggie, vitality and VICTORY! Find out how vegetarian diets spark weight loss whilst keeping hunger at bay
by Amanda Woodvine, BSc Nutrition,
© Viva! Health 2006. Registered Charity 1037486.
Health Campaigner,Viva! Health
Obesity: The Expanding Epidemic
Obesity in Britain is soaring. The UK has some of the worst figures in Europe with almost two-thirds of English adults either overweight or obese. And it’s not just adults – children are getting heavier too, with more than a quarter of under 11s carrying more fat than they should.(1)
Being overweight isn’t just about how you look because as waistlines get bigger so does the risk of heart disease, strokes and some cancers. It’s the same for children, with evidence that their cholesterol levels are increasing. Sadly, overweight kids also risk getting picked on and the result can be low self-esteem, which can continue into adulthood.(2, 3) Children who carry too much fat can also face disability (including blindness, chronic pain and limb amputation) as they get older and their lifespan might be shortened.(4)
As obesity has gone up so has the number of diet products which claim to help. On average, women now spend a walloping £1,137 or thereabouts on slimming every year.(5) It doesn’t seem to have done much good, though, because obesity has increased four-fold in the last 25 years. Amazingly, it’s about to overtake smoking as the leading cause of early death.(6)
If fad diets worked, we would all be precisely the weight we want to be. Truth is, these diets might knock some pounds off but after a few months, most people find the weight has simply crept back on. The only certain way to stay slim and healthy is to get to grips with what causes you to put on weight and then change your eating habits permanently.
Just imagine for one glorious moment that you’re not having to count calories or worry about portion sizes – and you’re not tortured with thoughts of all the things you would like to eat because you’re having to survive on starvation rations.
Think how satisfying it would be to know that what you’re eating is cutting your risk of dying from Europe’s biggest killer – heart disease (one league table Britain wished it didn’t top). And what if you knew that you stood a good chance of lowering the damaging cholesterol in your body by a whacking 29 per cent simply through what you ate – a better result than any of the drugs on offer?
Knowing you were likely to lower your blood pressure, cut your risk of strokes and improve your chances of avoiding some cancers might even make you feel a bit on the smug side!
You’d feel even happier when you discovered that you also stood less chance of developing diabetes – with all its horrible complications such as blindness, heart disease, kidney failure and the risk of having to have limbs amputated.
Imagine being the correct weight, full of vitality and still being able to enjoy your food. Well, all this can be yours!
What is Overweight?
The usual way of working out if someone is overweight or obese is with something called the ‘body mass index’ (BMI) calculation. You divide your weight in kilograms (kg) twice by your height in metres (m).
A much easier way is to use our BMI calculator
If your BMI is between 18.5-24.9 then your weight falls within the normal range. The World Health Organisation reckons that adults should stick within this range and avoid weight gain of more than 5 kg (11 lb). If your BMI is below 18.5 you’re classed as underweight, a BMI of over 25 makes you overweight and a BMI of over 30 makes you officially obese (see Figure 2).
Be warned: the BMI calculation isn’t particularly accurate for determining whether children and teenagers are overweight or obese.
Obesity isn’t strictly about too much body weight but too much body fat – to a point that seriously endangers your health. And it isn’t solely about weight or fat but shape, too. The way that fat is distributed around your body can influence your risk of developing certain diseases.
Those who have the highest risk are people who put on weight around their middle. It has the lovely title of ‘abdominal obesity’ (AO) and is linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and various cancers, including those of the breast, colon and kidneys.
You can work out if you have AO by measuring your waist circumference – place a tape around your waist just above your hipbone and take the measurement immediately after breathing out. A waist circumference of 102 centimetres (cm) (about 40 inches) or more for men, and 88 cm (about 341⁄2 inches) or above for women is defined as AO.(7)
Everyone should try to keep their waist size at less than half their height.(8) This does work for children and is a simple way of keeping track of their weight.
Obesity – the Toll
Being overweight or obese can open the door to a whole raft of health problems. Some won’t kill you but they can be very debilitating – difficulty in breathing or engaging in physical activity, incontinence or even sexual problems, both psychological and physical.(9, 10)
Simple little pleasures such as energetic games with your children or grandchildren, walking long distances or having an active sex life might desert you. Heat discomfort, increased sweating and skin problems might also be part of the cost – and none of those will improve your sex life, either.(9, 10)
As with children, there are also links between being overweight and low self-esteem – even self-loathing and phobias.(9) And to top it all off, too much fat can lead to infertility and birth complications.
That’s the good news! The bad news is that a large waist measurement can more than double your risk of heart disease and increase your chances of having high blood pressure or a stroke six-fold.(9)
About 90 per cent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese(10) and if you’re 40 per cent heavier than you should be, your risk of cancer goes up by 50 per cent.(9) The longer you carry the weight, the greater your risk.(11)
Being obese from the age of 40 could reduce your life expectancy by about seven years, which compares with smoking 20 cigarettes a day.(11)
The Genuinely Good News!
By losing even a small amount of weight you can reduce your blood pressure and cut the need for drugs.(12) Lose fat and protect your heart, cut your risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer of the oesophagus, colon, kidney, gallbladder, breast, cervix, endometrium and prostate.(9, 10) Losing weight could add 10 years to your life.
Obesity and Children
A frighteningly large number of children are suffering ill health because of obesity and not always from the kinds of diseases you would expect to see in children. Adult diseases are now appearing in younger and younger people and the problem is getting worse.(13)
Children are facing high blood pressure, raised cholesterol levels and type 2 diabetes – even those considered ‘only’ mildly obese.(14) There is now a real chance that today’s kids will die before their parents.
Just as worrying are the massive psychological and social problems that result. Obese children often become targets of discrimination and many six to 10 year olds already associate obesity with such
negative views as laziness and sloppiness.(15)
Studies claim that 10 to 11-year-olds would sooner befriend a child with a whole range of disabilities than become mates with someone who is overweight.(2) In adolescents, obesity can produce a negative self-image that seems to last into adulthood.(3)
SUMMARY & ACTION POINTS
• Obesity rates are soaring and open the gate to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. Children
face low self-esteem.
• The size of your waist will tell you if you’re overweight.
• Lose a little weight and feel a lot better.
Diets for Healthy Weight Loss
There are two ways to lose weight – either deliberately limit the amount of food you eat to cut your calorie intake, or change your eating habits. play a part
Some people seem to prefer the discipline of counting calories and having strict limits on which foods can be eaten each day. The problem is, once you ‘come off’ the diet and go back to your usual eating habits, the
weight creeps back on.
Viva! Health gives a big thumbs down to fad diets and instead supports a ‘healthy eating for life’ approach, which is what the V-Plan Diet is about. It means moving away from high-calorie junk foods that are low in good nutrients and embracing foods which are packed with nutrients but relatively low in calories.
The kind of foods we’re talking about are fruits and vegetables, the whole range of beans, peas, lentils and other pulses and wholegrains. Even nuts can be added to the list because although high in calories, the science shows that they may actually help you lose weight, probably because they satisfy your hunger.(16) Of course, these foods are staples in a veggie diet.
Western vegetarians tend to eat a healthier diet than meat eaters, with healthy foods such as soya and other pulses, nuts and vegetables replacing meat.(17) US vegetarians eat more wholegrain products, dark green and deep yellow vegetables, wholegrain bread, brown rice, soya milk, tofu, meat substitutes, pulses, lentils and nuts.(18)
Although vegetarians eat the same amount of food as meat eaters – about 1,000 kg a year – they’re usually slimmer.(19) This means that to lose weight, you needn’t eat less food, simply different foods. Plant foods tend to be low in both fat and calories and are high in fibre – which is why they are naturally filling. And this reduces your appetite for high-calorie, fatty foods.
“Since becoming vegetarian I have lost over two stone and have given up cake and chocolate. I am losing weight at a rate of one or two pounds per week. I find my new diet filling and delicious and I have a lot more energy.” L Burgess
Vegetarians (see definition) eat about one-third less saturated fat and half the cholesterol of meat eaters. Vegans eat even less of both these nasties – half the harmful saturated fat and no cholesterol at all.(20, 21)
Staple foods in a vegan diet, such as nuts, soluble fibre from oats and barley, soya protein and things called plant ‘sterols’ (waxy substances found in the fatty parts of the plant) improve the fat (lipid) levels in your blood.(22) It’s why vegans tend to have very low levels of harmful cholesterol (LDL) in their blood.(23, 24)
A healthy vegetarian diet made up of all the kinds of foods we’ve mentioned increases your intake of vital fibre,‘antioxidants’ that shield against disease and protective plant nutrients known as phytochemicals.(25) All of these natural substances help in the control of diabetes.(25)
A bonus is that eating soya or other vegetable protein rather than animal protein cuts the risk of developing kidney disease (nephropathy) for those with type 2 diabetes.
Everyone seems to have a different view on vegetarians but the science is clear – they have remarkably good health with low rates of obesity,(26, 19) diabetes,(27) heart disease(28-30) and cancer(26) and can expect to live years longer.(17, 31) That’s some difference!
The biggest study of European vegans to date(32) compared over 1,000 of them to tens of thousands of meat eaters and vegetarians. The meat eaters, on average, were significantly heavier than the vegans.
Even allowing for differences in exercise, smoking and other lifestyle factors, vegans came out slimmer in every age group. Less than two per cent of vegans were obese compared to 20 per cent of English adults.(33)
The truth is – obesity is much less common in vegetarians and vegans than it is in meat eaters.(34, 35) On average, veggies’ BMI is lower by two,(43) which means that for any given height, vegetarians weigh less and are likely to have less body fat than meat eaters.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then that most overweight people shed pounds when they switch to a vegetarian diet.(44) On American medical expert, Dr Dean Ornish’s near vegan programme, designed primarily to reverse heart disease not produce weight loss, people have lost more weight than those on Atkins,Weight Watchers and Zone diets.(45)
Most people on the Ornish diet lost 24lb in the first year despite “eating more food, more frequently than before without hunger or deprivation.”(46) And they kept much of the weight off even after five years and improved their long-term health.(47)
Amazingly, a study carried out by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine(48) showed that low-fat vegan diets lead to significant weight loss without having to restrict calories, carbohydrates or portion sizes and without even having to exercise.
The 64 overweight women in the study went on either a low-fat vegan diet or a low-fat diet recommended by the US National Cholesterol Education Programme and were asked not to change their normal exercise pattern during the trial.
The ‘cholesterol diet’ group lost just over half-a-pound per week while the vegans lost about one pound a week – results similar to those you would expect with a low-calorie diet but with one big exception – these women had no limit on calories or portion sizes.
The vegans’ weight loss was attributed to the food being lower in calories but more filling. Low use of oils and a complete absence of animal fat (as vegans eat nothing from animals!) ensured the diet was low in overall fat.
The vegans also showed a 16 per cent increase in after-meal calorie burning speed (the thermic effect of food) which was probably due to their bodies’ ability to pull glucose out of the bloodstream much more quickly – a good thing!
The researchers in this study said that although, “At first glance, a vegan diet sounds like a challenge… research participants rate the acceptability of the vegan approach very similarly to that of other therapeutic diets. And while typical diets demand cutting calories and leave the dieter with nothing to assuage hunger pangs, a low-fat vegan approach provides plenty of choices to make up for whatever is missing. Hunger is not part of the equation.”(49)
“I was a very lazy person in a driving job and once I realised my state I changed to a vegetarian and then vegan diet. I am now running marathons (at 45). If only I had realised earlier!” D Smailes
Don’t be a Junk-Food Veggie
Of course, some people don’t lose weight on a plant-based diet and the reason is often too great a reliance on processed junk foods, usually very high in fat. Says T. Colin Campbell, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University and Project Director of the China-Oxford-Cornell Diet and Health Project, the biggest study of nutrition ever undertaken:
“These foods are not part of a plant-based diet that works to reduce body weight and promote health. Some people become vegetarian only to replace meat with dairy foods with added oils and refined carbohydrates, including pasta made with refined grains, sweets and pastries. I refer to these people as ‘junk-food vegetarians’ as they are not eating a nutritious diet.”(50)
Time is Everything
Treating weight loss as a race doesn’t work; it only makes you even more eager to go back to eating the foods that put the weight on you in the first place. A healthy weight loss is around one to two pounds per week. Don’t be fooled by fad diets that claim to shed weight faster than this because they are almost certain to fail in the long run.
Weight usually creeps on over months and years so don’t expect to shed it in weeks and still be healthy. Every pound of fat contains 3,500 kcal(31) so if you eat 500 kcal less than you use up in energy each day, you’ll lose one pound of fat a week. More than this and it’s likely to be water not fat.
Going it alone without medical supervision, men should eat at least 1,500 kcal per day and women 1,200 kcal.(31) The V-Plan Diet contains an average of 1,500 kcal per day. Skipping meals and eating less calories than this is unlikely to increase your weight loss (prolonged hunger can slow down your body’s metabolic rate in defence) and may damage your health because you’re missing out on vital nutrients.
One very large study of 21,105 vegetarians and vegans41 found that BMI was lower in those who stuck to their diet for five or more years compared to those who had been on the diet for less than five years.
Some people may have a family tendency to being overweight, which can obviously make the challenge of losing weight more difficult. If you’re not active (seeGetting Physical) that may also make it even more difficult. If this is you then being strict about your diet and exercise is important.
“I used to suffer with irritable bowel syndrome and severe constipation – nice! Whatever my doctor prescribed didn’t work, but what did work was going vegan. Since then, my stomach feels great; I am no longer bloated and have slimmed down in the process!”
Says Professor Campbell, “In rural China, we noticed that obese people simply did not exist, even though Chinese immigrants in Western countries do succumb to obesity. Now, as the dietary and lifestyle practices of people in China are becoming more like ours, so too have their bodies become more like ours. For those with a genetic predisposition, it doesn’t take much bad food before their change in diet starts to cause problems.”(50)
Get Fruity Every Day!
In her book, Eating Thin for Life,(51) dietician Anne Fletcher looked at the habits of hundreds of successful ‘dieters’ – people who had lost an average of over four-and-a-half stones and who had kept it off for over a decade. When asked to describe their eating habits, the answers were ‘low fat’, followed by ‘eating less meat’ and eating ‘more fruit and vegetables’.
One study(52) found that significant weight loss could be sparked simply by eating an additional three apples or pears a day. It was thought to make people feel full while adding very few extra calories.
A Harvard University Study(53) of 75,000 women over 10 years again found that the more fruits and vegetables women eat, the less likely they are to become obese. It seems that eating plenty of fruit and vegetables is important for weight loss.(54)
There’s no limit on how much fruit and veg you can eat – the more the better – but aim for at least five or six servings every day. To get the maximum health benefits, eat as wide a range as you can. Fresh, frozen, chilled, canned, and dried fruit and vegetables all count.
A glass (150ml) of 100 per cent fruit juice, vegetable juice or smoothie counts as one portion. It’s easy to start juicing at home – check out Juice Producer’s Vitalmax juicer (see www.juiceproducer.com or call 020 8374 5604 for further details). Rawcreation Ltd also stocks a range of juicers and other products (visit www.detoxyourworld.com or call 08700 113 119).
You don’t, of course, have to make these changes to your diet suddenly, overnight, and your body may not thank you if you do! Sudden changes can cause bloating and gas.
And don’t rush out and buy a mound of fresh fruit and vegetables, most of which will be left to rot. Build up your intake gradually so that it becomes a habit and remember that each extra serving of fruit and veg is a step in the right direction.
Try these V-Plan Diet tips for getting more goodies into your diet:
• Sprinkle dried or sliced fresh fruit on your cereal.
• Drink a glass of 100 per cent unsweetened fruit juice.
• Make a delicious creamy smoothie using fresh fruit and soya, rice or oat milk.
• Try a banana sandwich made with wholemeal or granary bread.
• Take two pieces of fresh fruit to work with you each day and eat them instead of high calorie snacks.
• Make little sticks of celery, carrot, asparagus tips, baby sweetcorn (crudités) and dip them in reduced-fat hummus.
• Grab individual portions of carrot batons, dried fruit and grapes at the supermarket instead of chocolate or crisps.
• Add tomatoes, cucumber and mixed salad leaves to your sandwiches – and try different types of wholegrain bread including bagels, pitta and rolls.
• Toss a selection of fruit, vegetables and salad leaves together, drizzle omega-3 dressing over (see the V-Plan Diet One Week Meal Plan) and eat it with a crusty wholemeal roll.
• Try different varieties of vegetable soup in colder weather.
• Always try to include at least one or two vegetables with your evening meal.
• Up your intake of veg in minutes by making a vegetable stir-fry.
• Have fresh fruit salad for dessert.
The World Health Organisation reckons the following healthy behaviour will ‘encourage, motivate and enable individuals to lose weight’: eating more fruit and vegetables, as well as nuts and wholegrains; daily moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes; cutting down on fatty, sugary foods; and dumping
saturated animal fats in favour of unsaturated vegetable oils (Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health).(10)
Much of the advice in this guide applies to children as well as adults. In his book, Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care,(55) paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock reckoned the way to get children to lose weight is to change the type of food they eat rather than the amount.
He encouraged shifting the entire family away from oily fried foods, meats and dairy products and toward low-fat, plant-based foods – grains, pasta, vegetables, pulses and fruit. When this is done, he said: “Weight loss typically occurs without anyone going hungry.”(55)
The advice is echoed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in their report, Weight Control and ObesityPrevention in Children: “Instead of centring meals around fatty meats and cheese, they should be built from healthy grains, legumes (pulses) and vegetables.”(56)