Maintaining a healthy weight is more than about how we look. Sure, fitting into your favourite jeans is a plus, but losing weight has many added benefits for our health, wellbeing and longevity. At a healthy weight, we reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases, have increased energy and feel amazing. And the best way to achieve this is with a plant-based diet.
In the developed world, alarmingly between 65 and 75 percent of adults are considered overweight or obese. Obesity affects some groups more than others, with ethnic and lower socioeconomic groups being more likely to be affected. As people age, they tend to become more overweight, and a sad reality is that increasingly more children are obese. Obesity puts us at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and around 13 types of cancer. Many health professionals maintain that being obese is worse for our health than smoking. So why are so many of us struggling with our weight? In this article I’ll explain why we are biologically driven to become overweight and how we can easily and joyfully return to a healthy weight range without restricting our food intake.
So what makes us driven to stack on weight?
Millions of years of evolution have led us to prefer calorie-dense foods. When foraging for food, humans would have sought out those that gave us the most calorie return per bite to ensure our survival to reproductive age. We are genetically no different to our ancestors and as a result, our brains are hardwired to seek out the chocolate fudge ice-cream in the freezer. Eating high calorie food stimulates the pleasure receptors in our brains and turns on the dopamine pathways so we find it difficult to resist foods that ultimately lead to weight gain.
The food industry knows how to cash in on these innate evolutionary forces. Many processed foods have been manufactured to deliver the right balance of salt, fat and sugar to trigger that pleasure response. Many people today get most of their calories from fat found in animal products and processed foods. Even those foods generally considered to be low fat – like chicken breast – still contain a significant amount of fat. Saturated fat, in particular, is extremely detrimental to our health, contributes to a number of chronic illnesses and promotes inflammation.
Dairy, especially cheese, is one of the most concentrated sources of saturated fat in the Western diet. In addition, dairy contains a morphine-like substance called casomorphin that makes it addictive and difficult to resist. It’s a naturally occurring chemical that encourages calves to feed from cows but in humans it leads to weight gain and health issues. Dairy has a role to play in disrupting the balance of hormones in our bodies and has been linked to infertility and acne. It provides less benefit to bone health that we are led to believe and can promote breast, ovarian and prostate cancer. So, despite the fact that it’s a calorie dense food, there are many other reasons people are beginning to turn away from dairy and towards plant-based alternatives.
The gut microbiome may also have a role to play in whether we carry more weight. Whole plant foods are super high in fibre which keeps the gut bugs happy. Researchers have found specific species of gut bacteria that are protective against weight gain, and guess what they love to eat? They all feed exclusively on fibre. Some gut microbes extract more calories from food, so having the right balance is vitally important. This balance may also explain why some people are a healthy weight and some put on weight more easily.
Benefits of losing excess pounds
We’ve all heard of the body mass index (BMI). It’s used by clinicians to determine if we are in a healthy weight range for our height. A BMI of over 25 is considered overweight and a BMI over 30, obese. The Adventist health study examined a large cohort of people looking at the effects of dietary patterns on mortality. It found that those people whose BMI put them in a healthy weight range were less likely to develop diabetes, stroke and heart disease. By comparing an omnivorous diet containing animal products to that based on plants, this study indicated that a plant-based diet correlates to a healthy weight.
Eating a whole food, plant-based diet and being in a healthy weight range may also promote a longer lifespan. In the blue zones people thrive by eating a diet of whole plant foods and interestingly these geographic locations have the lowest rates of chronic illnesses and the highest number of centenarians. Studies show that only about 25 percent of longevity has to do with our genes; the rest is a result of our diets and lifestyles.
Whole plant food nutrition can also have a desirable effect on our mental health by being anti-inflammatory. C-reactive protein (CRP) is a marker for inflammation in our bodies and unfortunately increases dramatically with saturated fat intake from animal foods. Higher CRP levels have been associated with depression and antidepressant use. By eating whole plant foods and avoiding animal products, fried and processed junk foods, we can lower CRP levels in our bodies. This then leads to better mood, increased energy and sense of wellbeing.
Is it possible to eat more and weigh less?
Definitely. It’s not our fault that we are becoming heavier. It’s a natural and normal human response to an abundance of hyper-palatable, calorie dense foods that are marketed to us by big food companies. The good news is that by making the right food choices we can turn our health around. By switching to plant-based nutrition consisting of whole plant foods – rather than processed vegan junk – we can feel satiated, reverse chronic illness and return to healthy weight range.
Fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains are low in calories and high in nutrients and therefore can be eaten in abundance. Nuts, seeds and avocados should be eaten in small amounts if we are trying to lose weight, as although they are nutrient dense, they are also high in calories. Processed oils are almost pure fat and should be avoided. Coconut oil, although touted as a health food, is around 90 percent saturated fat and raises our cholesterol, so we should steer clear of it if we want to be a healthy weight.
When people move to eating plant-based, they often have to eat larger servings of food. Because plants are so calorie dilute, we can fill our stomachs, feeling fully satisfied at each meal, without gaining weight. Eating plant foods and avoiding animal products also seems to increase metabolism, so we burn more calories even while resting. Plants are not only lower in calorie density, they are also high in health-promoting nutrients in the form of phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
The bottom line
It is possible to be an ideal weight, look amazing and feel great on a plant-based diet. As an added bonus, it’s even possible to live longer and avoid many of the chronic illnesses that are so prevalent in our society today. The best thing is that we can do this by savouring large volumes of colourful, delicious, nutrient dense and satiating whole plant foods. We should be questioning what we eat. If we want to be the best version of ourselves why not just eat plants?
Want to try a plant-based diet but don’t know where to start? The Centre for Nutrition Studies has a free 7 day kick-start program to inspire and motivate you. There is also a 21 day program produced by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to help you take control of your health with plant-based nutrition.