Eating platefuls of plant-based foods might seem like an easy way to shed pounds and get back into your skinny jeans. After all, plants are mostly water and are loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. But don’t be fooled: Plant-based diets come with the same basic principle of any eating pattern. “If you’re not burning off more calories than you’re consuming, you’ll gain weight,” says Kristin Gustashaw, an advanced clinical dietitian with Rush Medical Center.
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
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A plant-based diet focuses on vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds and unsaturated oils. The eating pattern includes modest amounts of fish and other seafood, poultry, dairy products (such as eggs or cheese) and very small, occasional amounts of lean red meat.
Many diets have a plant-based eating style. They are distinguished by various characteristics. For example:
- A vegetarian diet eliminates meat and sometimes other animal products. It has a number of variations. For example, a pescatarian diet allows seafood; a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet allows dairy products; a vegan diet eliminates all foods that come from animals, including butter, eggs and mayonnaise.
- A Mediterranean diet leans toward seafood as the protein of choice and incorporates small daily amounts of olive oil. Small amounts of red wine are also recommended. This is a well-studied eating style associated with longevity and a reduced risk for developing heart disease and diabetes.
- The Flexitarian Diet is a vegetarian eating pattern that leaves room for the occasional burger. The diet also uses calorie limits for each meal.
- The Nordic Diet includes lots of fish and whole, organic foods that are locally sourced. It focuses on canola oil rather than olive oil.
Evidence suggests that all of these diets are associated with weight loss. But that doesn’t mean they’ll work for you. “Any intervention that doesn’t focus on reducing calories won’t lead to weight loss. Just eating fruits and vegetables and increasing healthy fat intake hasn’t consistently shown that it leads to weight loss over time,” says Colleen Tewksbury, a registered dietitian and bariatric program manager at Penn Medicine.
Plant-based foods are not created equal. Some have more calories, carbohydrates and fats than others. For example, one medium cucumber contains 12 calories, 2 grams of carbohydrates and a microscopic amount of fat. One medium avocado, however, contains 322 calories, 17 grams of carbohydrates and 29 grams of fat. “Avocados, olive oil, whole grain, lentils – they are all high in calories,” Tewksbury notes.
The fat alone could be a tipoff to higher calories: one gram of fat contains 9 calories, which is more than twice the amount of calories in 1 gram of carbohydrate.
Other ways that calories sneak into plant-based diets include:
- Portion size. Plant-based foods are easy to overeat because they’re tasty, and you assume they’re good for you. “You think you can eat as much as you want. But it’s not true. For example, a whole cup of nuts could exceed 700 calories,” Gustashaw says. Likewise, a serving of cooked quinoa (half a cup) has about 100 calories. That would make a nice foundation for cooked vegetables. However, a plateful of quinoa could have 300 or 400 calories.
- Toppings. Sometimes it’s the food topping that ramps up calorie intake. A bowl of low-calorie vegetables like kale and other salad greens can go from a few dozen calories to a few hundred if you drench it in high-calorie Caesar dressing and add croutons. Or if you top black coffee with cream, chocolate sauce and other sugary syrups, you could rev up the calorie count to 500 calories or more – as much as a whole meal.
- Junk food. Plenty of products are free of animal-based foods but still very high in sugar, fat and calories. Examples include chips, cookies, doughnuts, French fries and dairy-free ice cream.
- Meat substitutes. “A plant-based meat product like textured vegetarian soy or pea protein can be heavily processed with a lot of extra sugar, fat, binders and additional carb-based items,” Tewksbury says.
- Drinks. Calories add up quickly when you’re gulping them down in smoothies, juice, sports drinks, flavored coconut water, soda, flavored nut milks (like soy or almond) and alcoholic drinks. “Some drinks and beverages can have a thousand calories depending on the size,” Gustashaw says.
Start Counting Calories
In order to figure out why you’re gaining weight on a plant-based diet, you’ll have to figure out two things.
- One is what your daily calorie goal should be in order to lose weight steadily without sacrificing nutrients or energy. To find out, talk to your doctor or a dietitian or use an online calorie calculator.
- The other is to start counting how many calories you’re consuming each day. Measure your food with scales, look up information online or use the Nutrition Facts label on a food package.
Then write down how much you’re consuming. “Keep a food journal,” Tewksbury advises. “Tracking what you’re having and being able to see what might be leading to weight gain is really important. A food journal is one of the strongest predictors that someone will be able to maintain or lose weight.”
In addition to calories, you may want to note how many grams of carbohydrates, fat, sugar or sodium is in your food. This information can help you make adjustments toward a healthier diet.
Other Tips For Success
Counting calories is an important way to understand why you’re gaining weight on a plant-based diet. But there are other steps you can take.
- Eat whole grains and avoid refined grains. Whole grains contain fiber, which helps keep blood sugar from spiking and helps you feel full longer. “Aim for 25 to 30 grams per day,” Gustashaw suggests.
- Get enough protein. Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, which helps stave off hunger. To estimate the amount of protein you need (in grams) per day, Gustashaw recommends dividing your weight by two. “For example if you weigh 150 pounds, aim to eat about 75 grams of protein each day,” she says.
- Go for less fruit and more vegetables. “It’s a good idea to eat fruits and vegetables, but if you’re trying to lose weight, load up on non-starchy vegetables and just a smattering of fruit, which is higher in calories,” Gustashaw says.
- Avoid oversized portions. Tewksbury recommends using the USDA’s My Plate approach: Fill half of your plate with mostly vegetables and some fruits, a quarter of your plate with whole grains and a quarter of your plate with protein.
- Be mindful of artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners have no calories and can be useful tools (in moderation) to make foods more palatable. But scientists are investigating potential side effects related to weight control. “Some research indicates artificial sweeteners trick our bodies into thinking we’re still hungry,” Gustashaw notes, “and some research even suggests artificial sweeteners change our gut bacteria to make it harder to lose weight.”
- Find other toppings. “If you really like sweet and salty toppings on salad, find a lower-calorie dressing or just add cranberries and a few nuts,” Tewksbury says. For coffee, add cinnamon and skim milk instead of whipped cream and syrup.
And remember that losing weight isn’t only about your diet. Physical activity helps determine how many calories you burn in a day. And there are other factors that play a role. “You have to consider access to foods, genetics, gut hormones, social psychology, peer pressure, weight status, lifestyle activity and even self-esteem,” Tewksbury explains. “Your diet is just one piece of a very large puzzle.”
The Best Ways to Lose Weight – Slowly
Heidi Godman, Contributor
Heidi Godman reports on health for U.S. News, with a focus on middle and older age. Her work … Read more
Colleen Tewksbury, PhD, MPH, RD, LDN; Kristin Gustashaw, MS, RDN, CSG, LDN
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