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Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc.
38 East Market Street, Rhinebeck, New York 12572 USA -  845-876-2626
Vegetarian - Vegan - Animal Rights - Health - Nutrition - Environment

The mission of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society, Inc. is to promote the vegetarian ethic in the Mid-Hudson (New York) region, educate the community and aid anyone in the pursuit of a totally vegetarian (vegan) cruelty-free and healthful lifestyle.

Newsletters - Winter 2006 Issue

Losing weight – vegetarian/vegan style

by Constance Young

(This article is revised from the author’s article in the Summer 2005 issue of About Town)

The stereotypical vegetarian or vegan is skinny, unkempt and wears baggy clothes. Not true.

Any vegetarian who has fought cravings for vegan chips or Soy Delicious Non-Dairy Frozen Dessert, knows this is a myth.

We know that vegan “junk food” (not unlike cheeseburgers and milk shakes) can add excess weight, especially for people who don’t get enough exercise (and of course we know also that many vegetarians / vegans are drop-dead gorgeous).

Vegans can be overweight despite compelling and strong evidence that a vegan diet may cause healthy weight loss (not the fad diet kind). One study of 64 postmenopausal overweight women, led by Neal Barnard, MD, president of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, found that a low-fat vegan diet spurred weight loss. The study was reported in the September 2005 issue of the American Journal of Medicine. The dieters did not have to restrict calories, portion sizes, or carbohydrates.

Another article, published in the January 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found also that women who ate less fat and more carbohydrates lost about 2 pounds over seven years.

So what do we make of this? Perhaps my own experience provides some hints. Although I have been a vegan for more than fifteen years, like millions of non-vegan Americans I have put on too much weight over the years. Two clues: 1) I don’t get enough exercise and 2) I love desserts and other fat-laden snack foods. I also generally eat mega portions of starchy carbohydrates.

To deal with my overweight, I have gone on a variety of weight loss diets (fasting, juice diets, Weight Watchers, even the Atkins diet — but more about that later) over the years. Like many people, I seesawed. I would lose weight while on the diet, then gain it back shortly afterwards. I soon discovered that “dieting” per se for weight loss is generally a lose-gain situation (lose weight now, gain it back later). I found that the best way to keep off unwanted pounds is to choose a dietary lifestyle based on sound health principles. In my case, this lifestyle includes a low-fat vegan diet.

My conclusion is backed up by a recent four-year study (in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology — April 2005), which found that adolescent girls who went on radical diets were more likely to become obese than girls their age who ate high-fat foods or who gorged themselves. Radical diets led to obesity.

The following are pros and cons of some popular diet plans:

The Atkins phenomenon

“Atkins” refers to the diet guru Robert Atkins, MD, who burst on the popular culture scene in 1972 with the publication of his book, “Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution.” Atkins did indeed start a revolution that turned traditional nutritional wisdom upside down.

The Atkins’ diet is largely high in protein and fats — despite strong evidence that animal fats can clog arteries and contribute to other disease. Massive evidence confirms that saturated fat and cholesterol, found largely in animal products, are bad for you. For example, a recent study of 148,610 Americans published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that a high intake of red and processed meats was associated with about a 53 percent increase risk higher risk of colon cancer.

The Atkins plan also recommends drastically cutting down on all carbohydrates. This, despite strong scientific evidence that many “good” carbohydrates (such as whole wheat, beans and vegetables) are rich in heart-healthy nutrients and protective against some cancers. Many critics believe that although weight loss will likely occur on the Atkins plan because the plan is generally low in calories, the diet is nutritionally unbalanced. It is too low in fruits and vegetables, and does not teach good eating habits.

Dr. Atkins death in April 2003 was embroiled in controversy. His family refused to authorize an autopsy so the true cause of death is uncertain. However some say it was not the result of a “fall on the ice” — the official cause, but rather due to a heart attack.

Critics also claim that Atkins had hypertension and was 258 pounds when he died. There is documented evidence that Dr. Atkins did have a heart attack in April 2002. If he followed his own diet this does not bode well for the diet’s future, and its popularity appears to be waning. The Atkins company filed for bankruptcy protection this summer.

Other diets

There are hundreds of diet books and plans, but only a few have proven the test of time.

The long-running Weight Watchers program was recently part of a review of ten of the nation’s most popular weight-loss programs.

The review, which appeared in January’s Annals of Internal Medicine, found that among the plans tested (a vegan diet was not included) only Weight Watchers documented evidence of its effectiveness in getting weight off and keeping it off.

The Weight Watchers plan distinguishes between good and bad carbohydrates and fats, and is based essentially on sound health principles.

The “South Beach Diet,” which was written by South Florida cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatson, is not a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet. Unlike Atkins, and true to the newly revised U.S. Dietary Food Pyramid, it distinguishes between “good” carbs and “bad” carbs (sugar, white bread, etc.) and “good” and “bad” fats. Meals generally are more balanced and include both desserts and snacks. A review of the South Beach Diet by Nutrition Action Healthletter in the article “Weighing the Diet Books,” claims that although South Beach isn’t perfect, it is the first time in a long time that one of the most popular weight-loss books recommends a healthy diet.

I found both good and bad reviews of the “Zone Diet,” which appears to follow in the Atkins tradition. One review conducted by the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension writes that the “Zone Diet” promotes a diet higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates than recommended. Further, the review writes, the diet is “based on half-truths, mixed messages and theories,” not grounded in peer-reviewed research.” There is nothing magical about The Zone Diet, it says, it is just a very low-calorie diet.

Another review by the Nutrition Action Newsletter claims that it has the correct ratio of carbs to protein to fat (40:30:30) which promotes weight loss (and health) because it keeps insulin levels in “The Zone.”

The Dean Ornish Diet (in the 1993 book “Eat More, Weigh Less”) is a vegetarian diet that is low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates. Ornish does not limit amounts of food (or calories) and encourages moderate exercise. The Colorado State University review calls the Ornish diet “heart healthy,” but claimed that non-vegetarians may find it difficult to follow.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) recommends both the Dean Ornish diet and “The McDougall Program for Weight Loss” by John McDougall, MD, which is also a low-fat vegetarian diet that is high in fiber and low in cholesterol.

A Canadian study, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2005, found that a diet rich in fiber and vegetables lowered cholesterol just as much as taking the standard cholesterol- lowering drugs (statins).

The next big thing: GI

The newest approach to weight loss is the Glycemic Index. The theory goes that high-glycemic carbs (such as refined flours) are quickly digested — and that’s bad. On the other hand, lowglycemic carbs (such as whole grains) are digested more slowly, and that’s good. Last year 175 new products were marketed as “low glycemic.”

Although it doesn’t use this terminology, the new Food Pyramid also encourages eating carbohydrates that fall into the slow-carb category.

According to a Mayo Clinic review (on MayoClinic.com) of the book “The G.I. (Glycemic-Index) Diet” by Rick Gallop, the foods emphasized are generally healthy, but not for the reasons stated. The review adds that a person may lose weight on this diet, but the weight loss is more likely due to eating fewer calories rather than the effects of low-glycemic-index foods. On the other hand, according to Grant Ferrier, editor of Nutrition Business Journal, the detailed Glycemic Index has better science behind it than most low-carb diets.

Studies point to the “Mediterranean diet”

In general, most of the scientific literature pits the so-called “Mediterranean diet” (foods traditionally eaten in Italy and other Mediterranean regions) — which is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and nuts — against the common “Western diet” (cheeseburgers, Coca- cola, French fries, etc.).

The studies generally show that the Mediterranean diet has important health benefits and was recently found to prolong life. Oleic acid, the main component of olive oil (a key ingredient of the Mediterranean diet), may protect women from developing breast cancer. The HALE Healthy Aging study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, followed 1,589 physically active non-smokers who were on the Mediterranean diet. The group had a 23 percent lower risk of death from all causes, including coronary hart disease and cancer. A 14-year study published in the October 2004 Annals of Internal

Medicine, which tracked the eating habits and medical histories of 45,756 men, found that the Mediterranean diet also helped fend off gallstones.

Overall, the best weight loss plans have several things in common.

They encourage moderate calorie and fat intake, a healthful balanced diet, and exercise.

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