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
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
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.
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
Medicine, which tracked the eating habits and medical
histories of 45,756 men, found that the Mediterranean diet also helped fend off
Overall, the best weight loss plans have several things in
They encourage moderate calorie and fat intake, a healthful
balanced diet, and exercise.