Eating a plant-based diet can help you lose weight and it comes with other health perks, too. Indeed, there are enough benefits to make even the most dedicated meat-lover consider swapping beef for beans every now and then.
In one study, published November 2020 in JAMA Network Open, a low-fat plant-based diet was linked to weight loss, a higher after-meal burn and improved cardiometabolic risk factors in people who are overweight.
But going plant-based doesn't always ensure weight loss. That's because your diet can technically pass as plant-based even if you're choosing less-than-healthy options.
There are a few reasons why you may not be losing weight on this type of eating plan. When you go plant-based, you're cutting down on foods like chicken, beef, eggs, yogurt, milk and fish. Aside from being animal-based, what's one thing they all have in common? Answer: These foods are all rich sources of protein.
We know protein is the most satiating macronutrient and it helps to maintain lean muscle, which in turn supports our metabolism. If your plant-based diet isn't well planned, you could be falling short on your protein intake.
Another reason has to do with what you're filling up on. Just because a food is plant-based doesn't mean it's healthy. There's no shortage of ultra-processed vegan products on the market today, and subsisting on these isn't doing your health or waistline any favors. These types of foods can be just as high in calories and full of refined grains, added sugars and unhealthy fats as their animal-based counterparts.
To help you sort the good and the bad, here are four go-to plant-based foods and three to skip.
Fill Up on These 4 Plant-Based Foods
1. Nuts and Seeds
Yes, nuts and seeds are high in fat and calories, but research continues to show that they're not associated with weight gain and may actually help prevent it, as explained in a September 2019 BMJ Nutrition & Prevention study.
There are a few reasons why they're weight-friendly. First, all of the fat and calories in nuts are not absorbed by the body. A July 2012 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that about 20 percent of the calories from fat are not absorbed when snacking on almonds.
Another reason? Nuts and seeds are rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fat and an earlier study, published February 2009 in Clinical Nutrition, found that eating meals high in these unsaturated fats led to a greater caloric burn post-meal compared to eating the same amount of calories from a meal high in saturated fat.
Tempeh is made of fermented soybeans and is one of the richest sources of plant-based protein. A half-cup serving has 17 grams of protein, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
We know protein helps with weight loss because it is satiating and it regulates our appetite. The good news is, soy-based protein appears to be just as efficient in this area as animal-based.
A two-week clinical trial published August 2014 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found there was no significant difference between eating a vegetarian diet rich in soy or a meat-based diet when it came to weight loss and appetite control.
3. Whole Grains
When we hear the term "whole grains" we often think of carbohydrates, but whole grains can be a good source of plant-based protein, too.
Some whole grains are higher in protein than others. For instance, a cup of cooked barley has 3.5 grams of protein, while teff has 9 grams and buckwheat has 6, per the USDA.
Whole grains may also help with weight loss because research shows they can increase our resting metabolic rate and the amount of energy released through stool, as outlined in a February 2017 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study found that about 100 more calories were burned or excreted when eating whole grains versus refined grains.
Beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils are all pulses. They're also rich sources of protein and fiber — a winning weight-loss duo.
A May 2016 meta-analysis in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed 21 controlled trials and found that eating about a serving of pulses per day may lead to weight loss, even if you're not following a weight-loss diet.
Using pulses in place of meat in chili, tacos, lasagna and other meat-heavy dishes is an easy and delicious way to add them to your diet.
3 Plant-Based Foods to Avoid if You're Trying to Lose Weight
1. Faux Meats
If you've visited the vegan section of your grocery store as of late, you probably noticed the explosion of vegan substitutes for many animal-based products, from breakfast sausages to ground beef.
But keep in mind, no matter what type of diet you're on, filling up on ultra-processed foods is never a good idea. Just because a food is vegan, like faux burgers, doesn't mean it should be a mainstay in your diet or that it'll help you lose weight.
A July 2017 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found the eating a plant-based diet made up of whole foods significantly reduced the risk of coronary heart disease compared to a plant-based diet made up of less-healthy, highly processed foods.
2. Vegan Desserts
Again, vegan is not synonymous with health or weight loss. Many vegan ice creams, cookies, cakes and pies are still high in sugar, calories and saturated fat.
Case in point: A two-thirds cup of nondairy ice cream has 320 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat and 30 grams of added sugar while the same flavor ice cream made with dairy has 340 calories, 13 grams of saturated fat and 26 grams of added sugar.
3. Some Plant-Based Yogurts
Regular, dairy-based yogurt is rich in probiotics and protein. Many plant-based yogurts also contain gut-friendly probiotics, but they tend to be light on protein. Many almond-, cashew- and oat-based yogurts can have 2 grams or less, and some brands can also pack a ton of added sugar.
Look for a yogurt that's made of soy or has added pea or faba bean protein. A good pick is one with at least 6 grams of protein per serving, similar to that of regular yogurt.
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- BMJ Nutrition & Prevention: "Changes in Nut Consumption Influence Long-term Weight Change in US Men and Women"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Discrepancy Between the Atwater Factor Predicted and Empirically Measured Energy Values of Almonds in Human Diets"
- Clinical Nutrition: "Acute Effects of Three High-fat Meals with Different Fat Saturations on Energy Expenditure, Substrate Oxidation and Satiety"
- MyFoodData: "Tempeh"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Appetite Control and Biomarkers of Satiety with Vegetarian (Soy) and Meat-based High-protein Diets for Weight Loss in Obese Men: A Randomized Crossover Trial"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Facts Comparison Tool"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Substituting Whole Grains for Refined Grains in a 6-wk Randomized Trial Favorably Affects Energy-balance Metrics in Healthy Men and Postmenopausal Women"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Effects of Dietary Pulse Consumption on Body Weight: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trial"merican Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults"
- Ben & Jerry's: "Non-Dairy Cherry Garcia"
- Ben & Jerry's: "Cherry Garcia"
- JAMA Network Open: "Effect of a Low-Fat Vegan Diet on Body Weight, Insulin Sensitivity, Postprandial Metabolism, and Intramyocellular and Hepatocellular Lipid Levels in Overweight Adults"