Losing Weight and Gaining Health
With over two thirds of the American population overweight or obese, it’s no wonder that weight loss is a hot topic. Sometimes I do a search for “weight loss” on Pinterest just to marvel at all of the ridiculous solutions and “health” claims.
“Drink this lemon-cayenne drink every day to maximize fat burn!”
“Avoid these 9 foods and lose 10 pounds in one week!”
“Try These 100 Ways to Burn 1 Pound!” —> Don’t even get me started on this one.
“Eat These 20 Healthy Appetite Suppressants to Lose Weight!”
And so on and so forth.
As a dietitian, my first thought when I see most of these weight loss claims is either that they are bogus or completely unhealthy (or both). Yes, eating nothing but cabbage soup for two weeks will drop pounds quickly, but when you go back to eating normally, your weight will jump right back to where it was before, and you’ll likely be nutrient deficient.
In fact, any diet that promises to drop pounds quickly involves extreme food restriction, which will inevitably lead to nutrient deficiencies. And when I say “nutrient deficiencies,” I don’t mean people will start developing scurvy or rickets. My main concern with poor nutrition in America is weak immune systems, which allow our bodies to succumb to colds, the flu, and cancer — among the large list of other diseases plaguing our country.
Rather than measuring out tiny portions of chicken breast and rice and putting it in little containers, why not eat more high-nutrient, low-calorie foods with an emphasis on getting as many nutrients as possible? For example, focus on eating a huge, colorful salad or a hearty vegetable soup for lunch. Eat until you’re full, then stop. I guarantee that, as long as you didn’t include oil or cream in your meal, you ate fewer calories than you would have if you’d eaten meat, dairy, or processed foods. And you consumed way more vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients!
If you’re like me and you’ve had a baby in the past two years, you are especially susceptible to nutrient deficiency. The fetus is like a parasite in that it takes all of the nutrients from the mother’s body that it needs, not caring whether the mother has enough for herself. Then, if the mother decides to breastfeed, the baby continues to take nutrients from its mother’s body and diet. At this point, mom’s diet is very important for her and the baby. Mom needs more calories, but she also needs more of all of the essential nutrients to replenish what she lost during her pregnancy.
But wait, Mom is now trying to lose those extra pregnancy pounds, so she’s working out vigorously and restricting her calories by eating small portions like she did pre-pregnancy. And here’s where I have a problem with this plan. Not only is she potentially decreasing the milk supply and quality for her baby, but she’s weakening her own immune system by reducing her nutrient intake.
If you’re a new mom, rather than decreasing your intake, try increasing the quality of your food to ensure that you and your baby both get what you need to stay healthy.
Current research indicates that you can lose weight by eating MORE food, as long as it’s the right foods. And no, I don’t suggest you eat celery and cucumbers all day because they’re “negative-calorie foods.” I mean eat more substantial plant-based foods, like legumes.
Several population studies have shown that people who eat significant amounts of beans, lentils, split peas, etc. tend to weigh less, have slimmer waists and lower blood pressure, and are less likely to be obese than those who don’t eat many legumes. This observation led to a study in which two groups of overweight subjects were monitored for weight loss. The first group was instructed to reduce their daily calorie intake by 500 calories, while the second group was told to maintain their current diet, but add five cups of legumes per week. Who improved their health more? Not only did the legume group slim down as much as the calorie-cutting group, but they also improved their blood sugar, cholesterol, and insulin regulation!* So instead of eating smaller portions and reducing the quantity of calories you eat, try improving the quality of your food by adding legumes to your daily diet.
*Read more about this legume study in How Not To Die, by Michael Greger, M.D.
Putting It Into Practice
So how should you eat for health and weight loss? Here are a few simple tips that will help you when deciding what to eat.
- Prepare your own meals as often as possible. If this means preparing all of your lunches for the week on Sunday, do it. I’ve started putting salad ingredients in mason jars and eating those all week! Choose one night per week to treat yourself to eating out, and stick to that night only. Eating out is never good for your waistline, even if you only order the salad. Check out my recipes for meal ideas! [Also, see How to Pack a Lunch for Work.]
2. Always ask yourself, “What can I add to this meal to make it more nutritious?” For example, if you’re making a bowl of oatmeal, try adding a handful of blueberries, chia seeds, a few walnuts, or a shake of cinnamon. If you’re eating a bowl of soup, add a handful of fresh cilantro or parsley. Berries and greens pack a lot of nutrients for very few calories, so you should try to add them to your diet whenever you can. It’s also good to include a wide variety of herbs and spices to your meals. Turmeric, curry, ginger, cinnamon, and cumin are loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants, so try as many ethnic dishes that utilize them as you can! Adding lots of flavor to your food will also prevent diet boredom, which will help you stick to your health plan.
3. When reading a recipe, ask yourself, “What ingredients can I eliminate to make this meal more healthful and lower-calorie?” The easiest ingredient to exclude in most recipes is oil. At 120 calories (and basically zero nutrients) per tablespoon, oil is completely unnecessary. Try sautéing vegetables in a splash of water and roasting veggies on a silicone mat instead of covering them with fat. Other examples of ingredients to omit include cheese, butter, bread crumbs, meat (even the lean versions are high in fat), and sour cream. If the dish needs a creamy element, try replacing dairy with a small amount of avocado, soaked and blended cashews, or light coconut milk.
4. Eat a large salad every day. This is a biggie! Eat lots of greens, colorful veggies, half a cup of legumes, and a tablespoon of seeds (for healthy fats), and dress the whole thing with flavored vinegar or citrus juice. This is the best way to get as many nutrients as possible with few calories, while still eating until you’re full. It’s a win-win-win!
5. Drink at least one cup of strong tea every day. Tea is essentially water with antioxidants added to it, so as long as you’re not combining it with lots of cream and sugar, it’s an easy way to get extra phytonutrients without adding many calories. I recommend hibiscus tea because it’s the highest in antioxidants, but almost every tea has its benefits. Green tea is also a winner! I enjoy tea at night when I’m craving something sweet. I sweeten my tea with erythritol, a zero-calorie sugar alcohol with no strange aftertaste.
6. Reduce or eliminate snacking between meals. See my article, Snacking: Should You, Or Shouldn’t You? for more on the subject.
7. Avoid or limit animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) and processed foods. These are all high in fat, sodium, and junk your body doesn’t need. You also consume relatively few nutrients per calorie when eating these items. You’re much better off eating a variety of fruits, veggies, and legumes. If this is a new concept for you, I recommend watching Forks Over Knives on Netflix.
Sample 3-Day Meal Plan for Healthy Weight Loss:
Breakfast – Qi’a bowl w/ 1 tsp maple syrup, 1/4 cup wild blueberries, 1 cup coffee w/ 2 T. nondairy creamer = 230 kcal
Lunch – Large Salad: 2 cups greens, 1/2 cup chickpeas, 1/4 red bell pepper, 1 medium carrot, 1 T. raw pumpkin seeds, 1/4 cup red cabbage, 1/4 medium avocado, 1/4 cup hearts of palm, vinegar = 320 kcal
Afternoon Snack – Coffee/tea w/ creamer, 2 cups plain popcorn = 105 kcal
Dinner – Bowl of black bean soup, apple, 7 tortilla chips = 405 kcal
Dessert – Frozen banana blended w/ 1 T. raw walnuts & 1/2 cup almond milk = 190 kcal
Total: 1,250 calories
Breakfast – 1 cup oatmeal w/ cinnamon, turmeric, & 1 tsp. maple syrup, coffee, 1/2 banana = 270 kcal
Lunch – Salad = 320 kcal
Snack – 2 dates, 2 tsp almond butter – 180 kcal
Dinner – 2 cups spaghetti squash, 1/2 cup tomato sauce, 1/2 cup mushrooms, 1/4 cup onions, 1 cup broccoli, 1/2 cup beans = 315 kcal
Dessert: 1 cup frozen berries (blended into sorbet), 2 T. chocolate sauce = 170 kcal
Total: 1,255 calories
Breakfast – 1 cup oatmeal w/ cinnamon, turmeric, 1/4 cup blueberries, & 1 tsp. maple syrup, coffee = 245 kcal
Lunch – Salad = 320 kcal
Snack – Coffee/tea w/creamer, kale banana smoothie: 1 banana, 1 T. almond butter, 1 T. chia seeds, 1/2 cup almond milk = 325 kcal
Dinner – Veggie-tofu stir-fry: 3 oz tofu, 1/4 cup onions, 1/4 cup mushrooms, 1/2 cup broccoli, 1 carrot, 1/4 cup red cabbage, 6 ears baby corn = 235 kcal
Dessert – 50 chocolate chips = 110 kcal
Total: 1,235 calories
As you can see, this is a lot of food for very few calories. I’ve been eating the exact salad from “Day 1” for lunch every day this week, and I have yet to finish the whole thing before getting too full.
Note: If you are someone who works out regularly, is very tall, is a male, etc., you can eat up to 500 more calories per day than allotted in the above meal plan and still lose weight. This meal plan is just to illustrate what 1,250 calories looks like on a plant-based diet. If you are trying to gain muscle, I recommend lifting heavy weights (with supervision) and increasing your intake of beans/tofu, quinoa, nuts, and seeds for added protein.
If you eat like this every day — or even just a few days per week — you WILL lose weight. You may even realize that you have more energy, get sick less often, have clearer skin, and sleep better!
Many of us are desperate to lose weight, but it’s not worth sacrificing your health to shed pounds. If you give your body the nutrients it needs and stop eating junk, your body will naturally slim down while strengthening your immune system and making you feel better. Check out the recipes on this blog for more ideas on how to eat more plants and increase your daily nutrient consumption.
Leave a comment or email me if you have any questions!