With New Year's not too far off, many people are mulling over how they can improve upon themselves in 2019. And, to the surprise of virtually no one, the number one New Year’s resolution relates to improving health and losing weight. In fact, of last year’s resolutions, two of the most common were to eat better (37%) and exercise more (37%), with improve self care (24%) also near the top of the list. Apparently, Americans are concerned with their health and nutrition — probably for good reason.
Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that approximately 39.8% of the American adult population (which accounts for roughly 93.3 million people) suffer from obesity. And things don’t look like they’ll be getting better any time soon; it’s projected that by 2030, half of all American adults will be obese.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s something we ate.
Down in the Mouth
Let’s consider for a minute the American diet. What does it consist of? Certainly different people across the United States eat different foods, but when you compile all of the data together, trends start to emerge. For example, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American gets 32% of their calories from animal-based foods, 57% of their calories from processed non-animal foods (such as refined grains), and only 11% from non-processed plant foods (such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains).
It looks like animal products and processed foods are the two most-consumed food categories. But they really shouldn’t be. To reiterate this point, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services states that the “Typical American diets exceed the recommended intake levels or limits in four categories: calories from solid fats and added sugars; refined grains; sodium; and saturated fat.” They go on to point out that “Americans eat less than the recommended amounts of vegetables, fruits, [and] whole-grains…”
So, we’re eating too many calories from refined/processed foods and animal sources, while neglecting plant-based and unprocessed whole-food options. It sounds like we need a new approach to nutrition, and that approach is low-fat, plant-based diets. Or, more specifically, whole-food plant-based diets.
What are whole-food plant-based diets?
Whole-food (low-fat) plant-based diets are diets that exclude all or most animal products and fats, while promoting healthy plant options and whole carbohydrates. You can think of the whole-food plant-based diet as being similar to eating vegan, but with greater focus on consuming nutritionally dense foods, rather than getting hung up just on whether a food contains animal products.
The benefits of a plant-based diet are far reaching, and extend well beyond simple weight loss; by building your meals around healthy plant-based foods, you’ll be reducing your risk of diabetes and certain kinds of cancer, while also defending against (or even reversing) heart disease.
And this is all thanks, in part, to the fact that plant-based diets are naturally lower in fat.
But wait, aren’t high-fat diets currently in vogue? What about the ketogenic diet? Well, let’s take a closer look at what high-fat diets offer, and what you might not know is going on behind the scenes...
The big fat lie
It’s hard to discuss the topic of fat and modern weight loss without addressing the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet (or keto for short) is an offshoot of the low-carb Atkins diet, which encourages dieters to consume extremely high levels of fat, along with moderate amounts of protein, and almost no carbohydrates of any kind. The idea behind keto is that by cutting off the body’s supply of carbohydrates, it will be forced into a state of ketosis. This means that the body will have to adapt to use fats for fuel, instead of glycogen. The end result is dramatic weight loss as the body attacks its own fat reserves. Sounds promising, right?
Well, the problem is that the human body isn’t designed to function off of fats, at least not for prolonged periods of time. We function most optimally when we use complete carbohydrates as our main source of energy. Ketosis is more of an emergency procedure, one that takes effect when those vital carbohydrates aren’t available. To put it more simply, ketosis is essentially a more complex form of starvation, and your body doesn’t like it. Keto dieters often find themselves suffering from flu-like symptoms and a range of nutritional deficiencies because the body is doing everything it can to protect itself from starvation, it tends to pack back on the pounds as soon as the diet falters.
All in all, probably not the best way to improve your long-term health. Ketogenic diets have been linked with increased risk of diabetes. And while not many human studies have been completed yet, Harvard notes it’s been suggested negative side effects of eating this way for the long-term include “increased risk of kidney stones, osteoporosis, and increased blood levels of uric acid (a risk factor for gout).”
On the other hand, by cutting down on unnecessary fats and instead filling your body’s natural nutritional requirements (rather than forcing it to adapt to a sub-par fuel source), you can lose weight without the debilitating side effects. And perhaps best of all, because the whole-food plant-based diet is really more of a lifestyle than a traditional diet, it’s sustainable over the long term.
Listen to your gut
The whole “fat is good” argument is one that sounds just crazy enough to make sense, but the reality is that high-fat diets simply don’t give your body the nutrients it needs. On top of that, fat contains more than twice the number of calories of equal amounts of carbohydrates or proteins, and has been shown to boost cholesterol levels (potentially increasing the risk of heart disease).
A healthy, plant-based diet, low in fat and rich in vitamins, minerals, and essential macronutrients will help you look and feel your best... without starving yourself to get there.
So, if you’re interested in starting 2019 off on the right foot, don’t go for the high-fat fads. Instead, listen to your gut and give your body the nutrition that it needs. A low-fat plant-based diet will help you take control of your health for the New Year, and dropping those pounds (and keeping them off), well, that’s just the whole-food plant-based cherry on top.