Our expert sets the record straight to help you lose the weight
"While various research shows that vegetarians and vegans, on average, consume fewer calories and less fat than omnivores (a 2009 Oxford study found that vegetarians weigh 3 to 20 percent less than their meat-eating counterparts, and a National Cancer Institute study found that subjects who consumed four ounces or more of red meat weekly were 30 percent more likely to die of any cause than those who ate less), these numbers may be misleading," says Rania Batayneh, MPH, a certified nutritionist and owner of Essential Nutrition for You.
Going vegan solely for weight loss can backfire, big time. If you aren’t vigilant with a vegan diet, it’s easy to lack in vital nutrients, vitamins, and proteins, which give you energy and help keep your metabolism stoked. Many first-time vegans may also find themselves reaching for more processed foods like vegan cookies, chips, or even ‘ice cream’ more often with such a restricted diet, and many end up packing on the pounds instead.
If you do decide to adopt a vegan diet, be sure to keep the ‘treats’ to a minimum and plan balanced meals (we love ‘Domestic Vegan’ Diva Jessica Olson’s tips for "going veg"). "Aim to get about 10 to 20 percent of your calories from protein (or about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight), replacing animal protein with healthy plant proteins, like those found in beans, legumes, eggs, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy, and soy products," Batayneh says. "And, whether you are vegan or not, eating more green, leafy vegetables is great for your health and your waistline."
Your body needs ‘carbs’ for energy, and many carbohydrate foods are rich in essential vitamins, nutrients, and dietary fiber that help you stay full and fuel your workouts. "Eliminating carbohydrates not only reduces whole grains, B vitamins, and a good source of fiber, but it also reduces your body’s feel-good capacity (it’s no wonder that most comfort foods are carbohydrate based)," Batayneh says.
Plus, cutting out food groups may only make you crave them more, and you may find yourself finishing off an entire bag of chips in a moment of weakness. "Starches and carbs are actually an important tool in weight management," Batayneh says. "They provide belly-filling fiber, complex carbohydrates to keep your engine running all day, and they stimulate the production of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter that regulates mood."
Stay healthy, full, and happy while dropping the lbs. by swapping out processed carbs for fiber- and nutrition-filled foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
You may think you're doing yourself a favor by sipping artificially sweetened drinks, but recent research says you may just be setting yourself up to crave sweets even more. ‘Fake’ sugar can trick our bodies, since we aren’t actually providing it with any calories to back up the sweetness, causing a vicious cycle of cravings. "Artificial sweeteners tend to trigger your appetite—making you want more and more sugar—but without actually satisfying a desire for sweets like normal sugar does," Batayneh says. "Diet soda-drinkers may end up eating tons of sugary and fatty snacks in order to satisfy their cravings."
Case in point: One University of Texas study found that people who drink diet soda regularly (more than two per day) had a 70 percent greater waist circumference than those that don’t. Not to mention, diet sodas are also often loaded with additives, including caramel coloring, which is made by reacting sugars with ammonia and sulfites, resulting in two compounds that have been found to cause lung, liver, and thyroid cancers in mice, Batayneh says.
Next time a diet soda craving strikes, sub in one of these healthy alternatives or sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon or lime.
"Reduced-fat versions of snacks typically have been stripped of one quarter of their original healthy monounsaturated fats, and to replace that flavor, the brand adds in fillings, additives, and sugar—all for the same amount of calories," Batayneh says. "Picking reduced-fat products may even end up hurting your waistline: in one study, average-weight participants ate 22 percent more calories if the food was labeled ‘low fat’ and overweight participants ate up to 50 percent more."
Your body needs fat to absorb vitamins, and it may also help you shed pounds—a recent Stanford University study found that people on a moderate-fat diet lost twice as much weight as subjects eating a low fat diet.
So skip the highly processed, fat-free snacks that are basically empty calories and fill up on healthy, whole foods that will help you stay satisfied on a lower-calorie diet such as avocados, nuts, and coconuts.
With all the sugar that is added to processed foods, the sugar in fruit is the least of your worries. Getting rid of fruit means you are losing out on valuable vitamins and nutrients that your body absorbs easily since they're found in their natural, whole state. "Eliminating fruit from your diet when trying to lose weight makes no sense," Batayneh says. You’ll miss out on a whole lot of filling fiber, which studies have directly linked to long-term weight loss, and you may be more likely to reach for other processed, empty food items instead.
Drinking protein shakes alone can't help you lose weight, but replacing a meal with them could. The trouble is, many would-be dieters make the mistake of adding in a shake to their current daily intake, which can pack on the pounds (this is why bodybuilders trying to gain size use them often).
If you want to add protein shakes to your diet, look for a mix that is low in sugar and has a short ingredient list. Depending on the calorie count, and what you add to it (Batayneh recommends whey protein, milk, and fruit), you can substitute a shake for a snack or a meal to help move the scale down, not up.
While protein is important for weight loss, eliminating other food groups (like carbs) for the sake of eating more protein could be setting you up for a carbo-loading binge later. Plus, you may be missing out on the fiber, vitamins, and minerals found in unprocessed carbohydrates, and you run the risk of eating too much fat in your diet, which can lead to high cholesterol and triglycerides, Batayneh says.
Skip the yo-yo cycle and round out your meals with a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. "When you have all three macro-nutrients in your diet, you are less likely to feel deprived and may experience less cravings."
Anyone who has ever sworn off pizza, chocolate, or chips knows that as soon as you tell yourself you can't have them, you start dreaming of swimming in gooey, cheesy pizza or rich, dark chocolate cake. "Moderation is key. We tend to be in ‘all or nothing’ mode when we diet. And while you can't have pizza, french fries, and chocolate cake all in the same day, with careful planning, you can still enjoy them in moderation," Batayneh says. Have your cake, and eat it too—just share it with a friend or save the other half for another day.
Eating after a certain hour won't necessarily mean you'll pack on pounds, just as staying out after midnight won’t turn you into a pumpkin. This Cinderella-esque fat fairy tale continues to exist, but the bottom line is that your metabolism doesn't know what time it is, Batayneh says.
Skip the mad rush to consume as much food as you can before the clock strikes 8:00. "Calories are calories, no matter when you eat them, but what does matter is what and how much of it you eat. Late-night snacking gets a bad rap because often the foods that are consumed late at night are calorie-dense foods (chips, ice cream, pizza, and other junk food) and may be in excess calories to your daily caloric needs, which translates to weight gain."
Exercise normally burns away your glycogen (carbohydrate) reserves, and when you’re done burning those, you’ll start dipping into your fat stores for energy. It's true that when you’re already running on empty, you burn fat right away, but you’ll likely run out of steam before your workout is over or end up ravenous and grabbing whatever food you can find in an attempt to refuel afterwards, Batayneh says.
"Energy comes from calories. A study from the University of Birmingham compared two groups of cyclists—some ate before their workout and the others fasted. While the group who fasted did end up burning more fat, the group who ate cycled at a much higher intensity than the fasting group, and burned more calories. A person needs fuel to run, just like a car, so find the foods that give you the energy to work out at your hardest."
If you do the math, eating ‘whatever you want’ Friday-Sunday adds up to 12 days—or almost half of a 30-day month! Not exactly the recipe for weight loss success. "When you throw caution to the wind on the weekends it can actually offset the consistency and success you had all week," Batayneh says. Instead of taking a no-holds-barred approach to your weekends, Batayneh recommends trying to scale back the little things that really add up like the bread basket and having a few extra glasses of wine during dinners out, along with mindless munching out of boredom.