Obesity, modern diets, and veganism: weighing it all up

I remember the first time I told Ben I was vegan, before we were going out. He had asked me that “last meal” question and I sheepishly mumbled something about lentils and tahini (that was in the days before discovering Manna, Karma Free Pizzas, Ms Cupcake, etc), before explaining that I was vegan.

Then we started talking about getting fat and he said something along the lines of “of course you’re not going to get fat, you’re vegan”. Of course, I did point out that I know of a number of overweight vegans, but the fact remains that the incidence of overweight and obesity is lower among vegans than among both vegetarians and meat-eaters.

There are several reasons for this, some obvious, and some not-so-obvious. There are so many articles out there now on the benefits of a plant-based diet that I can’t even begin to pick the best ones to cite, but unfortunately many of them offer very one-sided views on the matter – they solve one part of the equation but forget to plug the results back into the big general equation. I am not pretending that I have the whole seeing-the-wood-for-the-trees big picture view, but I hope to add a bit more easily digestible knowledge on the matter to the internet. Adopting a plant-based diet or even more plant-based meals has some very real benefits that everyone can enjoy whatever their goals, and I think the information out there is starting to get far too frothy-at-the-mouth.

First things first: why the obsession with bodyweight? I almost don’t want to go here. Talking about bodyweight and bodyfat and BMI and obesity and body shape (apple or pear anyone?) – why are people fat? why do we care if people are fat? does it matter where the fat is? does it matter if you have cellulite? if you are a fat child will you be a fat adult? what does fat even mean? – just opens up way too many social, economic, and psychological issues. After a few years of reading, thinking, talking about the topic, here is where I think we are:

  1. Overweight and obesity are serious issues, not to be downplayed by a “you are beautiful no matter what size you are” approach
  2. Having said that, they are public health issues rather than simply personal health issues – we need to stop demonising overweight or obese people as being lazy, stupid, weak, uneducated, or whatever other name-calling and finger-pointing goes on these days. The fact is that the system has failed them (and all of us) by providing easy access to cheap processed food. Just because some of us have resisted falling into the supermarket and takeout trap, doesn’t mean that they are worse human beings for it. Overweight individuals are now in the majority in many developed countries and worldwide obesity has almost doubled in just 30 years. If more people were dying of infectious diseases – say, cholera – than of any other cause, would we be saying it was their fault for catching it?
  3. Plus, there are some studies emerging looking at the long-term effects of high-fat and high-sugar diets, which are suggesting that by being exposed to these calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods, our biochemistry is changing in such a way that we are no longer able to feel satisfied from healthier foods. So basically the system broke, then broke our brains, and is now hammering away at our bodies.
  4. Fact is, whether or not it is the fault of overweight and obese individuals (and we can debate that until we’re blue in the face but that won’t get anyone anywhere), even if you can be beautiful and overweight, even if your size or weight or shape makes no difference to who you are, being overweight or obese carries a whole host of serious health issues. You may have heard the statements about the generation being born today being the first in modern history not to outlive its parents. This is a big deal.
  5. Weight, size, and appearance are not the issues here. We are talking about fat. Specifically, too much fat. So ignore the bikini body headlines, the beach body diets, the weight on the scales, and worry instead about how much fat you have leeching off your internal organs and clogging up your arteries.

The more people talk about how terrible it is that so many people are overweight or obese, the more there is a backlash of “leave them along, they are beautiful”. I want to make clear that that is not the issue at hand. So when you read an article about how going vegan or plant-based, or at least reducing meat and dairy in your diet, can have real health benefits which mainly seem to revolve around fat loss and low cholesterol, don’t dismiss it as being just another stab in the subscapular skinfold reading. People need to lose fat, and ditching animal products is a sensible win-win-win (and probably even more wins than that) way to do that.

So why are plant-based diets such a sensible option? Is it not just another fad diet?

  1. Let’s not hide from this: many of the statistics showing that vegetarians and vegans are healthier individuals with lower body fat percentages and longer life expectancy are influenced by the fact that a significant number of people who make the decision to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet will make other healthy lifestyle choices. They drink less, smoke less, exercise more. But in the grand scheme of things, is that something to be ashamed about? Is that not a group you would want to be a part of?
  2. Of course, I have said many times on this blog that there are healthy vegan diets and unhealthy vegan diets. I am not trying to dispute that – going vegan in and of itself doesn’t mean you will lose weight. However, most of the time when people go vegan or even vegetarian, they find more room in their meals for fruit and vegetables. They will often buy fewer processed foods and takeaway meals, just because it is a little bit harder to find vegan options, and if you remove the convenience factor of fast food then why eat it anyway?
  3. Eating more fruit and vegetables means eating more insoluble fibre. Simply put, insoluble fibre makes you feel full. Feel fuller, eat less. Eat less, stand a chance of losing fat. Simple.
  4. Or not so simple. Dietary fibre also slows down the rate of glucose absorption into the blood stream. A slower release of glucose means a less violent spike in insulin. Repeated insulin spiking can lead to insulin resistance, which can develop into Type 2 diabetes. All tied up in this is the thinking that excess weight, particularly abdominal fat, contributes to insulin resistance. And the circle completes: eat more fibre, feel fuller, eat less, and prevent insulin spiking. Like I said, win win win. There is a catch though – foods with added fibre don’t have the same effect, as it will always be soluble fibre which is added to foods (or you would end up with a packet of stringy gunk). Soluble fibre is good and necessary, but you really need the insoluble fibre. The rough stuff.

Of course, there are the negative health effects associated with meat and other animal products, and all the vitamins and minerals and antioxidants that fruit, veg, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains will also provide. Those are good and all, but from what I have come to understand, the one thing that will make the biggest difference is fibre and in particular insoluble fibre.

The good news is that by eating more insoluble fibre, by definition from whole fruit and veg, you are eating all those good vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. And you’re probably not feeling quite so hungry that you need to pick up that greasy sausage roll on your way home. Feeling fuller, with a more even blood sugar level throughout the day, you should find yourself snacking less on processed convenience foods (let’s face it, a flapjack is easier to find and eat on the move than a serving of quinoa), and you may even lose weight. As long as you’re exercising to preserve your muscle mass, we can assume you’re losing some of that excess fat. Sure, you may look better but beauty lies within – the good news is now your insides are looking better too.

Win win win.