This week Beyonce's trainer revealed that his advice to eat one vegan meal a day has helped his superstar client shed 60 pregnancy pounds, and I want to high-five him!
I've been touting the weight loss and health benefits of going vegan, even part-time, for several years. In my latest book, S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim, I recommend that omnivores eat at least five plant-based entrees a week, and I cite a handful of studies about the connection between veganizing at least some of your meals and shedding pounds and inches.
Statistically, moving towards a plant-based diet is associated with weight loss. One Oxford University study of nearly 38,000 adults found that meat-eaters had the highest BMIs for their ages and vegans the lowest, with vegetarians and semi-vegetarians in between; and there are several explanations for this trend.
Plant-based meals tend to be richer in antioxidants and fiber, which are both tied to weight loss, and researchers have seen an increase in calorie burn after vegan meals. But in order to reap the benefits, you need to do vegan right. In other words, a diet of processed vegan donuts and fake meat isn't going to transform you into Sasha Fierce.
Here are five steps for building nutritionally balanced plant-based meals that will slim and satisfy:
1. Start with produce
Currently about 75 percent of Americans fall short of the recommended daily minimum of two fruit and three vegetable servings. When produce serves as the foundation of a plant-based meal, it's easy to fill that gap, or exceed the target, and this alone can help shrink your fat cells.
Recently University of Florida researchers developed an index that ranks the phytochemical index, or PI score of meals, which is essentially a measure of antioxidant consumption. A vegan diet (excluding liquor and refined sugars) could have a perfect score of 100, whereas a typical American diet, heavy in animal and processed foods and low in produce, would score below 20. Scientists found that even when two groups consumed the same number of daily calories, those with higher PI scores had smaller waist measurements, and lower body fat percentages. In other words, the quality of your calories counts–a lot.
That said, by going veg, you'll likely slash calories. For example, a snack of eight cheese cubes and eight club crackers provides 260 calories, compared to 165 in a dozen baby carrots and a quarter cup of hummus.
2. Add a whole grain
Whole grains are super hot, because of research linking them to a lower risk of not only obesity, but a number of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In one study researchers randomly assigned volunteers into one of two groups. The first was asked to consume whole grains exclusively, and the second was instructed to select only refined grains. Over 12 weeks, both groups were advised to exercise and follow identical diets.
At the end of the study, body weight decreased in both groups–between 8 to 11 pounds on average. But the whole grain group lost more belly inches, and experienced nearly a 40 percent drop in a blood marker for inflammation, a known trigger of aging and disease. In a plant-based meal, a small serving of whole grain provides bonus antioxidants, additional fiber, and slow-burning carbs that keep blood sugar and insulin levels regulated. Great choices include oats, barley, quinoa, corn, and brown, red, and black rice.
3. Pick your protein
Protein revs up metabolism and supports muscle mass, so it's important to include a source in every vegan meal. Just trade meat, poultry or seafood for a small scoop of beans or lentils in a taco salad, stir fry, or whole grain pasta primavera. Or, use pureed beans as a sandwich spread or pizza topping (check out my vegan white bean pizza). Like whole grains, these hearty alternatives provide additional antioxidants and filling fiber, so they'll keep you fuller longer and delay the return of hunger.
4. Don't forget the fat
Fats from plant foods are critical for weight control because they add the satisfaction factor to each meal. Fats delay stomach emptying, and they're needed to absorb antioxidants, which hitch a ride as fats are shuttled from the digestive tract into the bloodstream. There are many delectable plant-based options, including nuts, seeds, and natural nut butters, ripe avocado, Mediterranean olives, and a variety of plant oils, from extra virgin olive oil to sesame, sunflower, and coconut oil.
5. Season it up
Including herbs and spices in each meal is a fantastic way to add aroma and flavor without sodium or sugar, and studies show that these plant-based ingredients pack a powerful weight loss punch. Natural seasonings like cinnamon, ginger, garlic, and crushed red pepper have been shown to boost calorie burning, improve satiety, and they're much more potent in antioxidants than even fruits and veggies. In one Penn State University study, consuming two tablespoons of herbs and spices within a meal, specifically rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, cloves, garlic powder and paprika, resulted in higher blood antioxidant levels and a 30 percent reduction in blood fats compared to subjects who ate the same meals without seasonings.
I call this meal building approach the '5 piece puzzle,' and there are dozens of delicious ways to solve it. Vegan meals that incorporate each key component include:
• Asian veggies stir fried with fresh grated ginger and chili pepper over a bed of wild rice topped with edamame and sliced almonds
• Mediterranean veggies sautéed in extra virgin olive oil with garlic, tossed with fresh basil, whole grain penne and cannellini beans
• Fresh greens tossed with cilantro and lime seasoned pico de gallo, topped with black beans, roasted corn, and fresh avocado
• Sound yummy? More vegan options can add some variety and excitement to your meal portfolio, and by using the puzzle, you won't be stuck with a simple salad.
Many of my clients are amazed at the lack of hunger and boundless energy they experience after vegan meals, and feel inspired to experiment with their own plant-based puzzle combinations, even if they don't want to become vegan.
Cynthia Sass is a New York City-based registered dietician and author of S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.