Plant-based weight loss: tales from the scales

Conventional wisdom says losing weight is hard. Most people at some point learn this for themselves through frustrating real world lessons. After a few failed dieting attempts a lot of people either give up or decide it’s just not worth whatever restrictions they’ve subjected themselves to. I certainly had. My tolerance for dieting must be extremely low, because on the rare occasions when I tried, I was never able to lose more than 5-10 pounds through dietary restriction before deciding I couldn’t hack it anymore.  I had given up on the whole idea of ever losing weight and hadn’t even made one of my feeble attempts for at least 15 years.

Weight loss was not my goal when I adopted a whole food, plant-based (wfpb) diet. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired with microvascular angina, and I was desperately searching for a solution to that. I didn’t care what weight I was if I could feel better again.

Without doing anything other than following the basic guidelines of a wfpb diet – eliminating animal products, oils and refined carbohydrates, limiting salt, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, I was able to lose 40 pounds and keep it off.


This spring, just as I had lost most of the weight, a study came out saying that one’s metabolism was permanently altered by losing weight which caused extreme difficultly in maintaining any weight loss.

New York Times: After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight

I briefly worried about this, but as I close in on year I have seen no evidence that my body wants to be any heavier than it is. I don’t count anything, I don’t restrict portion sizes and I never go hungry, yet my weight is still declining at some fraction of a pound per month. I feel like I am very close to, if not at, my ideal weight for the first time since I was a teenager.

Whether or not weight loss is the goal or a side effect of adopting a wfpb diet, many people find dropping pounds and keeping them off to be surprisingly simple. Not everyone finds it as easy as I did, though. I’m not an expert in weight loss, but I’ve made a few observations from various forums and groups I participate in about the problems some people experience.

Disordered eating does not magically disappear on a wfpb diet

If you struggle with emotional or binge eating you will likely continue to struggle until the underlying cause is sorted out. Bingeing on fruit is unlikely to cause weight problems in and of itself, but there certainly are foods with a much higher calorie density that could be problematic. Some athletic and never-chubby wfpb gurus (I’m looking at you, Rip) eat enormous quantities of food, and may leave the impression that no one need ever concern themselves with how much they eat. If for some reason your brain and stomach have become somewhat disconnected, you may have to restrict foods from the higher end of the calorie density chart.

If your problem is that you have an unrealistic idea of your normal weight, you may not be able to reach it by eating a wfpb diet. I suspect some of the people who have problems are having body image problems more than anything.


credit: UC Davis Integrative Medicine

Hanging on to old notions about weight loss may not be helpful

Dieters who have a lot of experience with other diets may carry over some habits that do not contribute to weight loss. Counting carbs, protein, calories and points are all practices that are difficult to maintain in the long run and interfere with normal hunger signals. Trying to do a wfpb version of a low carb diet results in a tremendous amount of dietary restriction. Fearing grains and fruit is another way to unnecessarily restrict your diet.

It’s important to eat enough food

I’ve seen plenty of people posting pictures or descriptions of their day’s food. Not uncommonly it looks to be barely 1000 calories worth of fruit and vegetables. Often this is posted by someone just starting out and obviously full of ambition and optimism. I worry about those people, because it is biologically very difficult to sustain that kind of calorie restriction for very long. Eventually you feel like gnawing off your arm and you fall off the wagon, big time. Eating wfpb shouldn’t be difficult or unsatisfying. If it is, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t be afraid to fill up on starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruit. Low carb veggies will never be satisfying on their own.

Don’t approach a wfpb lifestyle as though it is a temporary diet

Start as you mean to go on. Do not anticipate changing your way of eating once you have lost weight. There is no “weight loss” portion of the diet or “maintenance” period. Once you make the basic changes – eliminating animal products, oils and refined carbohydrates, limiting salt, and eating a ton of fruit, veggies, whole grains and legumes – excess weight will come off and stay off.

I would encourage you to monitor your weight, and perhaps record daily readings in an app or spreadsheet so you can see longer term trends. If things are trending upward you can tweak your intake of some of the higher calorie density foods. That should be all the “maintenance” you need.


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