Here’s a test of your pop-culture knowledge. What do the following public figures have in common: former Vice President Al Gore, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, actor Woody Harrelson, Olympian Carl Lewis, and super-model Christie Brinkley? If you guessed that each consumes a plant-based diet, you are correct.
Why would they, and millions of others in the US, limit themselves to a diet of plants? For me, the initial motivation came relatively late in life. I was 48 and driven by a desire to reduce animal suffering. I quickly learned that there are many other benefits as well. Plant-based cuisine can be delicious and satisfying, and the notion that we need meat and dairy to obtain protein and calcium is a myth. After all, the leading nutritional organization in the US, the American Dietetic Association, claims that appropriately planned vegan diets are nutritionally adequate. Additionally, two films make a strong argument about the benefits of eliminating meat, dairy, eggs and fish from our diets: “Forks Over Knives” explores the scientific evidence suggesting a plant-based diet can prevent and even reverse heart disease, diabetes and cancer and “Cowspiracy” highlights the connection between animal agriculture, climate change and world hunger. Athletes, too, are turning to plants to obtain peak performance. Nine Olympic gold medal winner Carl Lewis explains, “my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet. Moreover… my weight is under control, I like the way I look…I enjoy eating more, and I feel great.”
Carl Lewis isn’t the only one who looks great. Have you seen Christie Brinkley lately? She is over 60 and as thin and gorgeous as ever. She credits her youthful figure and beautiful skin to two things: a plant-based diet and daily exfoliation. Well there it is, Clarisonic and kale, the key to looking stunning after 60.
Without a doubt Christie Brinkley has exceptional genes working in her favor, but is her trim physique attributable to a plant-based diet? And is it possible that we can all avoid the 20 pound weight gain that is considered normal at middle-age?
A study funded by the National Institutes of Health would suggest we can. Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, followed a group of post-menopausal woman who, without any exercise or calorie counting component, followed a whole foods, plant-based diet with a limited amount of oils. “Whole foods” indicates minimally processed. For example, Fritos and Oreos are both derived solely from plants but are not considered whole foods as they are laden with added sugars, salts and oils.
In the study, the average participant lost one pound per week and in follow-up studies two years later was still losing weight. Dr. Barnard suggests the following three factors are at play to explain the findings:
1) Plant-based diets tend to be relatively low in calories. Fat contains more than twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates and protein. We know red meat, cheese and eggs contain lots of fat. Despite appearances, poultry and fish are high in fat as well. Plant-based diets are relatively low in calories due to the elimination of fatty, calorie dense animal products.
2) Plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, grains and legumes contain dietary fibers. Animal foods do not. The standard American diet is relatively low in fiber as compared to a plant-based diet. Dietary fiber absorbs water and helps us feel full faster and therefore minimize calorie consumption.
3) According to Dr. Nanette Santoro professor of ob-gyn at University of Colorado, “the metabolic rate slows with age. That means a woman eating the exact same number of calories a day will maintain her weight at age 20 but will gain weight after the age of about 50. Add menopause to this, and for some it’s the perfect storm.” Well that’s a pretty dire forecast! There is some hope though. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicated that those who consume a plant-based diet have higher metabolisms during rest than those who consume the standard American diet. Why? Plant-based foods offer a boost to the metabolism after each meal. Increased metabolic rates equate to more calories burned over the course of a day.
Perhaps there is in fact more to Christie Brinkley’s narrow waistline than genes and exercise alone. It seems a whole foods, plant-based diet is the antidote to the weight gain woes that often plague middle-aged women.
Got milk? No, thanks. We’ve got plants.