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Gaining Weight on a Plant-based Diet, Facing Diet Questions from Friends

The following article appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of the Health Science magazine

Question: Is it possible to become overweight while eating a whole-food, plant-based diet?

Answer: It's certainly possible but very unlikely. A typical person eats about four to six pounds of food a day. If you only eat vegetables, which are, on average, about 100 calories per pound, this means you will have consumed 600 calories in a day (which is almost three to four times fewer calories than the average American). So, in order to over-consume calories (and thus, gain weight), you would have to eat more than 20 pounds of vegetables per day. And similar to vegetables, fruits and starches (like potatoes, rice, beans, and lentils) are also low in calorie density, so it would be virtually impossible to overeat on them and gain weight.

On the other end of the spectrum is refined foods, such as flour, sugar, and fat, which can be as high as 1,500, 1,800 and 4,000 calories per pound, respectively. This means that eating four to six pounds of these foods every day will result in significantly more calories consumed. Just one tablespoon of oil delivers the same number of calories as one pound of salad. Imagine eating two pounds of salad versus two tablespoons of oil; which would keep you full longer?

If you’re trying to lose weight, you do not need to count calories, watch your portion sizes, time your meals, buy “scientifically formulated” packages of food, or tape your mouth shut. The solution is to eat as many vegetables, fruits, and starches as possible, and avoid the more concentrated sources of calories (like refined foods). This can be more difficult than it sounds, especially with so many obstacles in the modern environment. But for people who are determined on this journey, it’s often the most rewarding way toward optimal health.

I occasionally meet people who are already eating a whole-food, plant-based diet and are struggling to lose weight. Although this can sometimes be due to certain medication usage or a disease process, it can also be from over-consuming concentrated whole foods, such as dried fruit, nuts, avocado, coconut, nut milks, sprouted breads, and similar foods. If this might be the case, a short experiment of consuming only vegetables, fruits, and starches is the best way to gain clarity on the cause of those stubborn pounds. If you are using medications or suspect a disease process, however, talk to your doctor when making dietary changes so you can be appropriately monitored.

(For more information on calorie density, search on YouTube for “Jeff Novick” and look for his lecture, “Calorie Density: How to Eat More, Weigh Less and Live Longer.”)

Question: My friends always ask me about my plant-based diet but get argumentative when I try to talk to them about it. Do you have any tips on talking with people who don’t eat this way?

Answer: As explained in Dr. Doug Lisle’s interesting lecture, “The Perfect Personality,” being highly introverted makes following a healthy lifestyle easier. There will be fewer interactions with other people and fewer friends cross-examining you about your personal food choices. However, if you are more of an extrovert and enjoy being social, you will find yourself in many more situations where you are asked about your diet, which can lead to conflict.

At the heart of your friends’ pressing you is the subconscious anxiety they and other people may feel as they watch you make healthier choices right in front of their noses, thus appearing more diligent in your efforts than they are.

One way to avoid conflict in social situations is to simply downplay your own efforts to eat a healthy diet. In this way you signal that you are not trying to show off, you are simply trying a new way of eating to see how it goes. This will relax your friends more than if you show up to the party reciting every fact, study, or book on your new diet. Phrases like “It seems to be working for me, but we’ll see,” “I’m not so sure it’s right for everyone,” and “I just love vegetables,” are very useful to shift the conversation away from argument.

In addition, there is so much confusion surrounding diet and lifestyle choices that even if your friends are genuinely interested, unless you are being asked to give a lecture about health, you may not have the time or your friends’ attention long enough to adequately cover such a broad topic. In these cases, I think it’s a good idea to offer the name of a book, lecture, or video on the subject that you found educational and helpful.

In these cases, you may still want to downplay your own knowledge on the subject to keep the conversation at a minimum. Trying to share everything you have learned thus far is risky and can be overwhelming for others to hear. Similar to the above suggestions, using phrases like, “This book seemed to make sense to me,” or “I read a few pages and it looked interesting,” can pique enough curiosity to give your friends something to think about. If you want to share your knowledge, sometimes it’s best to simply plant a few seeds and let them grow.

Question: I often get frustrated with trying to follow a healthy lifestyle when temptations are everywhere. Any ideas?

Answer: Attempting to live a health-promoting lifestyle can be a challenge in today’s world. Every unhealthy temptation of the modern environment surrounds us, much like water surrounding a submerged submarine, patiently exerting its pressure, trying to find a way inside. This is why it can be useful to “strengthen the hull” by structuring your environment to support your lifestyle goals. Here are some ideas that may be helpful:

  • Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy food. This will make it easy to eat healthy when you are hungry. Conversely, don’t keep junk food in the house. This will make it difficult to eat healthily when you are hungry.

  • Keep your kitchen neat and tidy. Minimizing chaos minimizes stress.

  • Find worthwhile pursuits so that food is sustenance for those pursuits rather than the focus of your life.

  • Fast when appropriate. A fast can help reboot your taste buds, give you more energy, and allow time for reflection.

Life has its ups and downs, but this is normal. With some careful planning and diligence, we can organize our surroundings to minimize our vulnerabilities and enjoy life.


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