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A Plant-Based Diet Is A Resolution You'll Actually Want To Keep

01/03/2017 12:34 EST | Updated 01/03/2017 12:38 EST
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'Tis the season to make new year resolutions. For many, that often means vowing to commit to a new diet -- again. And let's be frank, we certainly aren't restricted for choice of diets. The diet landscape is glutted with plans that promise rapid weight loss, yet fail to deliver.

Many diets are arduous to follow, utterly untenable and leave us under a black cloud casting a shadow of negative emotions. Feelings of failure, guilt and frustration are common signs following a diet disaster. According to Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate clinical professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York: "The worst diet? A fast one. Guaranteed to fail. It will leave you feeling like you failed the diet, but the real failure was choosing it."

And here's another thought -- how do you know which diet is right for you? With hundreds at our disposal, it's tough to sift through the money-making schemes and find a plan that works.

It's no surprise most feel tangled beyond salvation.

I can feel their hunger to find a quick-fix solution.

As a dietitian-nutritionist, discussions about diets are incessant with my clients (as they should be), and take another level of prominence this time of year. A tidal wave of tenacious clients inquire about nutrition coaching, ready to embark on a new diet to achieve their health and weight goals. As I listen, I can feel their hunger to find a quick-fix solution. As a matter of course, we begin to examine the word "diet." In most cases, I discover our definitions differ.

Diet implies a modern practice, gaining popularity in the 80s and 90s. In fact, diets were pervasive long before. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, as early as the 18th century. Interestingly, the word diet comes from the Greek diaita via diaitan, meaning "way of life." Ironic, then, that the modern perception of a diet is synonym of restriction. And it's this notion that causes relapse. Let's face it, most people on fad diets are dessert-ers.

Having said that, in my practice, I do advocate a "diet" in its authentic sense: a lifestyle that's sustainable, rooted in evidence base and helps us live longer, healthier lives. And Ayoob confers, "A diet should be one you can keep with, and not go off."

Backed by a strong body of evidence, the plant-based diet is the best choice for 2017 (and beyond). Recognized as nutritionally adequate, it's one of the only diets shown to be sustainable long-term, perhaps because people are able to follow through and notice the results.

Rest assured it's not about eating vegetables all day, every day. Rather, it encourages the consumption of wholesome, unrefined or minimally refined plants, including fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. It excludes or minimizes meat (including chicken and fish), dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods.

vegetables table

The relief that unfolds when I explain to clients that there's no calorie-counting. In fact, those with a plant-rich diet appear to have an accelerated resting metabolic rate -- 11 per cent higher than those eating meat. This means that without even accounting for exercise, those who avoid animal products may burn more calories at rest than those who do not.

And we've just begun to scratch the surface of science. Mounting evidence reports on a myriad of health benefits of consuming a plant-based diet. Researchers from Loma Linda University found that vegetarians had a lower body mass index (BMI) than non-vegetarians. This association persisted despite both groups in the study having similar caloric intakes. Beyond combating obesity, vegetarians had a 12 per cent lower risk of death over a six-year period compared with non-vegetarians.

Dietary factors in plant-based diets have been implicated in the prevention of chronic diseases. Notorious for being nutrient-dense and typically providing a low intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, a plant-based diet has shown improvements in cholesterol levels, blood pressure; reduced rates of death from ischemic heart disease; and decreased incidence of hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.

There is no need for a radical shift towards an exclusively plant based diet; rather, a progressive and gentle approach.

According to Philip J. Tuso, MD and his colleagues, "Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or obesity."

Not convinced yet?

In Dan Buettner's book, The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People, the blue zone communities, identified as the healthiest populations in the world with the highest concentrations of centenarians, follow a predominantly plant-based diet. These hotspots -- Okinawa (Japan); Sardinia (Italy); Nicoya (Costa Rica); Icaria (Greece); and the Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California, have a significantly lower risk of disease compared to those in the developed world.

A pure vegetarian or vegan diet may not be embraced by most. Such a drastic transformation is overwhelming and unrealistic. Shifting the pendulum towards a more plant-based food approach with reductions in foods of animal sources confers a survival advantage. In other words, there is no need for a radical shift towards an exclusively plant based diet; rather, a progressive and gentle approach.

For those considering the transition, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) and the Mediterranean diet are excellent options -- with proven health benefits. "Both use 'real food' for people who live in the real world, are incredibly healthful but also affordable," says Ayoob. Predominantly plant-based, they feature lean sources of protein; fish and poultry, with limited red meat.

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