Can a plant-based diet help tackle obesity? Yes, but beware vegan junk food!

Vegan restaurateur Louise Palmer-Masterton of London’s Stem + Glory discusses the latest health pandemic

Stem + Glory, London

Tackling obesity is now a top government priority but it’s hardly news that being overweight increases your vulnerability to ill health, from high blood pressure and diabetes to heart disease and cancer.

The question now is how do we help people to lose weight and learn better eating habits? Here’s where a plant-based diet can help…

According to PETA, meat-eaters have three times the obesity rate of vegetarians and nine times the obesity rate of vegans.

So it seems just cutting meat and dairy will immediately improve your chances of weight loss.

This isn’t new information either. A Swedish study back in 2005 showed that self-identified semi-vegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women have a lower risk of obesity than omnivorous women.

The advice of that report 15 years ago when veganism was hardly known was to ‘consume more plant foods and less animal products to help control your weight’.

Recent research by Dr Katarina Kos, a senior lecturer in diabetes and obesity at the University of Exeter, shows that vegan or plant-based diets are effective in providing more weight loss – the by-product of which is an improvement in diabetes and in diabetes and weight-related complications.

So, whether you go fully vegan, or remain flexitarian, eating fewer animal products and more plants will help you lose weight, and in turn improve your health outcomes.

But what are the barriers to sticking to a predominantly plant-based diet?

Many people report when moving to a vegan diet, that they are always hungry. That was certainly the case for me. Why is this?

Well, switching to a plant-based diet means a move from high-fat, calorie-dense foods such as meat and dairy, so the body takes a while to adjust.

The solution is either #1: eat more calories, or #2: eat a greater proportion, and a wider variety of proteins – #2 being the better option in supporting weight loss.

Legumes such as chickpeas, combined with tofu, quinoa and a sprinkling of nuts and seeds for example will combine to give a greater protein content than just eating chickpeas alone.

As with any dietary change, the body does get used to it, but give yourself a month to adapt.

One of the chefs prepares a plant-based dish at Stem + Glory, Cambridge

I am a believer in sticking mainly to natural whole foods – fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains – and avoiding processed foods where possible.

With the explosion in plant-based meat replacements currently it’s easy to lose sight of this.

I do think meat replacements play a part in the conversion to eating more plant-based foods and less animal products, BUT I don’t believe they are a sustainable solution for health and weight loss.

Take the explosion in vegan junk food, known as ‘dirty vegan’. Dirty vegan is huge on the plant-based scene right now.

Enormous stacked plant-based burgers, deep fried seitan (basically wheat gluten), chips, mayo, mac and cheese, all comfort foods and no doubt delicious BUT very high in calories and low in natural unprocessed ingredients.

And here lies the caution: Don’t be fooled into thinking that just eating plant-based food without attention to nutrition and calories will lead to better health and weight loss.

The first vegan I ever met was very large and overweight. He lived on a diet mostly of potato chips!

The explosion in vegan cheese is also a red flag for me. A high fat and highly processed product which can never be healthy in my view.

And if real dairy products are a problem for health and weight loss, then when we do eventually have an engineered cow milk product with all the same nutrients as real dairy, then unfortunately that will carry all the same health and weight loss risk as real dairy.

So, if dirty vegan and substitute or engineered meat and dairy are not the way to go, how do we make plant-based food delicious and interesting?

At Stem & Glory, we believe that gut friendly food, low in refined carbs, is the way to go.

We focus on natural vegetables accompanied by nutrient dense components such as nuts and seeds.

There is a big focus on layering umami flavours and flavour combining to get that explosion of deliciousness which overrides any need to eat huge portions to feel satisfied.

We use fermented and pickled foods too which are really good for your microbiome and overall health.

In terms of the future of food, we believe this is where it lies. Fermented foods can play a huge part in strengthening the immune system, they are naturally probiotic, improving your digestive system and natural gut flora, which support all bodily functions and helps with weight loss.

Kimchi

Plant-based food can play a huge part in tackling obesity, and if you do just one thing to help with weight loss, then simply turning vegan is moving in the right direction.

But moving away from vegan junk and meat replacements, towards natural unprocessed food is the right way to achieve optimum health and healthy weight.

The messaging has to be move away from junk across the board, if it’s plastic wrapped and in the supermarket deli fridge, it’s probably best avoided – whether it’s vegan or not!

Obesity Strategy

In July 2022, the Department of Health and Social Care launched its ‘Obesity Strategy’. As part of this strategy, they created the term ‘HFSS’ – foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt. 

Foods are all given an HFSS score, with products with a score over 4 fun the danger zone.

Part of this new obesity strategy will be restricting promotions of HFSS foods. Evidence shows that promotions increase the buying volume of these foods by 20%, and in addition, stockpiling of these offers tends to increase consumption.

Volume driving promotions will no longer be permitted with foods that have an HFSS score of 4 or above.

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that almost all foods with high scores are animal products. Beef mince – 13; pork sausages – 15; bacon – 16; butter – 19; Cheddar cheese – 24.

The hope of the obesity strategy is that when retailers are no longer permitted to apply volume discounts to high HFSS foods, they will instead apply them to healthier low HFSS products.

Watermelon Salad

Easy vegan swaps

Simple swaps from meat to plant based ingredients can really cut down your calories and saturated fat on a daily basis without any sense of loss of taste or feeling unsatiated.

For example, many people use beef mince (high HFSS) on a very regular basis.

This can be substituted by one of the plethora of plant-based minces in a whole host of recipes from bolognese to tacos and shepherds pie.

I would recommend seeking out a product from my vegetarian youth – dried soya mince – a completely natural product that can be rehydrated and used in place of any recipe calling for beef mince.

My secret weapon in using this staple is adding Marmite and a dash of balsamic to the stock – it’s all about layering the umami flavours. In fact I add Marmite and balsamic to many recipes!

Here are the facts: Beef mince is 332 calories per 100g, with 30% saturated fat. Soya mince contains 100 calories per 100 grams, and 1% saturated fat.

You might also be surprised to learn that beef mince contains 14g of protein per 100g, but soya mince contains slightly more at 14.9g.

In this way meat substitutes plan a big part in weaning us off meat and onto plant based foods, but ultimately why not use this as a stepping stone?

Louise Palmer-Masterton

Louise Palmer-Masterton is founder of multiple award-winning London restaurants Stem + Glory, serving gourmet vegan food from locally sourced ingredients, 100% made on site.

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