Here comes the New Year with all its fresh-start possibilities. We’ve survived the season of caloric abundance and millions of us are ready to shed a few pounds.

But the latest research on weight management—some of which was highlighted in a recent article in the New York Times (see below)—raises questions about the pursuit of a slender body.

The evidence suggest that the majority of people who lose weight regain as much as 95 percent of it within five years.   And it’s not necessarily just because people can’t stick with the plan that helped them lose weight.  Dieting changes metabolism in ways that boost hunger and affect calorie use. People who diet may have to exercise more and cut back more stringently on calories to maintain their weight loss compared to same-weight people who haven’t dieted. In short, significant weight loss sends your body into starvation mode where all it wants to do is accumulate fat.

Do people who lose weight on a vegan diet have any advantage in this regard? We don’t know. A handful of studies show that low-fat vegan diets—which achieve calorie reduction through food restrictions—produce weight loss in the short term, but none that show how people fare four or five years down the road. If they regain their weight, then they may perceive a vegan diet as ineffective or may perceive themselves as embarrassing vegan failures. (I wrote earlier this year about the potential problems that arise when veganism is defined as a “weight loss diet.)

But that’s just one issue. The other is that anywhere from 14 to 31% of weight loss is comprised of lean tissue—muscle and bone. When weight is regained, not all of that lean tissue is recovered. This is especially important as people age. Muscle loss—called sarcopenia—is common with aging and it’s linked to osteoporosis, risk of falling, and overall decline in physical function. The reasons for sarcopenia aren’t that well understood, but weight cycling sure doesn’t help. It can produce what’s called “sarcopenic obesity”—too much fat, too little muscle.

You can counteract the problem to some extent through diet and exercise. Extra protein may be beneficial for weight loss (and satiety), and it might protect muscle while you shed pounds. Beans are an ideal food in this regard since they provide both fiber and protein—kind of the dynamic duo for hunger management. But for some people on reduced calorie diets, it may be difficult to consume enough protein without including some soy products or veggie meats in menus.

The biggest problem occurs when people drop too many pounds. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that a weight loss of 3 to 4.3% of body weight is often successfully maintained over several years. While that may not sound very exciting, these small weight losses can have significant health benefits.

For many people, however—especially those who have dieted unsuccessfully numerous times—resolutions that focus on healthy lifestyle rather than on dropping pounds could be the best and smartest option. It’s hard to believe that, though, when everyone is telling you that you should be trying to lose weight. And the promotion of vegan diets for weight loss is a part of that relentless and potentially damaging message.

So, if you’ve been on the dieting merry-go-round over the years without much success, switch the substance of your New Year’s resolutions from weight to health:

  • Be diligent about exercise, especially weight training. It’s crucial for everyone who wants to maintain good health as they age.  The Health at Every Size paradigm suggests that rather than planned “exercise” you should simply engage in activities you enjoy. I guess that might work for some folks, but it sure doesn’t for me. Since my favorite activity is sitting in front of the fire with a good book and a glass of wine, I’d be in trouble if I didn’t absolutely force myself to exercise. I do it because it’s good for me; it’s never especially enjoyable.
  •  Eat healthfully. You know how to do this—pile on the veggies, beans and whole grains. Work on the problem areas that sabotage your health—whether it’s too many cookies, too much alcohol, or a love affair with potato chips. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that certain plant foods need to be banned. That’s a fad diet way of thinking.
  •  Go vegan, or at least get started on the transition. Eating more plant foods can improve your health no matter what your body size. And, a vegan diet is guaranteed to make your diet more respectful and compassionate. I can’t imagine a better New Year’s resolution than that.


For more information, take a look at the excellent New York Times article referenced above

Here are references to some of the research discussed in this post:

Methods for voluntary weight loss and control. NIH Technology Assessment Conference Panel. Consensus Development Conference, 1992. Ann Intern Med 1993;119:764-70.

Newman AB, Lee JS, Visser M, et al. Weight change and the conservation of lean mass in old age: the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;82:872-8; quiz 915-6.

Sumithran P, Prendergast LA, Delbridge E, et al. Long-term persistence of hormonal adaptations to weight loss. N Engl J Med 2011;365:1597-604.

Chaston TB, Dixon JB, O’Brien PE. Changes in fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond) 2007;31:743-50.

Beavers KM, Lyles MF, Davis CC, Wang X, Beavers DP, Nicklas BJ. Is lost lean mass from intentional weight loss recovered during weight regain in postmenopausal women? Am J Clin Nutr 2011.

Lee JS, Visser M, Tylavsky FA, et al. Weight loss and regain and effects on body composition: the Health, Aging, and Body Composition Study. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2010;65:78-83.

Franz MJ, VanWormer JJ, Crain AL, et al. Weight-loss outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of weight-loss clinical trials with a minimum 1-year follow-up. J Am Diet Assoc 2007;107:1755-67.