According to a new study by researchers with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, switching to a plant-based diet can boost after-meal calorie burning, lead to weight loss, and improve cardiometabolic risk factors in overweight individuals.

For the 16-week randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of scientific evidence, overweight participants, who had no history of diabetes, were assigned to either an intervention group or control group.

Participants in the intervention group followed a low-fat, plant-based diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (beans, lentils) with no calorie limit. The control group made no diet changes. Neither group changed exercise or medication routines, unless directed by their personal doctors.

Researchers used indirect calorimetry to measure how many calories participants burned after a standardized meal at both the beginning and end of the study.

Plant-basted eaters increased calorie-burning, lost weight

After 16 weeks, the plant-based group increased post-meal calorie burn by 18.7%, on average. The control group's after-meal burn did not change significantly. 

Within just 16 weeks, participants in the plant-based group lowered their body weight by 6.4 kg (about 14 pounds), on average, compared to an insignificant change in the control group.

The plant-based group also saw significant drops in body fat mass and visceral fat, the dangerous fat found around the internal organs. 

Reduced fat in muscle and liver cells, improved insulin sensitivity

The researchers also measured the fat that accumulates in muscle and liver cells in a subset of participants. Fat stored in these cells has been linked to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. When fat builds up in liver and muscle cells, it interferes with insulin's ability to move glucose out from the bloodstream and into the cells.

Those in the plant-based group reduced the fat inside their liver and muscle cells by 34% and 10%, respectively, while the control group didn't  experience significant changes.

The plant-based group also lowered their fasting blood insulin concentration, decreased insulin resistance and increased insulin sensitivity--all positive results--while the control group saw no significant changes.

Participants who ate the plant-based diet also experienced a reduction in total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, with no significant changes in the control group. 

Not only did the plant-based group lose weight, the study showed that a plant-based diet resulted in important metabolic improvements that could reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.

"I plan to stay on this diet for good. Not just for 16 weeks, but for life," reports study participant Sam T., who lost 34 pounds and improved his metabolism during the 16-week study. Since the study has concluded, Sam has continued a plant-based diet, reached his goal weight, and began running half-marathons and marathons.

Source: JAMA Network Open, November 30, 2020.

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