Most plant-based eaters will tell you that if you join the club, you will be rewarded with quick and lasting weight loss. I did not reap those benefits – perhaps because I replaced cheese with peanut butter, meat with avocados, and candy with raisins and other dried fruit.
So when I read Dr. Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live, which promises fast and sustained weight loss the plant-based way, I was skeptical. Each chapter features the story of a client who, by sticking to the book’s prescriptions over the long haul, lost hundreds of pounds, all without counting calories, paying money for factory-prepared low-carb meals, or other gimmicks. It made me wonder: Is this really possible? In this post I’ll share my answer.
The way to find out was to give Fuhrman’s Six Week Plan a try. A few reasons prompted me to do this: My husband Terry had been telling me for months that it would be great if I were just a tad more slender – it’s the kind of thing only a very loving husband is allowed to say. Second, he himself needed to lose a bit of belly fat, and I thought it would be easier for both of us if we worked on this together. Third, a friend of mine – a full-blooded Texan and committed meat eater – had gone on the Atkins diet. By eating fatty sausages and thick steaks, and by avoiding the plant carbs that I find so beneficial, he effortlessly slimmed his waistline. This raised the question: Do you have to eat this unhealthy to become thinner? And lastly, my new blog was in need of posts. So why not make my husband happy, get him to become healthier, explore Fuhrman’s alternative to Atkins, and gather material for a blog post all at once?
Fuhrman’s Six Week Plan
Fuhrman’s Six Week Plan had a few straightforward rules:
- Eat as many legumes and fruits as you like.
- Eat as many non-starchy veggies as you can – the more the better.
- Restrict your intake of grains and starchy vegetables.
- Have only a few nuts and seeds each day.
- Don’t consume oil, dried fruits, fruit juice, processed food, or animal products.
For the first three weeks I followed these guidelines to a tee. Since I was already a vegetarian, the requirement to ditch animal products presented no difficulty. My challenge was cutting back on grains, boosting legume intake and gorging on salad greens.
Reducing grains and starchy vegetables
I like grains and positively adore Swiss Müsli, which is based on rolled oats. Müsli plus a shredded apple is a breakfast routine that eases me into the day without overwhelming my sleepy brain cells with early-morning food choices.
Dr. Fuhrman permits grains and starchy vegetables so long as you limit their intake. That’s probably because they have many proven health benefits. For people who eat animal products, for example, oats feature soluble fibers that bind excess cholesterol in the gut and shepherd it out of the metabolic system. But Terry and I decided not to take any chances and shelved the Müsli container for the time being. We also avoided bread and pasta, which was a much easier task.
Boosting legume intake
Starchy plants satisfy hunger. Without them we needed to rely on legumes for satiety. Legumes are rich in carbohydrates, but those carbs are to a large degree resistant starches. Instead of getting digested in the small intestine, these starches pass into the colon, nourishing the beneficial microbes that reside there, then they leave your system.
Eating large quantities of these resistant starches was easier said than done. Four days into the Six Week Plan I ran out of bean ideas. I pulled out all my cookbooks, scoured them for legume preparations that would fit the guidelines of the diet, and entered them into a list. Whenever the need arose, I consulted the list and prepared meals from it. This has led to some great dinners, from Spanish split pea soup to Punjabi curry.
Still, at some point Terry, whose commitment to the plant-based life trailed mine, complained: “Can’t you make a dish that is healthy but feels like real food?” After pointing out that what he called “real food” was in fact devoid of nutrients, I agreed to make a dish that would remind him of beef. What I came up with were chickpea-based, meat-less meatballs in marinara sauce. They made him very happy.
Eating lots of salad greens
Fuhrman explains that the caloric effect of salad greens or other non-starchy vegetables is negative – they give you less energy than it takes you to digest them. He therefore advises:
The object is to eat as many raw vegetables as possible, with a goal of one pound (sixteen ounces) daily … A small head of romaine lettuce is six to eight ounces, a medium tomato or bell pepper weights about four to six ounces. Include raw vegetables such as snow peas, red bell peppers, carrots, raw peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, and sprouts.
I interpreted this as meaning, “Eat at least one huge salad per day.” But this was difficult: The typical dressings were either dairy-based, containing cheese or cream or buttermilk; or they were vinaigrettes with an oil-to-vinegar ratio of 3:1. Traditional dressing was therefore a no-no. And who likes to eat salad without that dash of extra flavor?
A bit of puzzlement set in, then a solution emerged: beans! I have since come up with four or five bean-based, completely guilt-free dressings that you may slather on your leafy greens with great liberality. In the near future you’ll find them on this blog.
Having these dressings made the salad task a whole lot easier. Romaine lettuce, with its crunchy texture and slightly sweet aroma, became my new BFF.
Here’s my weight loss record for the first three weeks:
- Week 1: 2.4 pound loss
- Week 2: 1.6 pound loss
- Week 3: 3 pound loss
It was great: I ate as many fruits as I liked, never counted calories or starved myself, and the pounds were coming off! The magic of legumes’ resistant starch seemed to be doing the trick.
The next seven days, however, didn’t run so smoothly:
- Week 4: 1.5 pound gain.
How could this be? At first I blamed the mechanical scale for the disaster, thinking it had lost its accuracy. But in reality the responsibility was mine. That week I ate out several times. The meals were in keeping with the diet plan, containing no dairy or meat, little rice, and lots of fresh veggies. The problem was that I couldn’t tell how much fat, salt, or sugar was in the restaurant dishes I ordered. Thai curry, for example, is fresh and delicious but contains a good deal of high-fat coconut milk. Chinese moo shoo, which wraps a thinly sliced vegetable stir-fry in an almost translucent flour tortilla, looks very healthy but may have been sautéed in lots of oil. And how much sugar is in the plum sauce that gives this dish its special kick? How much ghee was in the dreamy Indian cauliflower grits that a friend brought me one Saturday morning?
Eating out did me in.
More weight loss
With that lesson under my belt, I approached excursions into the world of restaurants with greater care. The reward was renewed weight loss:
- Week 5: 1 pound loss
- Week 6: 3.5 pound loss
Altogether I lost ten pounds over the course of six weeks, and much of it from around my waist. The experience left me feeling lighter and more agile.
Does it work?
My finding is that Fuhrman’s approach to weight loss works. He promises that you don’t need to count calories. I never did and still lost weight. Fuhrman’s clients lose as much as ninety pounds per year, some even more. My average weight loss per week was 1.67 pounds. Extrapolated to an entire year, this amounts to 86.8 pounds. When I first read the weight loss stories of Fuhrman’s clients, they seemed too good to be true. But it appears that if you really, honestly stick to the plan, they are achievable.
Fuhrman’s plan is difficult
For me the plan was moderately difficult, because it forced me to cut back on starches and increase my legume intake. For those who have been following the standard American diet, making the transition to the Eat to Live plan will be far more difficult, because it demands that they wean themselves of meat, dairy, and the many processed high-sugar foods they regularly eat. The plan requires real commitment to a new way of living.
Fuhrman’s plan is a long-term solution
You may consider this a crucial weakness, but I also view it as a strength. Compare the Fuhrman plan with the Atkins diet. Atkins encourages its adherents to engage in a behavior – heavy consumption of animal fat – that is proven to clog arteries and lead to cardiovascular disease. In addition Atkins urges you to eat lots of animal protein. That increases your blood levels of insulin-like growth factor 1, which in turn stimulates the growth of cancer cells. While the diet provides a fix in the short run, it is simply not sustainable.
The Fuhrman diet, in contrast, teaches you a way of eating that – if you keep it up long-term – will reward you not only with a slender waist but also with vibrant health.
I for one plan to keep my weight at the current level. This means making a few small adjustments to my eating pattern:
- Make the consumption of alcohol a rare occurrence and avoid fruit juice.
- Eat grains and starchy veggies with caution. I have re-introduced Müsli into my routine, but am careful not to eat large amounts of starchy foods, especially bread or pasta.
- Continue to eat legumes in abundance. Not only do they form a rich source of protein and keep you sated on resistant starch. They are also rich in anti-cancer compounds. On that issue the American Institute for Cancer Research says,
Dry beans and peas are rich in fiber (20% of Daily Value) and a good source of protein (10% of Daily Value). They are also an excellent source of folate, a B vitamin. Foods containing folate help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer probably because of folate’s role in healthy cell division and repair of damaged cells.
Legumes contain other health-promoting substances that may also protect against cancer:
– Lignans and saponins
– Resistant starch, starch not digested in the small intestine, is used by healthful bacteria in the colon to produce short-chain fatty acids, which seem to protect colon cells.
– Antioxidants from a variety of phytochemicals, including triterpenoids, flavonoids, inositol, protease inhibitors and sterols.
All in all, the past six weeks have paid off. The coolest thing is that at first I felt the vivid desire to celebrate the end of the program with an English muffin, but then that urge faded. When the experiment was over, I no longer wanted to reward myself at all, an indication that adhering to Fuhrman’s instructions had turned from an imposition into the new normal.