Background: Consuming different food groups and nutrients can have differential effects on body weight, body composition, and insulin sensitivity.
Objective: The aim was to identify how food group, nutrient intake, and diet quality change relative to usual-diet controls after 16 weeks on a low-fat vegan diet and what associations those changes have with changes in body weight, body composition, and measures of metabolic health.
Design: Secondary analysis of a randomized clinical trial conducted between October 2016 and December 2018 in four replications.
Participants/setting: Participants included in this analysis were 219 healthy, community-based adults in the Washington, DC, area, with a body mass index (BMI) between 28 and 40, who were randomly assigned to either follow a low-fat vegan diet or make no diet changes.
Intervention: A low-fat, vegan diet deriving approximately 10% of energy from fat, with weekly classes including dietary instruction, group discussion, and education on the health effects of plant-based nutrition. Control group participants continued their usual diets.
Main outcome measures: Changes in food group intake, macronutrient and micronutrient intake, and dietary quality as measured by Alternate Healthy Eating Index-2010 (AHEI-2010), analyzed from 3-day diet records, and associations with changes in body weight, body composition, and insulin sensitivity were assessed.
Statistical analyses performed: A repeated-measure analysis of variance model that included the factors group, subject, and time was used to test the between-group differences throughout the 16-week study. Interaction between group and time was calculated for each variable. Within each diet group, paired comparison t tests were calculated to identify significant changes from baseline to 16 weeks. Spearman correlations were calculated for the relationship between changes in food group intake, nutrient intake, AHEI-2010 score, and changes in body weight, body composition, and insulin sensitivity. The relative contribution of food groups and nutrients to weight loss was evaluated using linear regression.
Results: Fruit, vegetable, legume, meat alternative, and whole grain intake significantly increased in the vegan group. Intake of meat, fish, and poultry; dairy products; eggs; nuts and seeds; and added fats decreased. Decreased weight was most associated with increased intake of legumes (r = -0.38; P < 0.0001) and decreased intake of total meat, fish, and poultry (r = +0.43; P < 0.0001). Those consuming a low-fat vegan diet also increased their intake of carbohydrates, fiber, and several micronutrients and decreased fat intake. Reduced fat intake was associated with reduced body weight (r = +0.15; P = 0.02) and, after adjustment for changes in BMI and energy intake, with reduced fat mass (r = +0.14; P = 0.04). The intervention group's AHEI-2010 increased by 6.0 points on average, in contrast to no significant change in the control group (treatment effect, +7.2 [95% CI +3.7 to +10.7]; P < 0.001). Increase in AHEI-2010 correlated with reduction in body weight (r = 0.14; P = 0.04), fat mass (r = -0.14; P = 0.03), and insulin resistance as measured by the Homeostasis Model Assessment (HOMA-IR; r = -0.17; P = 0.02), after adjustment for changes in energy intake.
Conclusions: When compared with participants' usual diets, intake of plant foods increased, and consumption of animal foods, nuts and seeds, and added fats decreased on a low-fat vegan diet. Increased legume intake was the best single food group predictor of weight loss. Diet quality as measured by AHEI-2010 improved on the low-fat vegan diet, which was associated with improvements in weight and metabolic outcomes. These data suggest that increasing low-fat plant foods and minimizing high-fat and animal foods is associated with decreased body weight and fat loss, and that a low-fat vegan diet can improve measures of diet quality and metabolic health.
Keywords: Diet quality; Food groups; Plant-based; Vegan; Weight loss.
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