The day Marie Coyle decided to change the way she ate, she didn’t waver.

“I grabbed a trash bag and cleaned out my fridge and pantry,” said Coyle, 28, who lives in Portland. “Then I went to Trader Joe’s and spent more on fruits and vegetables than I had in the past decade.”

Up until that point, Coyle said, her meals consisted of “junk food, fast food, cheese on everything and soda.”

This almost vegetable-free American style of eating is familiar to Tracy Vis. She can relate, even though she was technically a vegetarian when she decided to give her diet a makeover.

“Truly, I was a junk-food-atarian,” said Vis, 37, who lives in Livermore. “I rarely ate vegetables and fruit, and I didn’t really know how to cook. My meals consisted mostly of TV dinners, chips, candy and Taco Bell fast food.”

Coyle and Vis have similar stories.

They both recently adopted a whole-food, plant-based vegan diet and then lost a significant amount of weight. In addition, they both saw dramatic improvements in their health.

Coyle lost 200 pounds and reversed type 2 diabetes. Vis lost 70 pounds, which she credits for her multiple sclerosis going into remission.

LEARNING TO COOK

More than two years ago, Coyle (who at the time had never heard of veganism) watched the 2011 documentary “Forks Over Knives.” The film explores the health benefits of a junk-food-free vegan diet, including the opportunity to improve and reverse type 2 diabetes.

Shortly thereafter her doctor diagnosed her with type 2 diabetes, and she cleared out her fridge that same day.

After purging and restocking her kitchen, Coyle still had a lot of work ahead of her.

“I didn’t know how to cook anything,” Coyle said. “I had to learn how to cook brown rice. I had to learn how to chop vegetables.”

Her efforts paid off as her blood sugar levels returned to normal. Such dramatic health improvements surprised her health care provider, who is now “telling other patients about the vegan diet,” according to Coyle.

When Vis was diagnosed with MS, she too decided to eat better. “I realized I needed to get serious about my health,” Vis said. Although she began to slowly reform her junk-food-atarian diet, she continued to get “sicker and sicker.”

Then four years ago Vis made what she calls a breakthrough decision to not only cut out all the junk food but also to stop eating animal products and eat only whole, vegan foods.

“All my symptoms subsided and then disappeared altogether,” Vis said. “I was a brand new woman and decided that I wanted to devote the rest of my life to educating others about how they, too, could change their health destinies with their fork and spoon.”

After learning to cook and training underexperienced chefs, Vis is now the head chef at The Ark, a vegan cafe in Lewiston. She also teaches occasional cooking classes at the restaurant’s community center.

While nutrition-focused organizations such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and authors such as Dr. John McDougall advocate a plant-based vegan diet as a way to treat MS, most mainstream medical institutions disagree.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, “no diet has been proven to modify the course of MS. MS specialists recommend that people follow the same high-fiber, low-fat diet that is recommended for all adults.”

In contrast, the conventional treatment of type 2 diabetes has broadened in recent years to include a plant-based diet. The American Diabetes Association states that following a vegetarian or vegan diet can “help prevent and manage diabetes.”

WEIGHT-LOSS SCIENCE

The science is also beginning to build around the link between vegetarian diets and weight loss. Last year, research out of the University of South Carolina found that overweight participants randomly assigned to a variety of diets lost the most weight when assigned to the vegan group and the second most when assigned to the vegetarian group.

The study assigned participants to vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian (includes fish), semi-vegetarian (includes meat but less of it) and omnivorous groups.

Brie Turner-McGrievy, an assistant professor at the Arnold School of Public Health, was the lead researcher for the study, which was published in the International Journal of Applied and Basic Nutritional Studies. After its publication, Turner-McGrievy was quoted in the Columbia, South Carolina-based The State as saying “you could have heard a pin drop in the vegan group” when the participants learned which diet they would follow.

Calories weren’t restricted in any of the groups, and all participants ate low-glycemic foods, attended a support group, learned about nutrition and had access to recipes. They all made their own food, and those in the vegan group ate a high-carb diet.

When reached by phone at her lab, Turner-McGrievy said she conducted the study because she wanted to investigate whether the results found in observational studies of large populations (where vegan and vegetarian diets have been linked with healthy body weight) would hold true in a randomized control trial.

She said she “wasn’t surprised” the trial mirrored the results seen in observational studies, but she “was surprised by the amount of weight loss” in the vegan group. On average, those in the vegan group lost 7.5 percent of their body weight after six months. The vegetarians lost 6.3 percent, the pesco-vegetarians and the semi-vegetarians each lost 3.2 percent and the omnivores lost 3.1 percent.

The science doesn’t yet explain why people randomly assigned to a vegan or vegetarian diet lost the most weight, Turner-McGrievy said. However one common theory is that vegetarians consume fewer overall calories than people who eat meat and fish. “But in our study we didn’t see differences in calories among the groups,” Turner-McGrievy said.

In future studies, Turner-McGrievy intends to examine why vegans and vegetarians lose the most weight, particularly if the caloric intake among all the groups is similar.

She also said the link between vegetarian diets, weight loss and improved health is not yet fully understood. However, in her recent study the vegans and vegetarians were the only groups to lose more than 5 percent of their body weight, which is the point “where you see the improvements in diabetes,” Turner-McGrievy said.

Coyle’s friends and family have, of course, noticed that she’s lost weight (and gained health).

“A few of my friends have dabbled in veganism after watching my changes,” Coyle said, “but I think there is a resistance to it, which is really sad for me. People say they could never give up cheese, but I say, ‘Don’t give up cheese. Give up all the other animal products.’ ”

Coyle’s friends should listen to her, since her advice increasingly is supported by science.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


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