Is your Vegan Diet Making you Fat?
Adopting a vegan diet can be an excellent way to lose weight and improve many metrics of your health–but it must be adhered to properly. While this way of eating is usually lower in sugar, fats and overall calories than the Standard American Diet (because of its original emphasis on vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes), that’s not always true. In fact, following a vegan lifestyle can actually cause you to gain weight if you’re not careful -- especially if you’re replacing animal protein and fats with vegan junk food, smoothies and shakes, and “meatless” meat products (as we’ve seen far too often).
In other words, the quality of the calories you’re consuming is just as important as quantity- but more on that later. Whichever dietary theory you choose to follow, if you’re interested in weight loss, you must look at portion sizes, nutritional value, diversity, and overall calorie intake versus calorie burn. Here are a few "Do's and Don't's" for adopting a vegan lifestyle while still achieving your weight-loss goals:
- Don't overdo Quantity- Plant foods contain vitamins and minerals that provide energy to your cells and help heal and regenerate tissue; however, we don't require any of these in unlimited supply. People often think they can eat as much as they want on a vegan diet because the food is full of nutrients and generally considered healthy, but that’s just not the case. Portion control counts! Many of these foods are quite high in calories (nuts, seeds, avocado), sugar (tropical fruits, starchy vegetables) and carbohydrates (legumes, quinoa), and these calories can quickly add up to weight gain. Also, sometimes it’s the food dressing, sauce or topping that catapults the calorie, sugar or fat count of your meal. For instance, a healthy chopped salad or plate of broccoli can quickly become dietary disasters when drenched in vegan ranch dressing or fried in oil. This is especially true because many plant oils and vegan butter alternatives are highly processed and refined and contain dangerous trans-fats – leading not only to weight gain but also inflammation and disease. Whatever the culprit may be, weight gain is going to occur when you eat at a caloric surplus- meaning you consume more calories than you burn on a daily basis.
- Do be mindful of protein. Meeting your recommended daily value of protein is essential for building and maintaining lean muscle, keeping your metabolism fired up, and staving off hunger and cravings. Additionally, if you aren’t providing your body with the protein it needs, it begins taking it from your muscles and cannibalizing its own tissue! Fortunately, it’s easy enough to meet protein requirements on a vegan diet, as long as you are strategic and informed. An easy way to estimate your daily needs (in grams) is to multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. You must also remember that quality is equally important. Find out which nuts and legumes work for your unique bio-individuality and focus on those as your primary sources. Steer clear of plant-based meat alternatives such as veggie hot dogs, burgers, nuggets, bacon or sausage. They are usually nothing more than highly processed soy or pea protein loaded with added sugar, fillers, binders, sodium, and refined carbohydrates –not good, especially when you’re trying to lose weight.
- Do be mindful of when you eat. Regardless of the dietary theory you follow, the timing of meals can have a major impact on your ability to lose weight. Most Americans eat their largest meal in the evening—not optimal because this is when we are typically the least active. Instead, aim to get the majority of your calories earlier in the day to fuel your body when you need it most, and stick to eating within an 8-12 hour window.
- Do be mindful of meeting your daily nutrient needs. Animal products provide many essential vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron and B12, so when you're not eating these foods, it's easy to become deficient. This can quickly lead to fatigue, lethargy and stalled metabolism- not ideal when trying to lose or maintain weight. Ensure your vegan diet is varied, and nutrient dense, and supplement your diet with vitamins as needed.
- Do fill your plate primarily with leafy greens and non-starchy veggies, and use nuts, healthy fats, legumes and fruits sparingly to round out the flavor, texture and nutritional profile of your meal. We recommend that our clients use measuring spoons or cups and visual aids for higher calorie and fat foods in order to keep portions in check. Also, just because you’re vegan doesn’t mean you can go crazy with fruit. Fruit is often high in carbohydrates and sugars, and although glucose is your body’s primary source of fuel, a surplus will be converted to fat for long-term storage.
- Don't let your gut microbiome get out of whack. We know how important a varied and robust gut flora is for healthy immune and digestive systems, but did you know it's also essential for efficiently breaking down calories in a way that we don't gain weight? To be on the safe side, we recommend that all of our clients take a daily multi-strain probiotic and occasionally a digestive multi-enzyme as well.
- Don’t fall prey to all of the “health-ades” and beverages marketed to plant-based consumers these days. Kombucha, green juices, coconut water, non-dairy creamers, cold brew “lattes” and protein shakes may seem like healthy (or at least neutral) options; however, these drinks are often in excess of 200 calories and 10 g of sugar. Our general advice to clients is to stick to water, unsweetened tea and seltzer -otherwise you may as well have dessert.
- Don't think vegan equals healthy! Just because something is labeled as vegan does not mean it’s healthy, and certainly does not mean it can be consumed in unlimited amounts! Plant-based desserts and packaged snacks are usually nothing more than healthfully disguised “Frankenfoods” - high in refined carbs, sugar and fat, and devoid of nutrients and fiber. Keep in mind Oreos are vegan! And while some of them are fine on occasion, they should still be regarded as “treats” – not something to be consumed regularly or as a substitution for real plant foods. After all, at the end of the day, a brownie is still a brownie! Even worse, a recent study found that people who eat processed food may burn nearly 50% less calories after a meal than those who eat whole real foods!
- Don't ignore lurking food sensitivities. Wheat, soy, corn, nightshades, nuts, and legumes are all extremely common allergies and sensitivities, and we know now that this can play a major factor in leaky gut, inflammation/disease and weight gain. Because these foods are often staples in a plant-based diet, we advise getting an allergy test or doing an elimination diet to determine which ones are causing the issue.
- Don't over-restrict! It may sound contradictory, but if you are restricting calories too much or eating nutritionally-void foods on a plant-based diet, your metabolism will stall, making it difficult to lose weight. Not only will you end up feeling really hangry and craving carbs all day, your body will start holding on to every calorie for fear of “famine”. This inevitably leads to unhealthy binges in the future, and even worse, long-term disordered eating. Furthermore, not eating enough will slow your thyroid which is a double whammy when it comes to losing weight and keeping it off. Instead focus on varied meals and snacks that are high in fiber and contain macros, vitamins and minerals that will keep you satiated and provide your body with the fuel it needs to stay healthy and strong.
Bottom line, if you are “vegi-curious”, we highly recommend working with a professional to devise a nutritionally-balanced meal plan that’s right for you. It’s also important to remember that even under clinical supervision, a plant-based diet is not a “universal truth”. Just because your best friend or co-worker lost weight going vegan doesn’t mean that will be the case for you. You must always listen to your body, pay attention to its signals, and learn from your own experiences.
*Note: we are not medical professionals, nor should this be regarded as medical advice. We do not endorse or reject any one particular dietary theory or method; rather, we simply believe in the power of eating whole, real foods as nature intended. Please consult with your physician before embarking on any new diet or supplement regime.
In good health,
Megan + Robyn