10 Ways a Vegan Diet Can Help—or Hurt—Your Weight Loss Goals
It’s hard to ignore the growing vegan diet craze, especially when its advocates include Beyoncé, Carrie Underwood, and the Williams sisters. While vegan diets have shown to be effective in fighting against heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and many other chronic health conditions, can it also be a useful tool for weight loss?
Potentially. In fact, A 2016 study from Harvard University found vegetarian dieters lost more weight than non-vegetarians after 18 weeks. Vegan dieters actually saw the most weight loss, losing five pounds more than non-vegetarians, while vegetarians lost three pounds more. Another 2009 study out of Loma Linda University found that vegans on average had healthier BMIs than both lacto-ovo vegetarians—who eat eggs and dairy—and non-vegetarians.
However, “going vegan” isn’t necessarily a winning formula for weight loss.
“Vegan diets need a little bit of planning to be nutritionally sound,” Lisa Valente, MS RD, nutrition editor at Cooking Light and EatingWell says. “Just because something is vegan doesn't make it healthy. Kale is vegan, but so are Oreos.”
Below, find 10 pros and cons of adopting a vegan diet for weight loss reasons, including how it can help—or inhibit—your goals.
1. Vegan Diets Are Typically Higher in Fiber
A 1985 study of vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores found vegans consumed significantly more fiber—an average of 24g more per day—than omnivores. Another study associated vegans with healthier digestion, including more frequent bowel movements, than the other two groups. These findings stand up well today, since 95% of the U.S. population doesn’t get enough fiber.
Fiber intake is key for weight loss (and overall health) for more than just clockwork bowel movements. Fiber keeps us satiated and full until our next meal, and also helps prevent the temptation to snack. It regulates our blood pressure, keeps cholesterol levels low, and even boasts anti-inflammatory properties. These factors make a high-fiber diet essential for weight loss and maintenance.
2. Vegan Junk Foods Often Replace Whole Foods
Ideally, those on a vegan diet should take a whole foods, plant-based approach, meaning most of their calories come from produce, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds—but it doesn’t always end up that way. There is more processed vegan food in grocery stores than ever, leading many people to become “junk food vegans.”
One could eat a vegan breakfast burrito in the morning, a “chick’n” pasta for lunch, and an Impossible Burger for dinner, without even eating one vegetable. Many of these processed vegan foods have little nutritional value and should be regarded as an indulgence, similar to the foods they’re mimicking.
There are some exceptions. For example, there are plenty of nutritionally sound veggie burger recipes made from whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make vegan versions of your favorite foods—just be mindful of the ingredients you’re using. Remember: Vegan is not always synonymous with healthy.
3. Vegan Diets Are Typically Lower in Saturated Fat
The World Health Organization has urged us to consume no more than 10 percent of our calories from saturated fat, or approximately 22 grams per day if you’re on a 2,000 calorie diet. Saturated fat is associated with a higher risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and overall mortality. In fact, 70 percent of Americans consume more than they should on a regular basis.
Cutting out animal products significantly reduces your saturated fat intake right off the bat. Whole food, plant-based diets emphasize heart-healthy unsaturated fats and "good" carbohydrates, allowing for a higher intake of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals than the standard American diet.
4. Vegan Diets Can Be Too High in Healthy Fats
Some of the healthiest vegan foods, like avocados, nuts, and seeds, are extremely high in calories—and consuming them in excess can lead to quick weight gain. While there’s no need to restrict your diet further, it’s important to be aware of healthy serving sizes for oils, nuts, seeds, and other high-calorie health foods. (For example, a serving size of an avocado is only one-third of the entire fruit!)
It’s also important to remember that plant-based saturated fat is no healthier than animal-based saturated fat. Coconut-based products have a health halo for being a plant-based source of fats, and you’ll find them in all sorts of “health foods.” However, coconut oil and coconut milk should be used infrequently and in small amounts due to their high calorie and saturated fat content—especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
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5. Plant-Based Foods Are Typically Lower in Calories Than Animal Foods
You should naturally eat fewer calories on a vegan diet, since plants are lower in calories per serving than animal products. Foods like leafy greens, whole grains, fruits, and beans can be just as filling but have much less fat and fewer calories than meat, cheese, and eggs. Eating a diet rich in plant protein and fiber will easily fill you up on less than you’d need on a standard American diet.
6. Vegan Diets Can Be Overly Restrictive
You’ve likely heard of raw vegan diets, gluten-free vegan diets, and a host of other plant-based diet offshoots. Eliminating meat and dairy can already be restrictive, and even more so if you decide to eliminate grains or another food group.
You absolutely need to take a Vitamin B-12 supplement when on a vegan diet, and you may want to try a Vitamin D supplement if you aren’t exposed to sunlight on a regular basis. If you’re new to plant-based eating, considering making a few appointments with a dietitian to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need—specifically iron, calcium, and omega 3 fats—and try tracking your food intake in My Fitness Pal to help you see where you might be deficient. After all, weight loss isn’t worth it if it’s at the cost of your overall health.
7. Plant-Based Diets Could Give You More Energy
You may have heard professional athletes like Kyrie Irving say going vegan has given him more energy, but is that true for everyone? If you’re getting enough calories and eating the right kind of carbohydrates, it certainly could.
Your body has to work harder to process animal products than it does to process grains, nuts, seeds, and beans, so that alone could help you have improved energy. Your body thrives best on carbohydrates—which plant-based foods and diets are richer in overall. Ditching a low-carb diet for a healthy plant-based diet could certainly boost your energy levels, which can also help motivate you to make fitness a more regular part of your weight loss regimen.
8. You Might Not Be Eating Enough Protein to Support Muscle Tissue After Workouts
If you’re restricting yourself even more with a gluten-free, raw, or low-carb vegan diet, you might not be getting enough of the nutrients your body needs—including protein. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics believes a vegan diet is healthy and beneficial as long as it’s followed correctly, which means loading up on the whole grains and legumes every day for protein.
Protein is a crucial component of weight loss, as it keeps us full and helps our bodies build lean muscle. The current dietary guidelines recommend consuming 10-35% of your calories from protein to build muscle and improve your ability to recognize your body’s cues for hunger and fullness.
9. Vegans Weigh Less Than Other Groups on Average
A 2013 study from Loma Linda University found, on average, vegans have a 4.7% lower BMI than omnivores, even when they consumed the same amount of calories. Considering all the pros of following a vegan diet—better digestion, more fiber, less saturated fat, more nutritious yet lower-calorie foods—it makes sense why vegans would weigh less. But there’s a catch.
10. You Still Have to Practice Healthy Lifestyle Habits
Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t give you license to adopt bad lifestyle habits. The aforementioned 2013 study shows an association with lower weight...not a cause-and-effect relationship. The group of people involved in the study avoided alcohol and smoking, and they also exercised daily.
A substantial amount of research is now linking sleep quality and weight loss. Striving for the recommended 7-9 hours each night (no more, no less) can also help decrease stress, which plays a major role in our overall health and weight.
The Bottom Line
Vegan diets can be an effective tool for weight loss, but they probably aren’t for most of us. (And that’s okay!) A brand-new study found we all react to diets differently, and it’s important to listen to your body throughout your entire weight loss journey, instead of keeping your eyes on the scale alone.
“A vegan diet is pretty restrictive so if your only motivation to eat vegan is to lose weight, you may not be satisfied,” Valente says. “There are so many benefits to eating a more plant-based diet without the need to cut out or eliminate food groups altogether. This can be a much more sustainable approach for people to follow, too. Start small and go from there.”
Losing weight is all about finding a sustainable lifestyle that you can maintain long-term. Yo-yo dieting has some serious health consequences—and usually causes you to gain back everything you lost—so there’s no need to force yourself to eat a certain way if you hate it.
If you believe in adopting a plant-based diet for more than weight loss, it could certainly be for you. But if you’re strictly seeing it as a temporary approach, you may want to find a less restrictive way to lose weight.
Heeding Valente’s advice and eating one vegan meal a day or several meatless dinners each week can make a big difference in your overall health and waistline without driving you crazy. Check out our 50+ Healthy Vegan Recipes gallery to help you get started.