So, you decided to go vegan.
I’m sure this decision came for a variety of reasons be it ethical, environmental or just because you watched a documentary that pulled you in that direction.
One big reason I see commonly, though, is for weight loss. Either nothing else is working or you saw a vegan diet work for a friend so you thought...what the heck? Let’s give er a whirl.
So you brought home all of your tofu, kale, avocado, soy milk and hella beans. Made all of your Pinterest-friendly recipes and are feeling great.
There’s just one problem. You’re not losing weight. In fact, you may be gaining it.
What the hell?
When you start eating a plant-based diet, the weight should be falling off, right?
Well...not if you aren’t doing it correctly. No worries, I see this way more often than you may think.
There are some common missteps often taken that put people worse off on their weight loss journey than they begin.
Whenever I counsel new vegans and vegetarians who are dumbfounded by their lack of progress, 100% they are always making at least one of these mistakes:
1.) You’re Focusing on High-Calorie Carbohydrates
It’s still possible to have a bagel with a soy frappucino in the morning, pizza with vegan cheese for lunch and a giant bowl of pasta with vegan pesto and still be living a meat-free life! However, unless you’re prepping for a 10,000-meter race in the Olympics, that pattern of eating is going to cause a pattern of weight gain in a hurry.
This isn’t because carbs cause weight gain. No, carbs aren’t the enemy. I’ll tell you that a million times as a dietitian. In fact, plant-based diets, whether they are vegan or include animal products, embrace whole-grain and other healthful carbohydrates. I’ll even let you in on a little secret…
Fruits and vegetables are carbs too!
However, even though most foods that fit into a vegan or vegetarian diet are carbs, carbs shouldn’t be what dominate your every meal. More on that next.
2.) You Aren’t Eating Enough Protein
One of the biggest challenges in a meat-free diet is getting in enough protein. A bigger challenge is getting in a protein source that isn’t also calorie-dense. Beans and peanut butter are two of the most common foods I see vegans use as protein sources.
Here’s the catch, though. To get the recommended 20 grams of protein per meal, you’d have to eat 300 calories in beans and a whopping 500 calories of peanut butter...and that doesn’t even count the calories of the other foods you’re having with them. By contrast, 20 grams of protein from shrimp or chicken are only 100 and 150 calories respectively which leaves plenty of wiggle room for you to add in your favorite carbohydrate and fat-containing foods without having a calorie bomb on your hands.
But why is protein even important in a vegan diet? The point is to eat vegetables right?
For people on a vegan or vegetarian diet, protein is the MOST important macronutrient to pay attention to. Meat-free diets can be very carb-dominant if not planned correctly. While carbs definitely have their place, they don’t hang out in the stomach very long and you’ll end up eyeing those vegan snickerdoodles not soon after a full meal.
Try to remember a meal or snack you’ve had that was almost exclusively carbs like, say, a sheet of graham crackers or a couple of pieces of toast. I’m willing to bet not much longer than an hour after you were hankering for another snack.
Protein, on the other hand along with having a host of other benefits, will keep you fuller for longer and prevent overeating. I recommend including plant proteins in meals like tofu, beans or lentils where you can, but snacking on protein-dense foods like wheat crackers with peanut butter and a glass of soy milk or even supplementing your meals with a vegan protein shake on the side.
3.) You’re a Junk Vegan or Vegetarian
These days, plant-based meats and desserts are everywhere to be found from Impossible burgers to vegan mayo to vegan doughnuts. It’s like a vegetarian paradise, right? Plant-based chicken tenders and soy desserts are made from plants, so they’re good for me right? The world is my oyster!
Just because these foods are plant-based does not mean you can include them in your diet whenever you want. Just like everyone else, non-meat eaters should enjoy treats and desserts in moderation, regardless of if they are plant-based or not. Junk food made from plants is still junk food.
The reality is these foods can still contain tons of added sugars, processed ingredients, additives and lack actual vitamins and minerals. When you start to choose these foods too often, your health and weight can suffer.
My advice? Don’t forget about the “plant” part of “plant-based”! Fruits and vegetables will always be a better choice than processed vegan substitutes, so don’t forget about including these in some good old-fashioned home cooking. Get a good vegetarian cookbook or do some solid research to find creative ways to make homemade and healthful meatless recipes.
4.) You Aren’t Controlling Your Portions
As with the plant-based substitutes discussed above, vegan options like bagels, starchy vegetables, seeds and almond butter are perceived as “good for you,” many people think they can eat as much as they want.
Now it’s true, these foods are packed with nutrients your body can benefit from for health, particularly good fats. However, no matter what foods you choose to eat or not eat, you should always be controlling how much you’re eating. Eating more calories than your body needs will always result in weight gain no matter where that food is coming from.
Plant fats like avocados, seeds, hummus and nut butters are big culprits of shooting up the daily calorie count. Yes, these foods are healthful, but have a buttload of calories per serving. So it’s important to portion them out to avoid overeating.
Side note: alcohol is vegan too ;) I’ll just leave that there.
5.) You’re Not Getting Enough Important Nutrients
When you cut out animal products, without careful planning in your diet, you could put yourself at risk of nutrient deficiencies. Nutrients like iron and b-12 are found readily in animal products, but can be lacking in a vegan or vegetarian diet. Not enough iron and B-12 could cause fatigue and low energy levels which can lead to less exercising and a slower metabolism. This can make it more difficult for you to manage your weight.
Also, as mentioned above, lack of protein could cause a rapid loss in muscle which is particularly devastating if you’re a weightlifter with a good amount of gains already. Without paying attention to your protein intake, you’ll lose strength and power which could result in burning fewer calories in the gym.
The bottom line? If you do decide to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet, planning and structuring your meals correctly is critical to ensure you’re balancing your meals with the appropriate ratio of macronutrients, you’re getting all the vitamins your body needs and you aren’t indulging too often in calorie-dense plant-based foods. Diving into this way of eating for weight loss without guidance can make it very difficult to come out victorious, so seek out a nutrition professional to help you manage any diet change!