Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.
Q: I switched to a vegan diet because I’ve read that it’s healthy and I wanted to lose weight. But four months in, I’m a few pounds heavier. What gives?
Going vegan might seem like an easy way to lose weight. Giving up meat, dairy and eggs should help you eat fewer calories each day, right?
Not necessarily. If you don’t do it correctly, swapping meat-based for plant-based can result in holding on to unwanted pounds, or perhaps even gaining a few.
Vegan diets exclude all animal foods – meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. For ethical reasons, many vegans also avoid animal-derived products such as honey.
(The terms vegan and plant-based are often used interchangeably, but there’s a subtle difference. Veganism emphasizes the avoidance of animal foods; a plant-based diet underscores all the foods that you can eat.)
A properly planned vegan diet is certainly good for your health. There’s ample evidence that plant-based eaters have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels, a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and lower cancer rates, especially colorectal cancer, than meat-eaters.
A vegan diet also appears to benefit weight control. Large observational studies have found that, compared to meat-eaters, vegans have lower body mass indexes (BMIs), a measure of body fat based on weight and height.
A European study conducted in nearly 38,000 healthy adults revealed that the difference in BMI between meat-eaters and vegans represented a weight difference of about 13 pounds.
A 2015 review of 12 randomized controlled trials found that participants who were assigned to a vegetarian diet lost significantly more weight than people following a non-vegetarian diet.
Weight loss was greatest among vegan dieters.
The high-fibre content of plant-based diets is thought to play a role in weight control. Fibre promotes satiety, helps control blood sugar and insulin, and may also reduce fat absorption in the intestine.
So far, so good. Why, then, have you managed to gain weight on a vegan diet?
Switching to a plant-based diet isn’t a magic bullet for losing weight. The following tips can help you side-step five common mistakes that can sabotage your weight-loss efforts.
Equating vegan with low calorie
Vegan frozen pizza may not be made with mozzarella cheese or beef/pork pepperoni, but that doesn’t mean it has fewer calories. The same goes for Doritos and vegan cookies and ice cream.
Reserve highly processed vegan foods – stripped of fibre and nutrients – for occasional treats. Build your diet around whole and minimally processed plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans and lentils.
Oversized portions of healthy foods
As nutritious as they are, the calories in whole plant foods must be accounted for, too. Consider that one-half cup of almonds packs in 415 calories, a whole avocado has 325 and a cup of cooked brown rice delivers 250.
Boosting your morning smoothie with peanut butter, ground flax, chia seeds and hemp seeds will drive up its calorie count quickly.
Measure foods. Limit snacks to 10 to 15 nuts (include a serving of fruit, too). One-eighth of an avocado is equivalent to a teaspoon of oil. Ditto for one tablespoon of seeds.
Skimping on protein
Spaghetti and tomato sauce, vegetable-only stir-fries and smoothies made with almond milk and berries are plant-based meals. But they’re low in protein, a nutrient that helps you feel satisfied longer after eating.
To prevent premature hunger and overeating, include plant protein at all meals and snacks. Excellent sources include beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, edamame, nuts and seeds and soy and pea milks. Vegetables and whole grains also add some protein to meals.
Eating too many carbs
Swapping meat for protein-rich beans and lentils means adding more starch to your meal. One cup of chickpeas, for example, has 210 calories and 35 g of carbohydrates. For comparison, three ounces of chicken breast has 130 calories and no carbohydrate.
The carbohydrate in beans isn’t a bad thing at all; it’s packed with fibre and nutrients. But you will need to watch your portion size of other starchy foods (e.g., cooked grains, sweet potato) that you eat with them.
Sipping on liquid calories
Drinking almond milk lattes, green juices, coconut water or kombucha isn’t the same as sipping water. The calories in them add to your daily calorie intake.
Make plain or sparkling water or unsweetened tea your go-to beverage. When you do drink a calorie-containing beverage, account for its calories.