The weight-loss industry is booming, with Americans spending over $2 billion on weight-loss pills each year. For those who would rather change their diet instead of swallowing caffeine and green tea extracts in pill form, know that plants are key to losing weight.
You can healthily and effectively lose weight following a vegan diet as long as you know what you can eat, what you should stay away from and how to prevent nutrient deficiencies to keep your body in tip-top shape as you navigate through your new plant-based eating journey.
What Can You Eat on a Vegan Diet?
When starting with the basics of a vegan eating pattern, you will cut out all animal-based foods from your diet. That means no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, gelatin or honey. That leaves a world of plants for you to explore.
Carbohydrates on a Vegan Diet
Carbs are going to be the bulk of your vegan diet and include all fruits, vegetables and grains. Carbohydrates are also found in beans, nuts and plant-based dairy alternatives. This macro will provide the energy you need to fuel your day.
Most of your carbohydrate foods will also provide you with fiber. Fiber itself is a type of carb, but your body does not digest it, and therefore, it is not broken down for energy like sugar is. Fiber is essential for your digestive system to function properly, regulate blood sugar and control hunger.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends women consume 25 grams of fiber per day and men get 38 grams per day. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicates that most Americans get only 15 grams of fiber per day, so adopting a vegan diet can help you meet your daily recommended fiber intake.
Protein on a Vegan Diet
Getting enough protein may be the most challenging part of sticking to a vegan diet — but it doesn't have to be. Plant-based proteins include beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, peas and soy products. Grains such as quinoa, teff, spelt and amaranth also provide you with muscle-maintaining protein.
There are several plant-based protein powders available that are made from a blend of different plant sources, which ensures you're getting a full amino acid profile. These powders can be blended into smoothies for a boost of protein each day. In addition, non-dairy milks such as hemp and soy are solid sources of protein. For example, one cup of soy milk provides about seven grams of protein.
Healthy Fats on a Vegan Diet
One of the major benefits of a vegan diet is your reduced intake of saturated and trans fats. While saturated fat is not the nutrition demon we once thought, too much is still not good for your heart. However, you can get plant-based saturated fat via tropical oils such as palm and coconut oils.
Healthy fats on a vegan diet come from a wide variety of foods. Avocados, olive oil, nuts, seeds and nut butters will become some of your go-to sources of healthy fats. Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly found in fatty fish such as salmon, but there are many plant-based sources of omega-3s you can add to your diet.
Algal oil's (algae-derived oil) omega-3s (specifically, brain-boosting DHA) are just as effective as cooked salmon, according to a July 2008 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts are additional vegan sources of omega-3s.
What Foods Should You Limit on a Vegan Diet?
Aside from the obvious foods that vegans can't eat, there are some traps that you may fall prey to if you're not careful. There are many unhealthy options that you should steer clear of if you are trying to lose weight.
Processed Meat Substitutes
Meat alternatives may seem like a good option and may help curb your meat cravings, but these highly processed foods do not offer much in terms of nutrition. They are often loaded in sodium and added sugar, two ingredients you want to limit on your vegan diet. Before purchasing a meat substitute, check the ingredient lists and nutrition label to ensure you're getting a quality product.
Many treats and snacks such as potato chips, candy and cookies are vegan-friendly, but that shouldn't give you the green light to munch. As on any weight-loss plan, these should be limited and eaten in moderation.
A 20-ounce soda can contain a whopping 17 teaspoons or more of added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons (or 25 grams) of added sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons (or 36 grams) for men in order to prevent weight gain and protect your heart.
Another reason soda may be detrimental, in regular or diet form, is due to its effects on bone health. Sodas usually contain considerable amounts of inorganic phosphorus, or phosphates, which leech calcium from the bones and weaken them. An August 2014 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that for each additional daily serving of soda, women's risk of hip fracture increased by 14 percent.
Can a Vegan Diet Help Me Lose Weight?
Those who follow a plant-based diet consistently are reported to have lower body mass indexes (BMI), lower risk for heart disease as well as a lower risk for type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, according to a May 2017 study in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology. Another May 2017 report in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology shows that most vegans have a lower BMI than meat eaters and tend to gain less weight as they age compared to meat eaters.
What's more, a February 2015 study in Nutrition found that vegan diets were more effective for weight loss than other plans, such as omnivorous diets, pesco-vegetarianism and vegetarianism.
So, yes, switching to a vegan eating pattern can be healthy and help you lose weight — when done right. A March 2014 study published in Nutrients found that vegans have a diet high in fiber, low in sodium, lower in total calories, high in complex carbohydrates but also low in protein. Unfortunately, if you're not paying attention to what you eat, you could be at risk for some nutrient deficiencies when you switch to a vegan diet for weight loss.
Nutritional Deficiencies Associated With a Vegan Diet
The March 2014 study published in Nutrients shows that vegans boast the lowest protein intake compared to omnivores. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, getting enough quality protein — especially plant-based protein — can help with weight management as well as lower the risk of several diseases and premature death.
A major source of iron for omnivores is meat, which is why many vegans are iron deficient. Vegans can get iron from fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, white beans, tofu and lentils. Pair those foods with a source of vitamin C, such as strawberries, oranges or bell peppers to maximize the amount of iron your body can absorb. Not getting enough iron can make you feel tired, weak, cold and dizzy.
Animal products are a wonderful source of vitamin B12, which is why many vegans don't get the recommended amount. Vegans can get their B12 from fortified foods, nutritional yeast and supplements. Some symptoms that may occur if you're not getting enough B12 are sore mouth, depression, difficulty remembering and poor balance.
Most omnivores and vegetarians alike get the majority of their calcium from dairy foods. Vegans can get a big boost of calcium from many fortified foods such as orange juice, non-dairy milks and breakfast cereals. Calcium is also found in kale, broccoli and turnip greens, which are all vegan-friendly!
Starting a Vegan Diet for Weight Loss
When starting a vegan diet for weight loss, it's still important to pay attention to how many calories you are eating. Using a tracking app, like LIVESTRONG.com's MyPlate can be a convenient and fun way to track how many calories you are getting in a day. After that, follow these five steps to successfully transition to a vegan diet for weight loss:
- A little planning will pay off significantly. Switching to a vegan diet means that you will be cutting out a lot of processed food. You will have to spend more time preparing your food and planning out meals and snacks.
- Fruits and veggies will be the main part of your meals. These can be raw, cooked, mixed into salads or baked into your favorite dishes.
- Include protein in every meal. Vegans typically have a lower overall protein intake than omnivores. Getting protein at every meal will help ensure you don't fall short of the muscle-maintaining macro at the end of the day.
- Tell your friends about your new diet and make it a lifestyle. Most restaurants offer vegan options when dining out, so check ahead for vegan-friendly restaurants and wave your vegan flag proudly.
- Physical activity still matters. Much of weight loss can be attributed to proper nutrition, but daily physical activity can help accelerate your progress too. Cardio, resistance training and flexibility exercises will all work to keep your heart, muscles, ligaments and joints healthy.
Remember that everyone loses weight at a different pace. When first contemplating making the switch to a vegan diet, it may be helpful to visit a registered dietitian to help plan out your nutrient needs, assist in meal planning and answer any questions you might have about your diet. If you have certain medical needs or are taking medication, it's best to first speak with your doctor to make sure going vegan is right for you.
- National Institutes of Health: "Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss"
- Journal of Geriatric Cardiology: "A Plant-Based Diet for Overweight and Obesity Prevention and Treatment"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Fiber"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Fiber"
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association: "Algal-Oil Capsules and Cooked Salmon: Nutritionally Equivalent Sources of Docosahexaenoic Acid"
- American Heart Association: "Added Sugars"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Soda Consumption and Risk of Hip Fractures in Postmenopausal Women in the Nurses’ Health Study"
- Nutrients: "Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet"
- NIH: "Vitamin B12 Factsheet"
- Journal of Geriatric Cardiology: "A Plant-Based Diet for the Prevention and Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Full Report (All Nutrients): 45237653, Soy Milk, UPC: 099482417055"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Protein"
- Nutrition Journal: "Comparative Effectiveness of Plant-Based Diets for Weight Loss: a Randomized Controlled Trial of Five Different Diets"