Should I Follow a Vegan Diet for Weight Loss?

Warm sweet potato salad with tahini dressing
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Are you considering a vegan diet for weight loss? With the increasing emphasis on plant-based diets for improved health, and with the popularity of films like "What the Health," more consumers are turning to a vegan eating style to change their bodies. But is better health a slam dunk when you ditch meat and dairy? Not always, say the experts. It's important to know what you're in for before you go all in with this eating plan.

What Is a Vegan Diet?

Typically, a vegan diet is one that includes fruit, vegetables, grains, seeds, oils, legumes. When you go vegan, you don't eat meat, dairy, fish, shellfish, eggs, poultry, or any food that contains these ingredients (including certain protein powders, fish oil supplements, gelatin, lard, margarine made with whey). Some vegans also avoid bee products.

There are different types of vegan diets. For example, some vegans only consume whole foods—or foods that are in their original form. A whole food vegan would not eat any food that has been processed, even if it has been manufactured without meat, dairy, or fish. "Forks Over Knives" is a popular whole-food vegan diet. There are also raw food vegans, low-fat vegans, and what some people refer to as "junk food vegans" or "lazy vegans" who rely on processed meat and cheese alternatives.

People choose a vegan diet for different reasons and often for a combination of reasons.

One study showed that the most popular reason for choosing a vegan diet is to support more humane treatment of animals. These vegans may also avoid clothing or other products that are made from animals, poultry, fish, or bees. People may also choose a vegan lifestyle because they feel it is better for the environment.

Several research studies have suggested that a vegan diet is better for the planet than other diets, including the popular Mediterranean diet.

But a large number of people choose a vegan lifestyle for health reasons. There is convincing evidence that a plant-based diet is better for maintaining a lean body, improved heart health, and longevity. But research results vary. And not every diet is right for every eater.

Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?

When you switch to a vegan diet from a standard American diet, you are likely to gain health benefits simply because you put more time and effort into planning meals and selecting foods. Many of us who consume a typical American diet eat convenience foods that provide more fat and protein than we need. And if you currently don't consume the recommended intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, you're likely to feel better when you begin to include more of those nutritious foods in your diet.

Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, C-IAYT is an integrative registered dietitian nutritionist licensed in Massachusetts. She is also the lead nutritionist at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. As part of the Center's signature weight loss program, she encourages a whole food, plant-based diet with modifications to suit each participant's lifestyle.

She says that even in a short five-day period she sees positive changes when clients switch to the eating style. "Everything about their physical appearance changes in a good way," she says, adding that people often report feeling more clear. "The magic is the fresh fruit and vegetables, which are the most nutrient-dense foods in the food supply. Even if they continue to eat a bit of meat, but less, and more vegetables, it works."

Whether or not a vegan diet is healthy for you (or at least healthier than your current diet) may depend on the type of vegan diet that you follow. One study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology compared a large number of women who ate a healthy vegan diet (including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, oils, tea and coffee) to those who ate a less healthy vegan diet (including juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, fries, and sweets).

Researchers concluded that the healthier vegan diet resulted in substantially lower risk for heart disease, whereas the less healthy vegan diet was associated with a higher risk. 

Other research studies have reported similar findings. Scientists have found that a vegan diet may reduce—or even reverse—your risk for coronary artery disease, reduce your risk of type-2 diabetes, and provide other health benefits when quality plant-based foods are chosen.

Some studies caution, however, that people following a vegan diet should consider using appropriate supplements, if necessary. In some cases, key nutrients like iron and zinc may be lacking. Kay suggests that if you have health or medical issues (like pre-diabetes or diabetes, or cancer), or have an athletic lifestyle, then taking time with a registered dietitian will help ensure that your vegan diet is adequate for your individual needs.

Can a Vegan Diet Help Me Lose Weight?

Many people choose a vegan diet to lose weight. Kay says that increasing the plants you eat is by far the quickest and easiest first step to achieve a healthy weight. And some research supports the use of a vegan diet for weight loss. 

A large analysis of research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reported that a vegan diet was likely to result in weight loss even greater than a vegetarian diet. Another study published in the journal Obesity reported greater weight loss with a vegan eating style when compared with a low-fat diet. And a study published in the journal Nutrition also reported vegan diets were more effective for weight loss than other diets.

But nutritional research can be tricky. Just because study participants in a controlled setting lost weight on a vegan diet doesn't mean that it will work for you. There may be challenges or obstacles in your life that are not present in a research environment. For example, if getting quality whole foods is difficult, you might opt for processed products and not reap the full benefits of a vegan diet.

Another issue is adherence. Whether or not you can stick to the plan may impact the benefits you gain from going vegan. When scientists studied adherence for a report published in Eating Behaviors, they found that sticking to a vegan diet was no more difficult than sticking to other diets. Although they added that even when participants didn't fully stick to the vegan diet, they still lost more weight than study participants on other diets.

But still, most nutrition researchers agree that the most effective diet for you is the diet you can stick to for life. And not all diet researchers agree that a vegan diet is best. If completely eliminating meat, dairy, eggs, and fish causes stress-related overeating or poor quality food choices then you're not likely to slim down. 

When losing weight is your goal, Kays says you shouldn't assume that going vegan will result in weight loss. "It's easy these days to be vegan and follow a really unhealthful diet filled with low-quality refined carbohydrates (like flavored popcorn, potato chips, white bread and sugary baked goods) and processed soy-meat-substitutes."  Instead, she suggests that you "do vegan right by focusing on vegetables and fresh fruit, and high-quality protein from seeds, beans, nuts and whole grains."

How to Begin a Vegan Diet for Weight Loss

If you evaluate the pros and cons of a vegan diet and choose to give it a try, take some time to evaluate sample vegan meal plans. Identify foods and dishes that look appealing then fill your kitchen with those ingredients. If you can eat foods that are delicious, satisfying, and healthy you are more likely to maintain the program.

If you find vegan recipes and meals plans too complicated or unfamiliar, then choose one or two days per week to eat a plant-based diet. Or choose one meal each day to experiment with vegan foods and recipes. Small steps can have a big impact. "Remember that even if you eat less meat and ramp up the veggies, you'll still gain the benefit of a plant-based diet," says Kay.

A Word From Verywell

A vegan diet for weight loss is a smart choice for some, but not for everyone. Before making the switch, ask yourself a few important questions. Do you have access to healthy vegan foods? How will this impact your weekly food costs? Do you eat out often will you have vegan choices on your favorite restaurant's menu? Can you visit a registered dietitian to help set up a healthy vegan eating plan that will supply not only important macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fats) but also essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to help your body function properly?  

If vegan eating doesn't seem do-able for you, make small changes to reap the rewards of a plant-based diet. These small steps will improve your diet and can provide you with health benefits including weight loss and lifelong wellness.

Sources:

Bennett W, Appel L. Vegetarian Diets for Weight Loss: How Strong is the Evidence?. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 2015;31(1):9-10.

Huang R, Huang C, Hu F, Chavarro J. Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled TrialsJournal of General Internal Medicine. 2015;31(1):109-116.

Moore W, McGrievy M, Turner-McGrievy G. Dietary adherence and acceptability of five different diets, including vegan and vegetarian diets, for weight loss: The New DIETs study. Eating Behaviors. 2015;19:33-38.

Satija A, Bhupathiraju S. et al. Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. AdultsJournal of the American College of Cardiology. 2017;70(4):411-422. 

Turner-McGrievy G, Barnard N, Scialli A. A Two-Year Randomized Weight Loss Trial Comparing a Vegan Diet to a More Moderate Low-Fat Diet*Obesity. 2007;15(9):2276-2281. 

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