Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How can vegans be overweight?

Recently I visited Portland OR, a wonderful city that is especially vegan friendly. I found myself returning again and again to same vegan restaurant/yoga studio a few blocks from my hotel. And every time I went, I was reminded of a question I ponder often:

Why are many progressive, health-conscious, yoga-doing vegans overweight?

Before I offer my answer, let me point out two basic facts. First, on average vegans weigh less than lacto-ovo vegetarians who weigh less (on average) than omnivorous humans. A vegan dietary pattern can protect people from some excess weight gain but it's obvious that many vegans (including raw-foodists) are still overweight. On the other hand, it's fair to presume that these folks are probably a few pounds (if not many) lighter than they would be if they were not vegan.

Second, almost everyone in the US is gaining excess weight. Over two-thirds of US adults are overweight and the entire population weight distribution has shifted drastically over the past 4 decades. This means that even "normal weight" people probably weight 5-10 pounds more than they would had they been born 40 years earlier. Vegans aren't exempt from this phenomenon. We live in a world that makes it easy to eat a lot and hard to expend much energy.

So the main reason why vegans struggle with their weight is the same reason why most people in developed countries are struggling with their weight. (Actually it's a set of reasons which deserve a separate blog or perhaps a book to address)

Let's touch on a few factors that are particularly relevant for vegans:

Vegan Restaurant Portions. If you eat too much healthy food you will gain weight. Vegan restaurants consistently offer mammoth portions. I've eaten at Vegan restaurants in a few dozen cities. One meal typically provides me with enough leftovers for another 1-3 meals. Granted, I am one of those rare cursed folks who has a real hard time eating an enormous volume of food in one sitting. Most people (vegans included) don't have this problem. Think about some of the vegan animals you know (gorillas, elephants, hippos, cows, pigs) and you'll conclude that given ample food any vegan animal can grow enormously large.

Why do vegan restaurants serve so much?! Well, the same reason most restaurants do - economics. Large quantities for little money is considered "good value" by consumers and the cost of the extra portion of food is usually much less than the small additional price increase of the meal. Cheap food means a higher volume of consumers which means more profit. Vegan restaurants often cater to students who are particular sensitive to the value proposition of restaurant meals. And larger portions may broaden the amount of people willing to eat at an all vegan restaurant. Hey Joe Omnivore, want to check out this new vegan restaurant with me? They give you tonnes of food and it doesn't cost much.

Optimistic bias and health halos. Two fun psychological concepts worth understanding. In the context of eating, optimistic bias means you don't think anything bad will happen to you because of your food choices. Other people might gain weight from vegan food, but not me. (This is the same phenomenon that leads most people to think they are not going to die from a heart attack, even when they know that most people do die from heart attacks). We have an intense innate need to feel in control and routinely fool ourselves into believing that is the case. It's hard for us to imagine that a healthy whole foods vegan meal could contribute to weight gain, even in ample quantity.

What's a "health halo"? Here's an example to explain - you see the word "organic" on the front of a cereal box and then throw it in the shopping basket without scrutinizing the nutritional facts or ingredients. The label "vegan" acts as a health halo, magically transforming anything vegan into a healthy food. Vegan smoothie. Healthy! Vegan pizza. Healthy! Vegan donut. Can't be too bad!

In no way am I trying to say you shouldn't be choosing the vegan option. What I'm saying is that all of us are prone to overestimating how good it is for us because it fits a small (albeit valid) list of requirements (no animals killed, organic, etc.). This is particularly true when it comes to calorie content and weight management. We are likely less stringent about portion sizes and calorie monitoring for vegan food then we would be for non-vegan food. And this applies to health conscious vegans too. I do yoga everyday for 2 hours and eat only vegan food. I shouldn't be overweight.

More Options. There are many reasons why a vegan diet causes less weight gain. One simple reason is that it restricts the sheer volume of convenient, readily available calorie heavy food options. At one point this seemed like a bad thing. What do you actually eat? It must be really hard to eat out. My friends used to say this all the time 10 years ago. That's less and less the case, which makes me happy. But in terms of weight management, the more vegan calorie-dense foods available the more vegans will struggle with their weight. Of course, I rejoice at the launch of a new brand of vegan cupcakes, but there is a down side for some.

Basic energy expenditure. We are living in an age of unprecedented calorie-density (e.g. 1200 calorie smoothies) and technological advancement (I have sat unmoving for the past 3 hours only lifting my fingers, but I can honestly claim to be "working"). For most, it's so easy to eat more calories than you use. Adding one hour of exercise a day will make you healthier and happier but it may not fully protect you from weight gain, even on a vegan diet.

A concluding thought.

It is possible for us to create a vegan-friendly world that makes it easier for us all to have a healthy weight. If you are struggling with your weight, adopting a whole-foods vegan diet can be a great step in the right direction. But our work does not stop there.



11 comments:

Joselle said...

"One should presume that these folks are probably a few pounds (if not many) lighter than they would be if they were not vegan."

Um, I gained weight going vegetarian and gained more weight going vegan. I also lost almost 50 pounds while eating meat. I'm not convinced that the medical community truly understands why people gain weight. They don't understand the number of interlinked variables involved in one person gaining weight, let alone an entire population.

I'm vegan for the animals. Not for health. For health, I exercise and try to eat more produce and less vegan junkfood (which is just as atrocious and processed as animal-based junk food). There are many healthful meat eaters and many junk food vegans.

Many vegans propogate a lot of the following misinformation: (1) a vegan diet is automatically healthful (no, a whole foods diet is healthful and vegan and whole foods are not one and the same); (2) all vegans are thin and going vegan will make you thin (people who are overweight before they are vegan might not weigh any less going vegan if they consume the same or more calories; also, there some people are just always going to be bigger people and they shouldn't be shamed for that and spend their lives starving themselves); and (3) a vegan diet is just as satisfying as a omnivorous diet (deleting an entire food group from your diet poses challenges that vegans don't often talk about. Not eating meat and animal products anymore might leave a person more unsatisfied and therefore prone to consuming more calories).

Vegan`MD said...

Thanks for your comment Joselle. I agree with most of what you said, as you should infer from my blogs.

One of the hardest concepts to grasp is that "what is true on average for a group (or population) is not always true for every individual." For instance, on average a group of smokers is going to die sooner than a group of non-smokers. Is that true for every single smoker? of course not. Likewise for weight and vegan dietary patterns. That was a point I was trying to make in my blog.

It is certainly possible (although likely the exception to the rule) that switching to a vegan diet could cause weight gain - we could imagine all sort of reasons why: perhaps the only vegan food available is based on massive quantities of highly refined grains. perhaps the person is so fearful of becoming deficient in some nutrient that they overeat to try to compensate. perhaps their appetite has become so disregulated over the years that they can only get a decent satiety (fullness) response from extremely dense protein and a highly restricted array of flavors (i.e. an atkins style diet).

I'm not suggesting any of these apply to you, just explaining that I believe you. But I don't think this situation applies to most people.

In truth, all people propagate misinformation, vegans included. Likely you and I are guilty of this phenomenon too, despite our good intentions!

And finally, I definitely agree that deleting an entire food "group" and shunning the social norm (i.e. to eat meat) can be extremely challenging at times and we don't often admit this. I'm going to write more about this in my next blog.

Thanks again for your comments.

Anonymous said...

I became a vegan 2 years ago to help with Fibromyalgia and lost 65 lbs the first year. Unfortunately I'm still 225 lbs and cannot lose anymore weight. I am a clean eating vegan and eat mostly raw but still the scale won't budge unless I eat a diet with no fat I.e. nuts, olive oil. But that's extremely hard to long term and once you do eat something it comes right back on. I initially thought about becoming a nutritionist because of how much better I felt, but it's hard to get people to buy in when I'm still so overweight.

Julika Brand said...

1. Most visitors of a vegan restaurant are not vegan at all, but only trying this kind of food.
2. A lot of medications generate weight gain - e.g. psychotropic drugs, beta blocker, antidiabetics etc. - even in hardcore vegans.
3. Vegans often have a high intake of 'healthy' fruits or/and juices that causes a high absorption of fructose, that is stored as body fat.

Sylvia said...

To anonymous: Fat is an essential nutrient, especially omega-3 fat. Not eating any fat, I think is more unhealthy than being overweight, and is likely to cause things like depression and anxiety. It's no wonder to me that you can't maintain a fat-free diet.

Anonymous said...

Since becoming a vegan, my blood work numbers have been great. Cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc. Everything looks good. But since I hit 40, I've been having an insane time trying to lose weight. I'm burned out from work, tired and very irritable. I'm one of those who eat when stressed. Sadly, it's an issue of how I cope with everyday life. I'm embarrassed to tell people that I'm a vegan, because I don't "look" like one. Kudos to everyone who's become a vegan. But I'm praying for all the people like me who still struggle. And hope that we can someday find the answer. Because it's not just a matter of finding other ways to cope with stress. It's just not that simple. Help!

Anonymous said...

Wow Im so glad and blessed to have come accross this blog. I always wondered why the vegans in my family and friends were still over weight. I tried to be vegan I found it very difficult to do. I am concious of foods I eat however I definately consider portion sizes but I think my success comes from working out and eating protien. I lost 30 pounds in 6 months doing so, I am at my ideal weight at 5'7 and Im 38 years old with great skin due to sweating from excersing and I feel great too. So yes I guess it depends on each individual and as far as the vegans I come accross I see they struggle with their weight but if they feel good on the inside and blood levels are good I say continue to do what they do. As for me I will continue to obtain my protien in all ways possible but I do agree with eating clean and not consuming animals.

Ms. P. King-Newton said...

I read these responses and still I'm confused. I've been going vegan 3weeks now, I've put on three pounds. I eat the right amount, I do not eat a lot of sugars, I eat 3 meals and 3 smaller ones. Veggies, beans and water is the composition of my diet. I rarely eat breads, rice or cereal. I go to the gym 3 times a week and generally my daily activities as a teacher is an additional gym in itself. My vegan experience has been interesting because I am making it adventurous, I'm doing this for religious and for physical reasons, not environmental. So the 3 lbs is a bummer on one side of the scale. Some advice needed please

Vegan`MD said...

@Mrs. P. King-Newton, thanks for reading the blog. Here's a quick response.

If you are gaining weight it's from one of 3 reasons:
1. you were previously carb deficient and you are now storing carbohydrates in muscles along with water (this happens when people go from a no-carb diet to vegan diet).
2. You are gaining muscle mass from working out more
3. You are eating more calories then you need. Even if they are healthy calories.

I can't comment specifically, but 6 meals a day likely is too much for many people unless you are extremely active (e.g. running marathons). The first thing to try would be to eat less meals/snacks.

Anonymous said...

I have been eatin vegan for over a year now. I do not eat any refined sugars or flours, most of my food is consumed raw and all organic. I only drink water and teas and have tracked my caloric intake to be sure I'm not over eating. I exercise an hour a day for at least five days out of the week. I am still overweight! I have had blood tests to check thyroid levels and other culprits and everything is within normal range. I am so frustrated! It has become an embarrassment for me to tell people I am a vegan. Just the look on their faces when the wonder what it is in a vegan diet would cause me to still be overweight. It is exhausting to feel the need to explain and examine my food choices with people even when they are just trying to be helpful.

lightwork11 said...

I've been seriously overweight my entire life, and became a vegetarian 20 years ago. It's very easy to stay overweight as a vegetarian! I'm now transitioning to a vegan diet. At the same time I've discovered that I'm gluten intolerant, and must deal with that. I am forty pounds lighter than my top weight and have at least 70 pounds more to lose. In my 69 years I've done a myriad of diets, some quite awful. But I'm a vegan for animals, not weight loss. I need never again try the diet of the month, the vegan lifestyle is the best "diet" anyone could have. Whether I lose more weight or not, I'm completely content with being an organic, whole, unprocessed foods, vegan. And no animals are harmed in the process.