Vegan Diet for Weight Loss
Vegan diets have been associated with an array of health benefits; followers do however have to ensure that they are consuming enough of the essential nutrients, some of which can be difficult to obtain form a plant-based diet.
The proportion of the population following a vegan diet is increasing. Vegan diets are popular most commonly because they are thought to be better for the environment than standard diets, but also because they have been shown to have some health benefits.
Vegan diets have been advertised as a good way to lose weight. There is some evidence in support of these claims, but it is important that anybody following a vegan diet takes extra care to ensure that their diet is sufficient in key nutrients.
Here, we will discuss what a vegan diet involves and how it is thought to aid weight loss; we will summarise the clinical evidence on the topic and discuss any precautions that should be considered with a vegan diet. Finally, we will offer hints and tips on how to optimise weight loss whilst following a vegan diet.
What is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet is one that does not involve the consumption of meat or any animal-derived products. Followers of a vegan diet consume only products and foodstuff that are from a plant origin. Commonly consumed foods include fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts. In contrast to standard vegetarians, as well as avoiding meat and fish, vegans do not consume dairy products or eggs.
Typically, a vegan diet is associated with individuals who are concerned about environmental issues and animal welfare, and do not agree with farming animals for food. Some people do however follow a vegan diet because they think it is a healthy option, and others because they think it might help them to lose weight. It seems that there are both advantages and disadvantages to following a vegan diet; these will be discussed below.
How Might a Vegan Diet aid Weight Loss?
A vegan diet is plant-based, cutting out all meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs. As such, following a vegan diet means that the person must not consume a great many products that you will find on the supermarket shelf – including most standard cakes and biscuits. In this sense, it seems likely that following a vegan diet could help to reduce weight gain, particularly if you are the sort of person that consumes lots of artificial foods and has a habit of unhealthy snacking.
That said, not all unhealthy snacks contain animal products, and becoming vegan is not necessarily going to cause weight loss. Some mainstream brands of fizzy drinks, crisps, and biscuits are suitable for vegans, so if you are simply going to switch your chocolate fingers for digestives, you might not reap the potential weight loss benefits of a vegan diet.
The vegan diet is thought to be beneficial for general health in numerous ways; for example, it typically involves getting the majority of fat intake from unsaturated fats and consuming more dietary fibre. Vegan foods also tend to be higher in certain nutrients, such as vitamins C and E, folic acid, potassium, and magnesium. A review of vegan diets published in 2009 states that those who follow a vegan diet are typically thinner, have lower cholesterol levels, and lower blood pressure. In turn, they could have a reduced risk of heart disease.
There are numerous potential health benefits, but whether or not a vegan diet will aid weight loss is debateable. It is thought that people who undertake a vegan diet will lose weight in the short-term, simply due to the increased consumption of fibre. In the longer-term however, weight loss might not be so certain. There is no doubt that eating plenty of vegetables is good for weight loss, but some vegan foods might not be so beneficial; becoming vegan does not mean cutting out sugar, and some meat and dairy substitutes are high in fat. If you want to lose weight on a vegan diet, the key weight loss principles remain the same – eat less and exercise more.
Clinical Studies on Vegan Diets for Weight Loss
Few studies have considered the impacts of a vegan diet on weight loss specifically, though there have been a selection of trials that have investigated the effects of a vegetarian diet on weight loss. A clinical trial is a study undertaken by scientists in order to test a hypothesis – in this case, scientists would be testing whether or not a vegan diet could increase weight loss. Using a sample of volunteers, the hypothesis is tested in controlled conditions and the results recorded. These are then published in a scientific journal, after experts in the field have reviewed them.
One study that did look specifically at vegan diets compared the weight loss effects of a vegan diet to those of a low-fat diet. In this trial, 64 overweight volunteers, all of whom were post-menopausal women, were allocated either a vegan diet or a National Cholesterol Education Program diet (low fat) for a period of 14 weeks. There were two replications; those in the first trial did not have any support following the 14 weeks, whilst the participants in the second trial were given support meeting for a year. Measurements were taken at the one and two year marks.
The results showed that those in the vegan diet group lost significantly more weight than those in the low fat diet group at both the one-year and two-year marks. Unsurprisingly, having group support increased weight loss throughout. It was concluded therefore, that a vegan diet could be very beneficial for weight loss, even when compared to a low fat diet. The study reiterated the benefits of having group support during weight loss.
Another trial, published in 2005, considered the impacts of a low-fat vegan diet on weight loss, as well as metabolism and insulin sensitivity. As above, 64 overweight, postmenopausal women were given either a low-fat vegan diet or a more standard low fat diet to follow with no limits on energy intake. The subjects were told to continue with the same lifestyle, without changing the amount of exercise they undertook. After 14 weeks, it was concluded that a low-fat vegan diet could help participants to achieve significant weight loss, even if not taken alongside portion size and energy intake control.
A 2008 trial published in the International Journal of Obesity looked at a more general vegetarian diet and compared its weight loss effects to those of a standard diet. Volunteers (176 overweight adults) were assigned to undertake a standard weight loss diet or a vegetarian diet (including dairy products). These diets were followed alongside a weight loss programme that included daily diet and exercise goals. The diets continued for 12 months, followed by six-months of weight maintenance. Of the participants that completed the trial, weight loss was perceived; there was however no difference between weight loss in the two groups.
Obesity is also associated with negative health effects, some of which might be improved with a vegan diet. Some studies have suggested that a vegan diet can improve the risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, amongst other conditions. A review paper published in the American Society for Nutrition summarised research results to date. The author provided evidence that vegetarian diets can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, obesity, and some types of cancer (e.g. colorectal and prostate). A vegan diet in particular has been associated with cancer risk, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis.
Overall, it seems that a vegan diet can be beneficial for weight loss, particularly if undertaken alongside regular exercise or with group weight loss meetings. Whether a diet is standard or plant-based, it is important that the user is sensible, considering their energy intake and expenditure throughout. A vegan diet has also been shown to have health benefits, reducing the risk of some chronic diseases.
Potential Side Effects of a Vegan Diet
Although generally safe, it is important that individuals following a vegan diet consider the components of their diet carefully; veganism has been associated with an increased risk of certain nutrient deficiencies. Of particular concern are deficiencies in vitamins B12 and D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and iron.
Vitamin B12 is important for the human body and a deficiency can cause effects such as increased risk of cardiovascular disease; it can also cause neurologic and psychiatric problems, like mood changes and difficulty concentrating (amongst others). Having a lack of vitamin D might cause bone mineral density conditions in the long term. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in primarily in fish, and unless a vegan diet is high in seaweeds, vegans might lack omega-3 fatty acids and some of their important components.
Consuming grains, seeds, and legumes can reduce the bioavailability of zinc, which might reduce immune function. Vegans might also suffer from iron deficiency anaemia, which can cause symptoms such as tiredness, loss of breath, heart palpitations, and pale complexion.
Consuming foods that are fortified with the above nutrients, or taking health supplements, can reduce the risk of these potential side effects. The NHS webpage for vegan diets provides some useful information on vegan foods that are high in the nutrients that vegans often lack. If you do notice any of these side effects, you should consult a doctor, particularly if they are severe or on going.
Is there anybody who shouldn’t follow a Vegan Diet?
Vegan diets can be suitable for all groups of people, assuming that they are undertaken sensibly. If you are deficient in any of the aforementioned nutrients or are noticing side effects, we would recommend that you consult a doctor and get advice on how to supplement your diet with these substances. Vegan diets can also be followed by pregnant and breastfeeding women, though in these circumstances, it is very important that the individual ensures that they get plenty of the essential vitamins and minerals for healthy child development. The NHS provides a useful page with advice for vegan mums-to-be.
People with type II diabetes can healthily follow a vegan diet. In fact, clinical studies have suggested that low-fat vegan diets can improve glycaemic control when compared to a standard low-fat diet.
Weight Loss Tips for Vegan Dieters
Just consuming a vegan diet will not necessarily boost weight loss. There are some factors that anybody looking to lose weight on a vegan diet should consider. Firstly, take note of your sugar intake. Whilst many vegan foods have a reduced saturated fat content, it is still very easy to overdo it on sugar intake, which will also result in weight gain and health problems. Also be wary of eating too many meat and dairy product substitutes – check the labels; some of these might be high in fat.
Leafy vegetables are very good for your health and could help with weight loss whilst providing some of the essential nutrients that you might not find in all vegan foods. Carefully consider what you are snacking on – as mentioned previously, some very unhealthy snack products are suitable for vegans – reduce your consumption of these and increase your intake of fruit and nuts if you want to see weight loss. Studies have shown that increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables can reduce the long-term risk of obesity.
Finally, as always, the importance of regular exercise should be reiterated. A weight loss plan should include a certain amount of daily exercise – typically at least 30 minutes. Try to make these changes into long-term lifestyle changes, not just to be adopted whilst you are working towards a short-term weight loss goal.
Taking on a vegan diet will mean cutting out a lot of processed foods that are available in the local supermarket. It should reduce the amount of saturated fats that you consume and as such, might have other health benefits like reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. That being said, vegan dieters will need to follow the same principles of weight loss as standard dieters – watching their calorie intake and increasing their energy expenditure. Vegan diets can also have some negative effects of nutrient levels – be sure to research how best to consume enough of the essential nutrients if you are thinking of becoming vegan.
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