Happy Herbivore Blog

April 9, 2013

Not Losing Weight on a Plant-Based (Vegan) Diet? Here's Why (How to Lose Weight)

Most commonly, we hear about individuals who went plant-based and lost 20, 40, 60... or even 100 lbs. or more. These amazing individuals (and their inspiring accomplishments) are highlighted each week on Happy Herbivore as part of our "Herbies of the Week" series.

Still, at least weekly, I get an email or I see a comment on Facebook a lot like this one:

"I keep hearing about how everyone loses weight going plant-based, but I haven't lost a pound!"


"I went vegan and I GAINED weight"

For some, the weight falls off at first then slows. For others, the weight never budged and some people experience weight gain.

My top recommendation is to try our meal plans, which are mindful of calories and fat. We've had so many success stories with the plans. Even if you're not looking to lose weight, they're great for anyone who wants to eat better, maintain their weight, is new to being vegan/plant-based or just wants to simplify their life.

You can also try our 3-Day Reboot or our 10-Day Cleanse & Wellness Immersion programs (or both!). I can't recommend them enough if you're stuck in a rut.

Back to the topic at hand: Why isn't weight loss happening?

Through Happy Herbivore and the meal plan service, plus all the years I was a personal trainer, I've found weight gain (or lack of weight loss) tends to come back to diet more than anything. Exercise can help, but it almost always comes back to diet.

When I was a personal trainer, I had two clients who insisted it didn't matter "what" they ate, as long as they didn't go over a set number of calories. They trained hard, worked out 5-6x a week, scrupulously counted calories and nada. When the weight wouldn't budge, they set their calorie limit even lower. Still nada. Finally they tried my meal plan, which was full of healthy foods, and ta-da!

This is anecdotal evidence at best, I know — but my point is, when it comes to weight loss, in nearly every instance of every person I've ever worked with or talked to, it was diet that was the problem (or the solution) — not more exercise. Many of my clients don't exercise at all, and they are still losing.

In fact, just last week, I was talking to Dustin who sadly has a broken foot. Even though Dustin lost some of his mobility (and can't, say, go for a run), he's not gaining back any of the weight he lost. He thanks and attributes that to his plant-based diet.

So yes, "diet" is the key — but when I say "diet," I mean the food you eat, not diet as in restriction or deprivation a la the cabbage soup "diet."


Over the years, I've found the same dozen or so culprits (most of which are "food," but some are behaviors) that cause my clients to gain weight or slow their weight loss. In just about every instance, once the "culprits" were removed, the scale started moving again.

1. Oil. If you're not oil-free, that's your culprit. Even if you think you're oil-free, make sure you really are 100%. You'd be surprised how often oil sneaks into foods. Even foods that you expect to be oil-free like mustard, vegetable broth or hot sauce, can have oil. Check all your condiments. Check all your breads, crackers, etc. Anything that you didn't make yourself, check. Oil can even sneak into non-dairy milk.

2. "Vegan" Foods. Most vegan substitutes (i.e., faux meats, faux cheese) are junky and not healthy (and most contain oil). Make sure you're not eating vegan convenience foods if you're trying to lose weight. Just because something is "vegan" doesn't mean it's healthy. Oreos, Ritz crackers, French fries, Daiya cheese, Coconut Bliss ice cream — all vegan, but they won't help you lose weight. Also be weary of some non-dairy milks, as many contain oil. Also try to buy unsweetened "milks" if you can, and steer clear of flavored milks like chocolate soy milk. That's a candy bar in a glass.

3. High-Fat Plant Foods. Don't get me wrong, I love avocado and guacamole from time to time, but if you're eating high fat plant foods regularly, this is your likely culprit. As Dr. McDougall says, "The fat you eat is the fat you wear." If you're trying to lose weight, limit tofu, tempeh, avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut milk, coconut, nut butters (i.e., almond butter and peanut butter), chocolate, and olives. These foods should be used sparingly, as a condiment (i.e., sprinkle a few seeds on a salad) or a treat. I went on an avocado bender a few summers ago and was shocked how fast the weight crept back on.

4. Caloric Density. The bulk of your meals should be made from foods lower in caloric density that are satiating. Main food staples should be grains and starches, vegetables (particularly green vegetables), beans and fruit. (P.S.:This what we follow on the meal plans, reboot and cleanse.)

5. Salt. While I follow the advice of Dr. McDougall, who says a little salt is okay to make things palatable; salt can sneak into a lot of plant foods and then you're consuming too much. For example, canned beans and vegetable broth can have unruly amounts of salt. According to Jeff Novick, MS RD, salt should be a 1:1 ratio with calories in a prepackaged food. For example, if something contains 100 calories per serving, there should be no more than 100 mg of sodium per serving. Lastly, if you must salt your food, add salt AFTER you finish. Do not add salt during cooking.

6. Drinking calories. Chewing is a very important part of digestion and helps slow you down. I can slurp down a 500-calorie drink and be ready for more, but I can't chew 500 calories worth of foods that fast. Chances are, I'd be stuffed afterward if I could even make it through all those foods. Drinking calories doesn't provide the same satiety as chewed whole foods. Use your teeth like nature intended :)

7. Alcohol. I'm not saying to never have a drink, but cut back on drinking as much as possible if you're trying to lose weight. (Remember, try not to drink your calories). A glass of wine here and there isn't the problem, it's the 3 glasses of wine or the wine nearly every night. I find wine and cocktails are the biggest culprit after oil and added fats (like nuts or avocado) with my clients.

8. Eating Out. Even if you're ordering a vegan meal, most restaurants overload their food with salt, sugar and oil. If you're trying to lose weight, be diligent about ordering healthy, oil-free fare such as steamed vegetables and rice or a salad with fresh lemon juice (instead of dressing). If the food comes out shiny and oily, send it back. If you want to be "social," why not host a dinner party or potluck instead?

9. Fiber-Broken Foods. First, make sure the bread, pasta and crackers you buy are 100% whole-wheat (or gluten-free) and oil free. Second, don't base your diet around these foods. You want to go for whole grains like brown rice and quinoa or whole-wheat couscous over the more processed version. Carbs don't make you fat, but the more whole, the better. If you do decide to eat pasta, make sure it's a lot of vegetables with some pasta.

10. Dried fruits. First, you want to make sure your dried fruit is just dried fruit — no added oil or sugar. Second, as with the high-fat plant foods, you want to limit dried fruits. A few raisins sprinkled in your oatmeal is fine, but don't eat handfuls of raisins or dehydrated apples as a snack. Eat apples and grapes instead. Dried fruits are very calorically dense and not very satiating. Eat the "fresh" version instead, using dried fruits as a condiment only.

11. Coffee. Caffeine use is your business, but if you must drink coffee, drink it black. Sugar and creamer (even vegan creamers) can turn a latte into a hot, drinkable candy bar. I'm often shocked by the amount of calories and fat in coffee drinks at Starbucks. Even if you skip the fancy drink, "homemade" can get you if you're not careful. If you put just 1 tablespoon of sugar in your coffee each morning you'll have consumed nearly 23 additional cups of sugar in one year. That's a lot of sugar and a lot of calories!

12. Mindless eating. I could write 10 blog posts on this topic. The short of it: Start keeping a journal to really see how much you eat in a day or use a phone app such as My Fitness Pal or Livestrong Daily Plate. If you work in an office, you might be surprised how often you dip your hand into the candy jar. If you're the cook at home, you'll be surprised how much you eat "tasting" your food while it's cooking. I'm terrible at nibbling while cooking. A lot of foods sneak in each day that we don't think about and that can be a huge culprit. Also, never leave food on the table. Leave it in the kitchen so you have to get up if you want seconds and always put your snacks in a bowl — don't eat out of the bag or you'll mindlessly munch.

13. Overeating. Many of the plant-based experts say: “You can eat as much as you want. As long as it's plant foods, especially whole foods close to nature. Don't count calories.” But for some people's biological needs, it doesn't work. It's important to eat whole foods, but I don’t think that plant foods have “magic calories” that don’t count. All foods, even kale and bananas and rice, contain a little fat naturally. And if you're overeating, that fat is going to add up. Excess is still excess. I wasn't able to break my weight-loss barrier (and maintain it for TWO YEARS) until I started using the meal plans consistently. (You can read more of my story here.) Science has PROVEN the body reacts differently to different types of calories. The source of the calorie matters most!

Our friends at Engine 2 Diet have a similar list: "Stuck in a Rut" and Dr. McDougall makes similar recommendations in his book, The Starch Solution.

Try the 3-Day Reboot.

Begin the 10-Day Cleanse & Wellness Immersion.

Get started with the meal plans now.

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