How the Plant-Based Diet Made Me an Overeater (It’s not All-You-Can-Eat + My Before/After Pics) {REVISITED with more honesty}

Have you gained weight on a plant-based (vegan) diet?

Have you been unable to lose weight on a plant-based/vegan diet?

YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

You're not even in the minority. This 'problem' is incredibly common.

Here's why:

The plant-based gurus, doctors and "experts" have misled you.

I'm included in that group because I drank the Kool-Aid, bought the bull (hook, line, and sinker) and propagated their propaganda for years.

I'm sorry about that.

Now I want to sent the record right.

So many people quit the plant-based diet or stop being vegan because they don't get the results they were promised by others in the movement.

They think, "oh it doesn't work for me" and that may still be true, but it could also be that you just need better information to be successful. I wish someone would have been honest and upfront with me, so I'm being honest and upfront with you.

Can you lose weight on a plant-based (vegan) diet? Absolutely, but you can do any diet or lifestyle wrong.

I want to help you do the plant-based lifestyle right (if you want to) but more importantly, I want to tell you EXACTLY how to lose weight, plant-based or not.

PLEASE LISTEN TO THE PODCAST (or read the transcripts here).

Skipping the science and going straight to the advice doesn't work, you have to KNOW what is behind each strategy to make it stick.

In addition to telling my story (because I believe "Your story is the key that can unlock someone else's prison") if you are plant-based and plateau'ing, or gaining weight, or not losing, I hope this post encourages you to step out of the darkness of isolation and into the light with us, people who understand your suffering.

Success is easier with social connection. If you are unable to join our "progress not perfection" community (join here), please join another supportive community that encourages personal empowerment and peer-to-peer compassionate connection.

Can you lose weight on a plant-based (vegan) diet? Absolutely! but:

Plants don't have magic calories that don't count.

IT'S NOT ALL YOU CAN EAT.

If you read any of the plant-based diet books, attend a conference, or watch one of the films, you get the impression that you can eat as much as you want.

As long as it's whole plant foods (especially oil-free) you don't need to count calories or pay attention to portions.

Some of the "experts" say EXACTLY that outright on their book covers or websites while others send the message more indirectly.

For example, if someone leaves a comment asking how many calories are in a recipe, they'll say something like, "You don't need to focus on calories or portions when you eat this way."

SORRY, THIS IS NOT TRUE.

The one and only beautifully simple part to weight-loss is that you have to have a calorie deficit. All calories count.

You can lose weight on ANY diet if there is a CALORIE DEFICIT.

It doesn't matter if you're low carb, low fat, paleo, plant-based, or eating only tacos. As long as a caloric deficit exists you will lose weight, and if there isn't a deficit, you won't.

Now, you may be miserable or increase your health risk on some diets, but that doesn't change that weight-loss is still possible.

The best advice I can offer is this: Whatever dietary strategy you choose to create a calorie deficit, make sure it is a sustainable one because:

What it takes to lose weight is what it takes to keep it off.

This is the one of the best selling points to following a plant-based diet IMHO.

After an adjustment period of learning a new way of cooking and eating, following a plant-based diet is something that you can reasonably do for the rest of your life.

You can't be on the Cabbage Soup diet for the rest of your life, and most people can't spend their whole lives not eating carbs. That's misery.

And because the plant-based diet centers around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, etc. it's a health PROMOTING diet that leaves you feeling good vs. other diets that can increase your health risks and/or make you feel like crap.

Win-win-win.

Why does the plant-based diet work for some people?

Why did the plant-based diet work for me in the beginning then stop?

When I first blogged about my struggles: that I lost weight initially on a plant-based diet, but then plateaued, “I feel like I am so similar” was a frequent reply comment. Several people emailed me their own similar story.

Here is one of those emails:

When I first went plant-based, my weight dropped beautifully for the first 40 pounds. Then the weight-loss stopped, so I cut back a little more and I lost another 10 pounds, but then it just stayed there. No matter what I did it just stayed there.”

We all hit a weight we couldn’t move past.

No matter how plant perfect we were eating, or how much exercise we incorporated, the scale would not budge.

For a lot of the people I talked to, (and I’m included in this group) this barrier happened at a lower weight.

Meaning, our weight was in the “normal” or “healthy” range for our height but we still had visible body fat. And I’m not talking about vanity fat “a little here or there.”

In my case, my stomach was still hanging over my pants and I had chronic, painful chafing along my armpits and thighs from constant rubbing.

I wasn’t comfortable physically and I didn’t like how I looked.

Then I had my body fat measured.

I was at the tippy top end of what was considered "healthy" even though I was at a "healthy" weight.

"You have a really high percentage of body fat for your weight," the technician told me.

I was floored, shocked.

HOW could this be? I ate so healthy!

The plant-based diet made me an overeater.

If you read any of the plant-based diet books, attend a conference, or watch one of the films, you get the impression that you can eat as much as you want.

As long as it's whole plant foods (especially oil-free) you don't need to count calories or pay attention to portions.

Some of the "experts" say EXACTLY that outright on their book covers or websites while others send the message more indirectly.

Monkey see, monkey do.

My 'status' as a "celebrity chef" in the plant-based movement allowed me to become chummy with all of the other experts and doctors since we spoke at all the same conferences together.

At one of those conferences, Rip Esselstyn bragged to me that he ate 22 (22!) of his E2 burgers in one sitting.

I would also watch these doctors and experts getting plate after plate of food. HUGE plates of food. Sometimes I would be lightly teased for my smaller portions and be encouraged to eat more.

For example, when I told Jeff Novick I ate a whole bag of frozen cherries for a snack (was that too much?) he replied, "only one?"

Another time I had lunch at FOK's office and they fed me, I'm really not joking here, over 40 oranges and at least 100 strawberries for lunch, rattling off some mumbo jumbo about how it's mostly water and I needed to eat more because "it's only fruit." (The FOK folks are fruitarians, but still in the closet/not transparent about this last I checked).

The one and only time I stressed concern that *I* had overeaten (I'd consumed three plates of food at that point) I was told not to worry about it. "You can't gain weight on this food" they said.

(I have dozens of stories like this.)

Point is, I was under the impression (and based on the hundred's of emails and comments I've received, many of you were too). That you can and SHOULD eat a lot. Eat as much as you wanted. Eat until you feel "full."

So I did.

I ate and ate.

I quickly developed a habit of having 4 plates of food at a meal, all the while patting myself on the back for being so healthy.

For example, I would eat 4-6 bunless bean burgers, plus a huge "gorilla" salad, and 2-3 potatoes cut into baked oil-free "fries" for dinner. And I would still have room for 3-4 bananas blended as "ice cream" for dessert and probably still another snack later on.

When I first blogged about how the plant-based diet made me an overeater, Forks Over Knives sent me this heated email:

"For the record, it is not FOK's position that anyone can eat all they want on a whole-food, plant-based diet and maintain an optimal bodyweight. Our position is that one should eat until comfortably satiated."

The email also said if I ate lower calorie foods I didn't need to control my portions.

Except...

"Comfortable Satiated" does not exist for most people.

I have never found this "comfortable satiation" EVER.

My stomach has exactly 3 settings:

  1. I'm HUNGRY
  2. I've eaten but could still eat more.
  3. OMGGG I ate way too much and can't move.

If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. It's NORMAL.

Scientists still have not figured out what makes us "feel full." We don't stop eating because our stomach is full except in extreme circumstances like Thanksgiving.

Brian Wansink Ph.D (out of Cornell) has spent his career studying this very topic: Why do we overeat? What makes us feel full? Is it possible to eat intuitively?

Of all the important, life-changing lessons Wansink has taught me, nothing has been so impactful as this:

"Short of eating until it hurts, most of us seem to rely on size—the volume—of food to tell us when we're full. We usually try to eat the same visible amount we're used to eating. That is, we want to eat the same size lunch we did yesterday, the same size dinner, the same size of popcorn... We don't eat because our stomach is full except in very extreme cases..."

Wansink also pointed out about how even when we think we can't possibly eat any more, when the dessert comes out, we magically have more room.

I became an "overeater" without knowing it.

Mostly because I got used to eating a lot of volume.

Some of that came from all those "eat all you want" messages, some from chasing their ridiculous "comfortably full" illusion, and some because I didn't understand portion control or HOW to structure my meals or build a meal that was both satisfying AND calorically correct for my biological needs (the most important part in all this).

The struggle is real. I get it.

I too would think, "What, it's just veggies and beans so I can eat all of it!"

It's not true though.

When a coworker said to me, "For a vegan I really expected you to be smaller" and another friend muttered, "You eat so many vegetables/you eat so healthy, why aren't you stick thin?" I too has to wonder... with what I eat, how good I eat... why am I still overweight?

Excess is still excess.

You don't get an award for eating too much healthy stuff.

It's not different than overfilling your car's gas tank. You can put the right gas in all you want, but eventually it'll start spraying back at you and create a fire hazard.

Is there a problem with your portion size?

There was with mine.

When I started using a meal plan, I finally broke my weight barrier.

I lost an additional 13 pounds!!!

I'm now lower than my high school weight and thanks to the meal plans, I have now maintained that weight loss for THREE YEARS.

Here are the vegan plant-based meal plans I use.

Before (plant-based) vs. me last week (plant-based but using the meal plans).

Now I get why body builders do that weird pose. There's no other way to really capture a photo of your abs! (All diet folks!!)

LACK OF "PERFECTION" IS NOT THE CAUSE.

In the plant-based movement, there is this attitude that anything that is wrong with you is your fault for not being perfect.

If you're not losing weight, for example, it's because you aren't being perfect. You're eating oil, or sugar, or too many nuts, or not enough greens, or cheese (or "cheating" in some other way).

I hate this attitude.

But I believed it for a long time too.

I blamed my plateau on my lack of perfection.

I blamed myself for sometimes having a beer, or gasp! going to a restaurant and ordering something that probably had some oil in it. I was convinced I wasn't losing weight because I wasn't being perfect.

But that wasn't it at all.

Even when my diet was BEYOND "perfect" — I had eliminated all sugar, all salt, all oil, all alcohol, and even healthy pureed foods like hummus and applesauce (I was basically eating raw or steamed whole vegetables, fruits, beans I prepared myself, and brown rice) I STILL WASN'T LOSING WEIGHT.

Then I started to GAIN weight.

I GAINED 7 POUNDS IN 3 WEEKS EATING VEGETABLES !!!!

That's when I had my "coming to Jesus" moment.

The random beer or dabble in vegan junk food wasn't the sole culprit. Sure those things weren't doing me any favors or helping but I wasn't losing weight because I was eating too much.

LET ME REITERATE:

I wasn't losing weight because I was eating too much.

It didn't matter that I was eating carrots instead of potato chips, or using dates instead of sugar in my oatmeal, I was still overfilling my gas tank.

It isn't a free-for-all.

At least not for me.

I HAVE to pay attention to total calories and portion sizes too.

Following the meal plans has made this whole process easy for me.

All the planning—the calorie counting and portion control—is already done for me.

I wake up, look in my fridge, and now I'm all set.

It's so nice to be freed from all the guessing, planning, and anxiety!

I don't spend all my time fussing, fretting, worrying, struggling, or praying for willpower. I don't get in debates with myself over what I'm eating, if I'm eating enough or too little, or if it "counts." Try a sample meal plan for free here.

The best diet is the one you're not always thinking about.

COUNTING CALORIES ISN'T FOOLPROOF

The one and only beautifully simple part to weight-loss is that you have to have a calorie deficit. If there is a deficit, you will lose. If there isn't a deficit, you won't.

And that's why ANY diet (paleo, low fat, zone, vegan, raw, etc) will work PROVIDED there is a calorie deficit.

BUT THE FOOD YOU EAT MATTERS TOO

ALL calories "count" but not all calories count the same. It's not straight math as much as we want it to be because:

Not all calories are "equal" and intuitively you know this.

You know that some calories satiate more than others (potato vs potato chip).

You know that not all calories are nutritionally equivalent (carrots vs carrot cake).

What you may not know is that two oranges from the same tree do not have the same bioavailability, and the state of your body at the time of eating may change that bioavailability further.

You may also be surprised to learn that not all calories are ABSORBED the same way. For example, you're probably not going to absorb every single calorie in an apple but you can be pretty sure you'll absorb every calorie in an Oreo.

This is true of all processed foods because the processing is a form of pre-digestion. Your body won't have to work as hard to process a processed food. Most of this happens on the backend through the cost of digestion. Meaning it takes fewer resources (calories burned) to 'digest' the Oreo. That chips away at your calorie deficit too (Learn more).

There's also loads of research that cooking methods and gut bacteria can also affect absorption (Learn more).

This is why you can’t truly “count calories” or rely on counting calories like religion because it's not straight math.

Even IF you measure and weigh everything perfectly, you still can’t know the true bioavailability of the food you measured and weighed, and you can never know the cost of digestion (meaning how the calories are absorbed, applied or are used on the backend) OR how the food you ate for dinner yesterday might affect how you store and absorb calories at breakfast today (Learn more).

Calories can be helpful when used as a reference point.

Use calories in foods to make smarter choices but know it's only a frame of reference and not algebra.

Following a plant-based diet makes it easier to choose quality calories.

This also explains why I lost weight beautifully in the beginning.

Although I was overeating, there was still a calorie deficit compared to my prior diet. Even though I was physically eating more VOLUME, the total calories were still less because bean burgers have less calories than cheese pizzas.

It also helps that the calories in the bean burgers aren't as easily store or converted to fat like the pizza (cost of digestion) (Learn more).

HOWEVER, as you lose weight, that deficit window gets much smaller.

There is little margin for error at the end, which is why people find the last 10-15 pounds so hard to lose.

When you shrink, how much you eat has to shrink too.

I didn't want to believe this.

I wanted it to be as easy as it was for the first 30 pounds, when I ate as much as I wanted.

Ultimately I had to cut down on my calories and really watch my portions to lose the last of my excess weight. That was hard and painful but made easier by meal planning and storing my food in serving size containers.

I'm GLAD I soldiered on because I now know how much food I need to eat and I eat appropriately. I'm not overeating anymore which is good for my healthy and critical to maintain my losses.

Why does the plant-based diet work for some people?

They are eating less calories than they were before, plain and simple.

Most plant foods are low in calories naturally, so it is easy to achieve a deficit without having to reduce food volume (leading to feelings of deprivation) like you do on most other diets.

The "rules" are also easy to follow and not overly restrictive, which helps.

The successful folks also probably like it, or have additional reasons for doing it, such as their health or animal welfare, and/or they genuinely feel good on the diet which makes them want to keep it up. (Having a positive attitude is half of the battle!)

Many of the folks who reached out to me after my first post joined Meal Mentor and broke their barriers as well. My story continued to echo theirs.

Even those that did not join, but started practicing some form of input control, also had success.

BOTTOM LINE:

Whatever it takes to lose weight is what it takes to keep it off.

That alone should be reason enough for you to FOCUS on behavior modification (i.e. portion size, not overeating) instead of the food.

While I do agree that some "foods" like HFCS and hydrogenated oils are not health foods and should be avoided, occasionally consuming them isn't the culprit. When you point 1 finger at something, 3 more point back at you.

If you're not losing weight, you're eating too many calories.

It's hard to admit. Even harder to accept.

I get it. It's easier (and much more comfortable) to focus on a "diet" or some ELEMENT of a food and ignore our thoughts and behaviors.

It's not just diet or the foods that bring results.

It's also not about exercise because you can't out-exercise your mouth.

It's also NOT about being perfect.

A good diet certainly makes losing weight easier, just like it is easier to run a marathon if you quit smoking first, but a good diet works BEST when it is PAIRED with behavior modification and appropriate environmental changes like portion control.

Behavior modification (including meal planning) was my solution.

Download a free sample of the meal plan I use here.

PROGRESS NOT PERFECTION -- an update!

After sharing this blog post, I decided to truly embody my "progress not perfection" mantra. I stopped worrying if something had a little bit of oil or sugar (I compared calories instead to choose the best brand to buy).

My #1 FOCUS was on doing whatever I needed to eat at home and follow my meal plan. That means I started buying a lot of prepared foods like marinara sauce, hummus, frozen rice, and enchilada sauce rather than making everything myself (it was the year of shortcuts!) I also didn't fuss over GMOs, organics, sodium or anything else—no more nutritional elitism!

I want to live in a way that doesn't require perfection.

The results of this experiment are u-n-b-e-l-i-e-v-a-b-l-e.

I ate 'less perfect' but managed to PERFECT my health.

Read the 2017 update here.