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Thinking of Going Vegan? Here’s What You Need to Know

by Dr. Nancy Rahnama

Director of Health & Nurition

The term “vegan” has gone from something only found in health-food shops and on animal rights forums to being printed on millions of food and household products across the world over the past decade or so. This is only a good thing for animal rights, but the term “vegan” is often misinterpreted when it comes to food. If you’re thinking of going vegan or simply eating a more plant-based diet, read on to find out everything you need to know.


Is a vegan diet healthy?

It can be – but it’s not always. The problem with the term vegan is that, in the past, going vegan meant you were relegated to only eating Whole Foods or foods you made for yourself at home, which meant that picking up a packet of cookies or frozen meal would be a no-go. Walking into a store to find lunch would mean you were leaving with an apple, a coke, and a packet of salted tortilla chips.

However, today, vegans have more choice. You can walk into any supermarket near a city and find a huge range of vegan products, from candy bars to fake meat products, and even fast-food restaurants are creating vegan options. Many people mistake “vegan” for “healthy”, but sugar and many forms of fat are plant-based. Just because something has a basis in vegetables and plants doesn’t mean it can’t also be full of empty calories (ahem, French fries).

For example, a vegan cupcake is still a cupcake – the only difference is it has used a plant-based oil instead of butter and something like chia seeds (or most likely, something processed and less expensive for the manufacturer) instead of egg. It will still include all the sugar and flour. The only thing “healthy” about it is… well, nothing. It’s just as essential to read nutritional labels and use common sense when something is labeled as vegan as when its not.


What does a healthy vegan diet look like?

A healthy vegan diet, like any other diet, should be focused on eating Whole Foods and avoiding processed foods. That means you need to back away from the potato chips, put down the vegan protein bar, and start prepping your tofu, brown rice, and broccoli.

Focus on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-sugar options. For example, for breakfast you may have tofu scramble with veggies on whole wheat toast, for lunch air-fried tofu on a salad for lunch, and a burrito bowl with beans, tempeh, brown rice, and plenty of vegetables for dinner. All that fiber would likely not leave you hungry enough for a snack, but an apple would be a good choice for the 3pm slump, and a small plant-based yogurt with some blueberries would appease your sweet tooth after dinner.


I’m vegan – why am I putting on weight?

If you’re vegan and you find yourself with vegan pizza, cookies, and burgers on the menu each week, then it’s likely you’re still eating an unhealthy diet. Remember that pizza and cookies are rarely healthy, just because something is free of animal products doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

Even if you’re eating a healthy vegan diet, there’s one key thing to remember about the vegan diet: it’s extremely easy to eat a high percentage of carbs. Unless you’re being conscious about exactly what you’re eating, you may end up with a macronutrient split that looks something like this: 60% carbs, 25% fat, 15% protein.

When you eat carbohydrates (even with a lack of sugar in them), your body produces insulin. When you have sufficient energy from that insulin, the remaining energy is stored. Because it is so easy to eat a high percentage of carbohydrates in your diet, it can be difficult to get in a calorific deficit which is necessary to lose weight.

To combat this, focus on increasing vegetable and protein intake through beans, broccoli, and high-fiber vegetables. Fiber counts as carbohydrates, but fiber passes through the body and helps manage insulin levels, so eating more fiber will help you stay full. Fiber is also incredibly good for you in helping lower cholesterol, improving heart health, and gut health, so it’s well worth increasing in your diet.


Can eating a healthy vegan diet help you lose weight?

It can, but as we touched on above, you need to focus on high-fiber wholefoods, increasing protein intake, and paying attention to the calories you’re digesting. If you simply trade dairy and meat-containing processed foods for vegan processed foods, you’re unlikely to see much of a change.

If you’re planning to follow a healthy vegan diet for weight loss, make sure you calculate what your daily calories need to be and stick to or below that to create a deficit. The second element that needs to be in place to lose weight is your carbohydrate intake – if you swap an omelet for breakfast for vegan cereal, and a chicken breast and vegetables at dinner for a bowl of pesto pasta, you’re unlikely to see weight loss. In fact, you may even gain weight.

Instead, monitor your carbohydrate intake and don’t be tempted to increase your carbohydrate portion sizes to make up for the lack of protein on your plate. Instead, increase your vegan protein sources. Tofu, tempeh, high-protein vegetables, and any other plant-based protein sources should be consciously added to your meals, and consider increasing your protein intake with a plant-based shake if you fail to get sufficient protein through your diet.  


Should I try a vegan diet to lose weight?

If you want to start a vegan diet, the best reason to do so is for moral reasons. Switching to a vegan diet is not the magic key to weight loss. If you are plant-based, then your focus needs to be on your carbohydrate intake if you want to lose weight. Make sure you have a good amount of plant protein and plant-based fats in your meals (such as avocado, nuts, olives), and keep additional carbohydrate sources to a minimum (such as bread, noodles, and rice). The higher in fiber these sources are, the better. Remember, fiber passes through the body.


Understand that a vegan diet represents a high-vegetable diet, and make sure your meals revolve around the vegetables you’re eating. Soy products are a great replacement for meat products, and there are a huge range of different vegetables to try, so experiment with new vegetables and new recipes to keep your meals interesting.


Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease. In addition to her private practice in Beverly Hills, she is also the co-founder and Director of Nutrition for Dr Nancy MD.

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