reader’s questions: gaining weight as a vegan

I have in the past, responded to inquiries & reader’s questions as posts on the blog, such as this latest one from Carrie, about emotional spending.

I think I’d like to make it a more regular feature of the blog.

After all, if one person is asking the question, chances are others are wondering or dealing with the same thing.

I admit there’s nothing more annoying to me than a know-it-all. Believe me. I don’t set myself up as an expert on anything, expect maybe as an expert of changing diapers & asking questions & administering hugs & kisses, but I’m not the kind of authoritative voice where you say, “I believe *everything* she says.” (That would be a little creepy, if you ask me.)

Because if I do know one thing, there’s very little of expert opinion that applies to everyone, particularly as it applies to individuals, who are unique & have their own histories.

So with that, here’s a recent email from Rose. (Sorry Rose, it’s taken so long to respond!)

 

She writes,

Hello Janae!

I must admit I read a lot on the internet regarding health/health related issues, but never thought I would actually sit down and ask a question about it!? But you seem to be on the money with how to stay slim/healthy, myths, etc.

I am 5’1″, 46 years old and have been active all my life. Eating vegetarian (with some fish),  AEROBICS, a runner, ELLIPTICAL… a poster child for health and fit. Then a year ago (to date) I had a bi-lateral bunion-ectomy. So I stopped running. However, I had been doing 30 minutes of core training the year prior and continued doing that now. At this time I started to get terrible pains with certain foods and after several doctors, I just changed my lifestyle to vegan.

I also began walking 2 miles a day and feel good but since changing my lifestyle to vegan 9 weeks ago, I have gained about 12 lbs!! I am figuring too much olives, oil, beans, NUTS!, but thought that I needed a protein with at least two meals. Hence the weight gain?? I don’t know and that is why I am writing you!

I feel terrible with all this weight!! I have worked so hard my whole life to stay fit and lean, but now I am unable to wear my clothes comfortably or at all!! It’s actually depressing. With my age and high fat, it’s not coming off in a week, if you know what I mean.

Is there anything you could suggest to get my slim figure back? I know this seems ‘trivial’ but at my age I want to continue to feel healthy and LOOK it too. One thing that I love is that my husband says I still look great to him.:) But honestly and frankly, my ‘mojo’ (if you know what I mean) has taken a walk because I feel very insecure in my skin suddenly!

 

My response

Rose,

Dearest, I understand the frustration.

12 pounds on a small frame is more than you’ve bargained for, I’m sure.

If I’m doing the math correctly, you gained 12 pounds in 9 weeks, which averages to a little over 1 pound a week. Every pound gained is an excess of 3500 calories, so let’s say you were eating 4,000 extra calories a week, more or less, which is a daily average of 600 extra calories a day which you ate but did not use/burn.

600 calories a day is like a serving of dessert & a handful of nuts. So, not too difficult to do this. So before you beat yourself up about it, realize how easy it is to gain weight (especially when you cut out a good chunk of activity) & it’s no moral failing on your part.

The good news, is that while not necessarily easy, losing that weight over a period of reasonable time is not rocket science.

If you had written me this email even a year ago, I think my response would have been different (maybe a lot) than it is now. I would have said, something like, cut out nuts, seeds, olives, & all high calorie foods.

Wahlaa! The weight will melt off.

I might have also said to track calories, & to weigh yourself every week.

[If you don’t believe me, read this post I wrote over a year ago on how to lose the last 10 pounds.]

But time & experience has changed my perspective on weight, & in the wise words of the Ms. Ellen, “it’s about being healthy & happy,” not about achieving a particular size or weight.

[See this post for my definition of healthy.]

Before you go off & exclaim that I think that weight doesn’t matter at all, let me interject & say, weight does matter, to the extent that it affects your ability to move & be active & participate in day-to-day functions.

[Read this post, from the ladies at Beauty Redefined, who shed a different light on BMI, & why it’s not necessarily representative of a woman’s health.]

Beyond that, the numbers are rather arbitrary. There is a correlation (but not necessarily causation) between obese individuals & chronic disease, but I’d say it’s more a result of poor habits–sedentary lifestyle &/or diet is calorie rich & lacks essential nutrients.

You mentioned you were vegetarian prior to going vegan.

So I assume you cut out all animal foods–fish, cheese, milk, & other dairy products–which are all fairly calorie dense foods. If you replaced them with even more calorie-dense foods (which maybe you did as you suggest you’ve been eating more nuts & oil), this would, in part, explain the weight gain.

When many people switch from an omnivorous or semi-vegetarian or vegetarian diet to a vegan one, there’s a loss for some. That emotional connection to certain foods, cheese is a big one, &/or missing the “heavy” feeling you get after eating meat (fish in your case), makes it easy to over eat at first &/or eat too much of the tasty high-calorie dishes.

I know I went through a period where I over ate simply because I didn’t feel “full” enough.

Plant foods are lighter than animal foods, so you’re going to feel differently after eating. As long as you’re getting the proper nutrients & calories, this is nothing to be worried about. But it does take time to adjust.

You can read what I wrote about the secret to weight loss, but as I said, my perspective has changed a bit over time.

I believe strongly in mastering intuitive eating rather than following a prescriptive &/or restrictive diet plan. Don’t get me wrong, calorie counting & restriction does work, but for many people, it’s just not a long term solution.

I’m more interested in long-term solutions, rather than quick fixes.

If you’re committed to a vegan diet for life (which if you are, yay! good for you) & you want to maintain a healthy weight, here’s a list of a few main things to focus on.

 

A few tips for happy vegan eating

1) Respect your hunger.
Try to pay attention to hunger/satiation cues & eat regular consistent meals. Meal skipping is a pretty horrible way for most people to cut calories. I wouldn’t recommend it.

 

2) Eat lots of vegetables.
(& some fruits too.)

These are your best friends. You really want to hit it off with the green leafies & cruciferous ones.

When trying to lose weight, be very generous with vegetables. Salads & soups are great way to eat vegetables. Check out my slim + slendersalad, soups, & raw pinterest boards for inspiration.

 

3) Eat plenty of unrefined starch,
Like: potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, corn, rice, legumes (lentils, peas, pinto beans, white beans, etc.), oatmeal, millet, even whole grain pasta. The list goes on. Starch will fill you up & give you the energy you need. I’ve found it also helps to curb sugar cravings. It’s when my diet lacks starch, that sugar cravings are the worst.

 

4) Go easy on all the other stuff.
Desserts (be they “healthy” or not) are still indulgences & shouldn’t be your main fare, & oils, nuts/seeds, & other high fat plant foods should be eaten as condiments (meaning judiciously). I don’t think it’s necessary to cut out fats (see, Is Dr. McDougall, right?), but if you’re finding it difficult to lose the weight you’ve gained, you may want to consider it for a time.

Though I must say, if a teaspoon of oil on roasted veggies is going to get you to eat 3 c. of veggies, or a teaspoon or two on raw salad is going to get you excited about eating a huge bowlful of spinach & green leaf lettuce, I say, go for it. It’s about the overall calorie density of your food, & a little oil on a bounty of veggies balances out.

 

5) Enjoy your food!
Savor it. Make time to eat, & avoid eating on the run.

Regular, consistent meals at the same time every day establishes a healthy ritual & pattern for balanced eating.

Also, know that when you’re eating plant-foods, you’re nourishing your body & eating in a compassionate, mindful way. I think that’s something to celebrate, for sure.

 

Best of luck,

 

 

 

♥♥♥

I hope if you have anything to add to what I’ve said, please do.
I love the idea of learning from each other, which is the best kind of learning.

Also, if you have a question or inquiry for me (doesn’t have to be about food! anything is on the table) that you’d like featured in this series, don’t be shy, & send me note, will ya?
Put “Reader’s Inquiry” in the subject line, please & I’ll do my best to respond in a timely manner. 


Comments


  1. Cel
    on November 24, 2013 at 5:22 pm said:

    Read 801010 by dr Doug graham. The fat u eat is the fat you wear!

  2. alanna
    on May 28, 2013 at 2:26 pm said:

    This is fantastic advise Janae.
    I was lucky to snag a last minute ticket to Vida Vegan Con last weekend and this topic was debated by several panels.
    More than once I thought, “I wish Janae were here on this panel!”

  3. Ashlee @ Plant Infusions
    on May 28, 2013 at 8:25 am said:

    I love your 5 suggestions! I actually printed them out to help me maintain healthy eating during my pregnancy. Well, and always, for that matter. They are just good general tips.

    May I also suggest the “McDougall Quick and Easy Cookbook” to Rose? At first glance it doesn’t look very exciting, but I just recently really got into it. All the meals are so easy to prepare, low in fat (no oils), and taste wonderful. I feel so good after eating recipes from that book, and my kids like the food, too. (Especially the ones that Mary comments, “This is almost always a favorite with kids.” Yup, they are a favorite with my kids, even though it is soup, and my kids generally don’t get excited about soup.)

    I also appreciate how you talk about being too obsessed with using no fat in your diet and how that can lean towards eating disorder tendencies. I agree. Every time I decide to eliminate all fat (including nut sauces or nuts) from my diet I start getting crazy in my head. And it is really hard to feed a family that way because children like the fat. If I eliminated all fat from my diet then I would have to make two separate meals every day, three times a day. It gets old. I am sure you experience similar difficulties sometimes with trying to eat healthy, but also trying to feed small children who just want some Daiya cheese on their pizza, or nacho cheese on their Mexican food, or some Earth Balance on their rice or pasta. How have you worked through eating super-healthy but also continued to feed a family? Do you make yourself separate meals a lot? I usually end up just making a huge salad to accompany the main meal, leaving the sauces and cheese off of my portions of food, or preparing a green smoothie.

    I like your occasional tsp of oil mindset. I made a really big raw salad yesterday and used 1 tsp olive oil to balance out 4 tbsp of lime juice and vinegar. Also, I like to make BBQ grilled veggie fajitas which requires a tiny bit of oil, but makes me eat hoards of veg. Thanks again, for the post!

  4. Aimee
    on May 24, 2013 at 9:34 pm said:

    Oh my goodness! I’m so glad to see this addressed! When I was trying to look up gaining weight on a vegan diet, all I found was a bunch of skinny vegans trying to increase their calorie density.

    I had a similar experience, though mine involved not being able to take off baby weight after my first vegan pregnancy (seventh pregnancy, but first vegan one.) I might go a little against the grain here and say that, for me, yes, I was getting too much fat, but I did need to add protein. As long as I make sure I get some protein with each meal, I feel a lot fuller and a lot healthier. I eat it in whole forms, mainly beans, some tofu or hemp or whatever, but it’s made a big difference.

    I’ve found that plant protein doesn’t have the inflammatory effect on me that animal proteins do. (I became vegan to control MS symptoms.) NoMeatAthlete helped me out tremendously in this area.

    And I also (because of you, Janae!) used the BodyMedia monitor. It really helped me to see that I was getting less activity and more calories than I realized. I didn’t have to use it long to get back on track.

    At any rate, there’s still hope! I’m finally (a year and a half later) turning into the healthy and fit vegan that I wanted to be. And you’re never too old to take care of yourself- but always too young to let yourself go.

    • Janae Wise
      on May 25, 2013 at 1:46 pm said:

      Aimee, I’m with ya. It’s annoying that everyone thinks the only possibility to go when you go vegan is skinny! Certainly that’s not the case (it would be I suppose if you ONLY ate vegetables, but who does THAT?!). The “skinny vegan” movement is quite vocal about steering clear of fats (which verges into eating disordered behavior territroy, if you ask me), & while I don’t wholeheartedly agree, I do know, as you point out, it’s quite easy to get too much fat in your diet.

      Another thing I take issue with is the whole “don’t you ever worry your pretty little head about protein.” Like you, I feel best when I have a few servings a day of protein rich plant foods–mostly beans of all sorts (because they’re cheap!), some quinoa & other seeds, but I also love tofu, gluten-free veggie burgers, plain soy milk, tempeh, & tvp on occasion. Every vegan needs to be eating a few servings of some of these foods EVERY day. Protein deficiency isn’t common, but not getting enough variety of protein rich foods is a common enough problem in vegan diets.

      I’m so glad you’re liking your BodyMedia band. I do too! I don’t use it anymore, but I’m sure I’ll pull it out next time I have to lose some baby weight. It’s such a great tool that takes all the guesswork out of physical activity.

      (P.S. I looked at your blog. Sheesh, woman, homeschooling your SEVEN kids, husband died of cancer??? You’re amazing. Thanks for commenting.)

      • Aimee Bain
        on May 28, 2013 at 10:15 am said:

        Yep. Tough year for sure. God’s gracious, though.

        By the way, welcome to SA! (Belatedly) I ended up here as a teenage Air Force brat. 😉

        I wanted to recommend the Appetite for Reduction cookbook. Healthy, fresh, not fat free but not a free-for-all. And, of course, anything Isa does is going to he super tasty!

  5. Carrie @Shrinkingcarrie
    on May 24, 2013 at 9:02 am said:

    I’d also add to steer clear of processed Vegan foods (such as cheeses, meats, and dairy sub’s, if you are even eating these). Stick to as much whole foods as possible! I have also found that the more bready carbs and nut butters I eat, I will definitely see a gain! I think the simpler you keep your food the lighter you feel, and the more results you see!

  6. Daisy
    on May 24, 2013 at 8:24 am said:

    I think Janae has well answered the question: If your calorie consumption has increased, then your weight is going to go up! Check any changes you have made in your diet and look at the calorie difference between now and before you went vegan.

    Also, I have personally *never* heard of having to have protein with at least two meals. I mean never, and I’ve been reading about veganism a long time. That said, just about everything has at least a small amount of protein or provides the building blocks for your body to make protein. If you eat a varied diet (and don’t increase the nut consumption–there’s no need!), your body will automatically have enough protein. Even those on a raw food vegan diet are recommended to have no more than a handful of nuts per day. You mentioned your olive oil consumption going up: There’s no real need to increase the amount of oil you are consuming just because you’ve gone vegan.

    I highly recommend the book Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina. They are registered dietitians who go through the ins and outs, the myths and the necessary elements for planning a healthy vegan diet.

    One last thing: Are there any *new* foods you’ve added? I ask because I know that with my food sensitivities, I gain water weight very easily. If I were to have a couple pieces of pizza with regular cheese, other than the stomach issues it would cause me, I am very likely to be 3 pounds heavier the next day–just because of the cheese. I’ve discovered that a couple of pounds easily drop off me when I don’t consume wheat, even though my overall grain consumption may be consistent. If you have any potential sensitivities, it may not be just an increase in fat causing your weight gain, but also water retention. Soy, for example, is a common food for people to be sensitive to and a common vegan food. Although it’s more likely to cause skin reactions in me, I don’t see why it couldn’t cause water weight gain in somebody.

    Good luck! I’m sure you can figure out how to get the healthiest diet for your body. 🙂

    • Janae Wise
      on May 24, 2013 at 8:41 am said:

      I agree with Daisy, the Becoming Vegan book is a solid one. I also highly recommend.

      Lots of good points, Daisy. Thank you for sharing.