Vegans are Compassionate at Every Size

Some 2 billion pairs of eyes will be focused on Kate Middleton as she takes the long walk down the aisle of Westminster Abbey tomorrow, and apparently she’s been slimming down in anticipation of that scrutiny. Naturally the media is all over Kate’s recent weight loss, speculating that it was achieved through France’s (and soon to be America’s) new diet craze from Dr. Dukan. The Dukan Diet is an updated and equally unhealthy twist on Atkins and it promises weight loss by restricting food choices to a few plant foods and lots of meat.

Diets that severely limit food choices are almost always effective for weight loss no matter what those foods are. Very low carb diets have the added advantage of ketone production, compounds that suppress appetite. You can’t stay in ketosis forever, though, so like most fad diets, this one is more likely to be a quick fix than a long-term solution.

The number of popular diet plans in bookstores and on the internet is a testament to the fact that, while there are plenty of ways to lose weight, long-term solutions for weight management are hard to come by. After my last blog post on vegan weight management, I heard from quite a number of readers about that. Some took issue with my approach, too. They suggested that there should be less emphasis on “weight loss,” and more on healthy lifestyle. This is part of the Health at Every Size (HAES) perspective.

The HAES paradigm addresses our national obsession with dieting and points to the fact that health outcomes can be improved in overweight people without weight loss. Some of the concerns about a weight-loss-only focus have to do with the potential damaging effects of “weight cycling,” (that is, repeatedly losing and regaining weight), as well as the damaging psychological effects associated with constant pressure to lose weight.  Weight loss is also sometimes viewed as a moral imperative, which reinforces bigotry against overweight people.  And of course, an obsession with weight leads people to make bad choices like the Dukan Diet.

For those who can improve their health through weight loss and wish to do so, I have no problem with providing reasonable guidelines based on vegan eating patterns. But for those who have been weight cycling for years and have not been able to maintain their desired weight, I agree that a shift in perspective toward healthy habits—with or without weight loss—can prevent damaging behaviors and outcomes. Because the truth is that we don’t really know why long term weight management is harder for some than others. It could be an inherited “thrifty gene,” that favors fat deposits, or differences in brain circuitry regarding feelings of “reward,” from eating or any of a number of other explanations that are topics of research right now.

There’s a vegan issue here, too, which I mentioned briefly in my last article and want to expand on. I’ve had quite a number of people tell me that they feel alienated from the vegan community for a number of reasons; one of those reasons is that they don’t feel welcome or like they “fit” in the vegan community because they are not models of vegan health perfection.   

But this is not a problem of fat vegans. The problem lies with those who promote veganism as a weight loss diet. Although it’s been great to see so much focus on veganism in the media lately—specifically on Oprah and Martha Stewart—I’ve felt discomfort about promises that going vegan will automatically lead to weight loss.

Going vegan is unlikely to cause weight loss for most people unless they also restrict their food intake in other ways. And even embracing some of those other restrictions—like avoiding all fats—isn’t a guaranteed weight loss plan. When people don’t achieve their desired weight on a vegan diet, they are likely to decide that veganism “doesn’t really work,” or that they have somehow “failed” at being vegan. They might move on to another of the hundreds of diets that promise weight control, or—if they embrace the ethical reasons for being vegan—feel uncomfortable talking about their veganism to others if they believe that they aren’t portraying veganism in a good light.

False promises about health and weight loss also shift the focus away from the ethic of justice that is the basis of veganism and animal rights. Being vegan is about what’s in our hearts, not what’s on our hips. It’s a refusal to use animals for our own pleasure and convenience which makes it a choice that is available to everyone. If we want a vegan world, then we need to build a vegan community where everyone feels comfortable and accepted. That will never happen as long as we define veganism as a weight loss diet. 

 

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28 Responses to Vegans are Compassionate at Every Size

  1. beforewisdom April 28, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    The Dukan Diet is an updated and equally unhealthy twist on Atkins

    Maybe it should be called "The Dukah Diet", after the ancient Pali word 'Dukah" that Buddhists use to refer to "suffering"

    Very low carb diets have the added advantage of ketone production, compounds that suppress appetite.

     
    A cup of tea will do the same thing


    Some 2 billion pairs of eyes will be focused on Kate Middleton as she takes that long walk down the aisle of Westminster Abbey tomorrow, and apparently she’s been slimming down in anticipation of that scrutiny.

    That is insane.  She was already perfect before.

  2. Midge April 28, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    Great article, Ginny.  It'll be almost a year since I adopted a vegan diet.  I have maintained a fairly healthy weight (I'm 5'2" and weigh 125 lbs) and am proud to say that last year was the first year ever that I did not gain weight around the holidays.  I did expect to lose more weight when I became vegan, but I've resigned to the fact that striving to be healthier in my food choices (I strive to eat as much whole foods as possible, but do cave in to junk food cravings on occasion) is more important that the weight loss per se.  But perhaps if I just exercised a bit more regularly, I might see that last few pounds disappear :).

  3. Laura in Taos April 28, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

    I am not a skinny vegan. Although losing 50# prior to being vegan, I have not been successful in losing the last 25#. After investing in numerous scrumptious cookbooks and having a field day with new recipes, losing weight is a challenge.
    One day I'll realize the party's over and start investing time in 'diet' vegan recipes. Until then, the real reason why I'm vegan sustains me, and it has nothing to do with calories.

  4. MH April 29, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    Thank you for this Ginny.

  5. Lisa H. April 29, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    Thank you, Ginny. Perfectly said.

  6. The Valley Vegan April 29, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    Veganism, for me, is about the moral choice to not consume animals. Sometimes it really bothers me to hear people referring to "veganism" as a diet – portrayed as the opposite of Atkins. Maybe there should be a separate name for a plant based "diet" as opposed to the moral/ethical lifestyle implications of "vegan". There's a real reason why people who use "veganism" as a weight loss tool feel so uncomfortable (or outright refuse!) to call themselves "vegan": tt's because they are not "vegan", they are "dieters".

  7. Aj April 29, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    This post is so well written and perfeclty on point. I've never truly struggle with my weight, but having been a vegetarian since age 15 and then vegan for the past 4 years, I've been a whole range of weights while adopting a more compassionate diet. Veganism alone does not create automatic weight loss (and this is what I tell those who assume that the vegan diet is restrictive and boring! so many delicious foods are available), rather the same things that can create weight loss for any diet (restricting caloric intake, increasing exercise) have helped me maintain my weight as a vegan.

  8. Sarah E. Brown April 29, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    Wonderful article, really great points. I love this post by Choosing Raw on the subject of veganism and weight loss – http://www.choosingraw.com/raw-tomato-bread/
    Something that seems linked to this subject is our relationship to consumer culture. I wonder if anyone has ever traced the origins of veganism and looked at how body image/dieting/focus on weight loss have changed over time as the movement has expanded. Thinking about veganism's origins as a religious/spiritual choice, and veganism's presence in the "hippie" movement, I wonder when it started being marketed as weight loss scheme or got sold as a white consumer fad (remember when veganism got mentioned on that blog 'Stuff White People Like'?) I suspect that as veganism has gone more mainstream, it has also been increasingly tied to consumerism. Something tells me it wasn't always that way. Just a hunch. I wonder if the vegan movement can move beyond hawking veganism as a fad diet–seems like many are afraid that if we don't, we'll miss out on a big chunk of the potential vegan market.
    Complex issues, and it's amazing to see someone continue to explore these issues. Thanks!

  9. Sarah E. Brown April 29, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    I don't mean to say veganism is a white consumer fad, however I think perhaps it has been marketed that way…

  10. El April 30, 2011 at 10:48 am #

    I always cringe when I hear people promoting veganism as a good way to lose weight. I know, being an overweight vegan myself, that by just eating vegan foods doesn't automatically make you thinner. Eating less and exercising more does that. Probably. You certainly can be vegan and eat poorly ie. lots of sweet snacks etc.

    And I do have problems to promote veganism because I fear that my appearance doesn't give a desirable image of veganism. Once when I was tabling for a vegan organization, one guy couldn't believe that I was vegan when I told him so and kept insisting that I'm not. I didn't ask and he didn't tell me why it was so hard for him to believe but afterwards I wondered if it was for my weight or outer appearance.
    Anyways. I'm definitely vegan for ethical reasons.
    Thanks for this good post!

    • Diana Cullum-Dugan July 14, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

      I’m sorry you had that experience, El. As a vegetarian RD, I often get requests from my site from women who want nutrition counseling as validation that being vegetarian and vegan can promote optimal health and well-being. Last week, I counseled a young woman who’s #1 reason for being a vegan was weight loss. I did my best questioning to uncover other reasons and hopefully help her shift the order of importance.
      Regardless of your reasons, and they may vary throughout your life, having variety and balance in your meals will keep you healthier and not eating animal products will keep your values intact.
      Keep volunteering for that vegan table!!!

    • Robert July 14, 2011 at 9:32 pm #

      Pretty much any pro vegan/vegetarian web site you visit will state or imply that healthy bodyweights and a lower BMI are a tendency for this group. Pro vegan/vegetarian doctors and authors tend to say the same thing. While this is likely true it is also more likely that people who are vegan or vegetarian tend to be non-smokers, drink in moderation or not at all, eat less junk food and include more physical activity in their lifestyle. These factors, more than diet, would account for the lower BMI statistics for this group.

  11. Sharky April 30, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    Thinking back to when I stopped eating meat in the early 1970s, I can't recall anyone doing so to become healthier, let alone to lose weight. That was the era of Diet for a Small Planet, Small is Beautiful, the first Earth Day, eating lower on the food chain, etc. Now our society seems to be experiencing something of a moral panic over obesity, and it's disconcerting to see veganism recruited as a healthy way to slim down, primarily. 
    A timely post, Ginny.

    • Diana Cullum-Dugan July 14, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

      Totally! Diet for a New America won me over. Health brought me to vegetarianism initially (family history of high cholesterol and heart disease) and ethical treatment of animals reeled me right in.
      It is troubling when a plant-based diet is used primarily for weight loss instead.

  12. Tofu_Mom (Marti Miller Hall) May 1, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    SORRY!!! I don't know what happened with my above comment!! Please delete!!!

    What I wanted to say was:

    WHAT AN EXCELLENT article!!
    I struggle with my weight, but have stopped the yo-yo- dieting that was never successful long term and am finally happy with who I am.

    People have asked me point blank "How can you be vegan? You're too fat!" Nice….
    I AM "healthy" though,  and even my Dr. attributes my dietary choices to the fact that I do not have thee typical "Fat American" diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and so forth. 
    Veganism is not a weight-loss diet, and  people who say otherwise are in for a surprise.

    Thank you, again,  for a nicely done article!!!

  13. barefeet May 1, 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    Thank you, Ginny!  The title of this post alone was lovely.  Its hard to go against the grain of the consumer culture, telling us we always have to run out and buy the next big new thing.  Healthy living is a fairly consistent thing.  Clean water, healthy food choices, kindness towards others (emotional health) – These are the things we already know make us healthy.  We don't need to keep buying the next big diet book to know these things.  Veganism doesn't need to be part of that to be successful.  In fact, I would argue that, in the long run, the vegan movement will remove itself from that or suffer a loss of identity, like so many fad diets of the past.

  14. Rebecca May 4, 2011 at 5:44 am #

    I second everything Tofu Mom said above.  I, too, am an overweight vegan, although I have not gained any weight since I became a vegan (which is a bonus in itself!), and have recently been successful losing 27 lbs. by eating the vegan version of Joel Fuhrman's "Eat to Live" plan.  I KNOW I am healthier than when I ate animals, but some people think I owe it to veganism to lose weight so I can better represent "our people."  I'll keep doing the best I can, but it is worth it to me just to know I am alleviating animal suffering through my actions.

  15. Lindsay May 9, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    Very well said! I have noticed that veganism is becoming sort of a fad these days for dieting and weight loss, thanks to books like Skinny Bitch. Although I read that book, and loved it, my reasons for following a vegan diet are so much more. Sometimes I have trouble convincing friends and family that my vegan diet is not just a phase I'm going through to lose weight. It's so frustrating that people think this. My weight is at a pretty good point right now, but I know if I laid off the nut butters and whole wheat pasta I could drop a few pounds :) But I don't agree with any of the crash diets on the markets anymore and I believe that wholesome and healthy eating is the best plan for long-term weight maintenance. 

  16. Rebekah May 16, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Wonderful article!  I watched Kathy Freston on the Martha Stewart show (which was all-around a GREAT show about veganism) but I cringed when she said that you lose weight easily when you go vegan.  That has not been my experience.  
    I think vegans are just like everybody else when it comes to weight issues.  Some of us gain weight over the holidays from eating big feasts and treats.  Some of us struggle to lose our baby weight and it accumulates with each child that we have.  Some of us whip up a batch of chocolate chip cookies when we've had a hard day.  (All of the above apply to me!)  Just because we are vegan, that doesn't mean we are immune to all of those things.  

  17. Mark Osborne June 22, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    Well I became vegan as part of a lifestyle change to adopt a heathier diet and lose weight. And it worked for me – I lost 50 lbs overall. The first 20 lbs through calorie restriction – which was no fun – and the last 30 lbs through adopting a healthy vegan diet. Now I have stabilized at an ideal weight.

    With so many tasty vegan recepies and treats out there I can see how its easy to be vegan and not lose weight – but I think that the healthy eating principles surrounding whole food plant based diet are sound.

    Frankly I find the whole “you should go vegan to save the animals and not for your health” argument a bit alienating for us new vegans. There are dietary, ethical and environmental reasons to adopt a vegan diet. They are all valid and as individuals we are going to have different preferences and motivations. It is great that you can come with one goal in mind and end contributing to the others. And as people begin to self-identify as vegans they may well adopt those new goals as their own as well.

  18. Holly June 24, 2011 at 6:23 am #

    Awesome post! I agree people expect to go vegan and lose weight when really that’s not the goal of the diet at all

  19. Lindsey August 14, 2011 at 9:11 pm #

    Ginny, this is just great.
    What a bad joke it is when there are people out there claiming that you will lose weight no matter what on a vegan diet. I didn’t lose any weight becoming vegan (maybe a few pounds at most which hardly made a difference at my highly obese weight), and I actually have to be really diligent about not gaining weight. Maybe I would have lost a lot of weight when I first went vegan, but I discovered vegan treats and junk food all too soon. I hope the truth will get out there eventually that a vegan diet is not a magic cure for one’s weight. And this post is helping that along. Thank you! And thank you for all your other excellent work!

  20. Rose September 1, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

    Thank you for bringing up Health at Every Size! No matter what a person’s dietary choices, and no matter what a person’s size, they deserve health and happiness! Too often is going vegan portrayed as a weight-loss “cure” (I myself had this mentality a few years ago, since then I have found much better reasons to be a vegan, regardless of my size). This obsession with “the vegan diet” either leads to compulsive restriction (usually followed by binging) in an attempt to get weight loss results, dissatisfaction with oneself for “failing,” or forsaking veganism because it “doesn’t work.” A friend of mine once asked me to help her become a vegan, and I was skeptical of her reasons behind it. She told me it was to lose weight, so I replied by giving her some readings about size acceptance, a letter explaining that this is not the healthiest reason for veganism, and a bunch of delicious vegan recipes! :)

  21. RDStudent September 1, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    Thank you for talking about Health at Any Size (HAES). It’s important to also point out that any intentional weight loss has a 95% failure rate (at 5 years) – it’s not just hard for most people to keep weight off, it’s close to impossible for all but 5% of people. And nobody knows why. Additionally, weight rarely “automatically” comes off with any lifestyle change. I think a vegan lifestyle is a wonderful choice if it jives with a person’s values but it should not be treated as another diet fad because people will give it up (as they sometimes do with exercise) if it doesn’t produce the required weight loss even though it might produce other wonderful health benefits. People can be fat and healthy and a vegan lifestyle can certainly help with this if it’s something they enjoy and makes them feel good.

  22. BCFutureRD November 14, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    One of the reasons I have trouble relating to other vegan activists, is because they often use the paradigm of “fat=bad” and “thin=good” to back up why omnivores will all be fat and unhealthy, and vegans are thin and healthy.

    The more restrictive you feel you are with your food, the more likely you are going to snap back to the foods you used to enjoy. As RDStudent points out above, restrictive diets have a 95% failure rate.

    “For those who can improve their health through weight loss and wish to do so, I have no problem with providing reasonable guidelines based on vegan eating patterns.”

    It doesn’t seem you are really promoting a HAES lifestyle. Anybody who does promote it would never tell a person to lose weight to improve their health. A HAES advocate would promote normal eating patterns with foods they enjoy, and enjoyable physical activity, regardless of weight or size.

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