beans_usdaIt’s hard to resist the call of the New Year’s diet. There is something about the promise of new beginnings, especially after the season of indulgence.

If your goals for 2016 include weight loss, please make sure your vegan diet includes enough protein-rich foods. I’m not suggesting that you need to eat a high-protein diet. Nor am I saying that eating lots of carbs is bad. My concern is that some vegan weight loss plans are woefully short on legumes.  A menu that consists of oatmeal and fruit for breakfast, vegetable soup and a salad for lunch, and a dinner of chili might very well help you lose weight. But, it’s not the best recipe for muscle and bone strength. I see this in the menu plans in my facebook feed and in blogs and books—recommendations for diets that include as few as one to two servings of legumes per day.

How much protein you need depends on your body size and calorie requirements, but for weight loss, I recommend a set of “core vegan foods” that looks like this:

  • 5 servings* per day of legumes: beans, tofu, tempeh, TVP, veggie meats, peanuts
  • 3 servings of fruits
  • 5 servings of vegetables
  • 1 serving of nuts

This will provide you with about 1,000 calories on average. Add starchy foods and healthy fats plus more of the above foods in whatever amounts needed to reach your desired calorie level. This is the level that allows you to lose weight (or maintain it) in a way that is realistic and sustainable for you.

So if you aim for a daily intake of 1500 calories, you could add five servings of grains to the core foods if that’s how you like to eat. Or—if you’re more like me—you might add three servings of grains, plus a tablespoon of olive oil, and a glass of red wine. (I actually eat more than 1500 calories, so this is just a theoretical example). There is lots of flexibility here once you’ve satisfied requirements for protein-rich foods, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables.

Exercise is an important part of the picture, as well. It’s important for protecting muscles when you are shedding pounds. (And it’s just plain good for you for so many reasons.)

Again, the point is not to ditch carbs for an Atkins-type diet. It’s to make sure you are including good sources of protein in your plant-based weight loss diet. Vegans have slightly higher protein needs than omnivores and protein appears to have some advantages for weight management. In addition to protecting muscle, protein has satiety value and it boosts thermogenesis, the process through which the body turns calories into heat. (Alcohol boosts thermogenesis, too, but it’s obviously not a good idea to emphasize alcohol in your weight loss diet.)

It’s easy to get plenty of protein on a vegan diet. Protein in plants also comes packaged with other things that are good for health and possibly aid in weight management—like fiber and phytochemicals. Don’t be afraid of these foods and don’t ignore them. Plant proteins are good for you. Getting enough of these foods is always important, but especially so when you are losing weight.

*If you are petite and have low calorie needs–1200 calories or less–then 4 servings of these foods may be enough for you.