If veganism is such a healthy diet then why is the term “fat vegan” even a thing?
Weird, right? But it’s simple really: it’s pretty easy to eat way too many calories even when following a strict plant-based diet.
If you thought going vegan would help regulate your weight it can be a rude shock to realise the scales are heading in the wrong direction. Fact is, “fat vegan” is a thing that’s here to stay – but it’s also easy to overcome when you understand the most common pitfalls that can lure people in.
This article will outline the eight most common traps which can trip up new vegans when it comes to eating too many calories.
The advice below assumes you’re normally healthy, with no other physical concerns like increased cardiovascular risk or diabetes. Take your time applying the changes below – slow and gradual change is sustainable change without the overwhelm, and reduces the risk of health (or digestive) complications.
1. Cooking & Baking with Oil
Oil is 100% fat and is the most calorie-dense food there is. One tablespoon of olive oil (about 13g) contains 120 calories, about the same as 130g of chocolate. That’s right, olive oil contains ten times as many calories as whole milk chocolate!
To add to that, oil contains no fibre or water so we may have a tendency to over-consume it. Ad campaigns for coconut oil and the Mediterranean diet may want us to believe otherwise, but oil is devoid of nutritional benefit (nutrients, fibre, and water) to the extent that it’s safe to say there’s no such thing as healthy oil.
What to do: Sauté foods in vegetable stock or water. Use apple sauce in place of oil in baked goods.
2. Nuts & Seeds
These are another great source of natural fats but because they’re so moreish and rich in calories, nuts and seeds are very easy to overeat. We also tend to consume them in many other forms, like non-dairy milk (e.g. almond milk), dressings (e.g. cashews) and desserts (e.g. almond meal) so it’s not usually necessary to consume nuts to make up a nutritional shortfall.
What to do: Limit nuts and seeds to 1 ounce (28 grams) per day, the equivalent of one small handful. Choose raw and unsalted (walnuts are great).
3. Starchy Vegetables & Whole Grains
Starchy vegetables (corn, potato, pumpkin etc.) and whole grains are calorie dense and can tend to form the bulk of many of our meals. Don’t exclude them completely from your diet, because they’re healthy and form a vitally important part of our diet so when it comes to starches and whole grains it is a simple matter of not overdoing things.
What to do: Limit cooked high-starch vegetables and whole grains to 1 cup per day.
Avocado does contain a good amount of healthy fat, which is much better for you nutritionally than eating processed oils or animal fats, but they are still loaded with calories and contain a fair amount of saturated fat. One large avocado can contain as many as 400 calories, whereas a Mars Bar has 230 calories.
What to do: Limit avocado to ¼ maximum per day
5. Drinking Your Calories
Calories in liquid form have less bulk, and therefore drinks don’t satisfy the appetite as well as solid food does. That’s why we can be prone to consuming more energy than our body needs when we’re drinking our calories. If you are drinking freshly squeezed juice, the fibre content (which creates bulk to help fill us up) has been removed so they don’t leave us feeling satisfied until we’ve had way too many calories.
If drinking smoothies, the energy density of any added fruit will dwarf the energy density of the greens so you end up with high sugar alternative.
What to do: Eat your food wherever possible. Make smoothies with low sugar fruit and leafy greens, or reserve them for special occasions, as treats.
6. Mock Foods
Most vegan mock foods are heavily processed and high in sodium (salt), fat (including saturated and trans fat), and/or sugar. Imitation meats, dressings, spreads, and cheeses can be a great way to ease into plant-based eating because of their familiar taste and mouth-feel but they are ultimately much less healthy than whole food options.
What to do: Use these sparingly and treat these as you would take-out food. Aim to use these foods as transitional only, until you’ve built up your own repertoire of healthy meals you can make from scratch.
7. Portion Size
Because vegan options are typically healthier than non-vegan ones some people will assume they can eat an unlimited amount of nuts, carbohydrates, grains, even vegetables. While this may be true for some types of food (leafy greens!), it most certainly does not hold for many other types of whole foods.
Portion control is an important part of a healthy diet – one way to ensure you’re getting your portion sizes right is to track your eating.
What to do: 1. Start with soup or salad; 2. Assemble your plate. Fill half with raw and/or cooked non-starchy vegetables. Add 1 cup of whole grain OR starchy vegetables, add 1 cup of beans, peas or legumes; 3. Finish with fruit. Track your consumption to ensure your calorie consumption is in line with your weight goals.
8. Semi-Refined Sugar
When transitioning to a plant-based diet it’s common to transition away from refined sugar to less refined sweeteners like brown sugar, pure maple syrup, agave, and others. While less refined is almost always a good thing, all forms of sugar need to be considered a treat and eaten sparingly due to their high energy density. If the sugar is being overconsumed, your body will convert it to fat and store it – especially in the liver and around the abdomen.
What to do: Eat fresh fruit when a sugar craving hits. If it continues to linger, eat a small amount of dark raw non-dairy chocolate.
It can be all too easy to gain weight on a vegan diet, but it’s easy to get it right if you understand the calorie content of what you’re eating, and keep track of how many calories you are consuming.
Ultimately it boils down to two simple things:
- Increase your intake of unprocessed whole foods, fibre, and water.
- Control or reduce your consumption of processed and refined foods, fats (even healthy fats), and sugars.
The diet which best embodies these rules of thumb is a whole food plant-based one – if you’re serious about controlling your weight and health with the help of plant-based eating you should consider making the move towards WFPB.
And if you’re not quite ready to take the plunge into WFPB eating that’s ok too! The 8 reasons above can serve as a blueprint for how you could get your caloric intake under control, but remember to approach the change gradually.
Look for the step above which you think fits you the best, and master its solution. For me it would have been cooking with oil – I used to love the smell of onions frying in oil when preparing dinner, so removing it from my pantry took some getting used to. That’s a key point of change – allow yourself time to get used to change before you go further. Once you’ve mastered cooking without oil (if that’s what you’re addressing first) and you don’t miss it anymore then you can look for the next problem to master.
Alternately, if you feel like you need to get things under control in a hurry – that can certainly be done too! Definitely have a talk to your doctor about radical changes you intend to make before you make them, and consider finding someone to guide you through the process of mastering whole food plant-based eating.
Gabrielle is an evidence-based vegan coach who believes that health transformation begins when you switch to a plant-based diet. Her mission is to help midlife women eat in alignment with who they are and what they value so that they can lead a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.
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Written by Gabrielle (hi!), these e-mails will help you on your plant-based journey with useful tips, tricks, facts and inspiration – and perhaps the occasional inappropriate joke thrown in for good measure.