Similar to individuals consuming the Standard American Diet, it is possible to either gain, maintain or lose weight eating a vegetarian or vegan diet. Let us consider the less common vegan diet where the individual is consuming 100% plant based foods. For these individuals, there are many factors that can affect weight loss or weight gain similar to that of individuals eating the Standard American Diet. One must factor in how much exercise they are getting and balance that with an optimum amount of calories, among other factors.
One of the most common issues for individuals on a plant based diet is calories, whether that is too little or too much, and nutrient requirements. The nutritional profile of the plant based diet stretches from those on the ‘Junk Food Vegan’ diet to those on the ‘Raw Food Vegan’ diet. Therefore, it is important to remember that just because you are consuming a plant based diet, that doesn’t mean it is healthy.
If you are looking to lose weight, the first thing you want to consider when choosing what food to eat is ‘Calorie Density’. Calorie Density is the ratio of how many calories the food provides per pound. Consider this, the calorie density of almonds is 2,626. This means if I were to eat a pound of almonds, I would be consuming 2,626 calories. On the other side of the scale, the calorie density of watermelon is 136. This means I could eat a pound of watermelon and only get 136 calories of food. This concept of calorie density is important because research has shown the average adult can fit about 2.2 pounds of food into their stomach.
Most of us continue to eat at each meal until our stomach is full, right? So it is important to have the ‘right’ amount of calorie dense foods in each meal. Therefore, if you target 2,400 calories per day spread over three meals then you would want to eat about 800 calories per meal. This means the average calorie density of your food should be around 400, if you completely fill your stomach.
Needless to say, eating watermelon all day will not give you the calories you need. Eating too few of calories on a plant based diet is where some individuals can get into trouble with not getting enough of their nutritional needs. On the other hand, some people on a plant based diet gain weight because they eat a high calorie dense diet filled with nuts, seeds, and oils. (Check out my blog post on Calorie Density for more information on this topic!)
After considering calorie density, the second consideration you should take is your ideal ratio of Carbohydrates, Protein and Fats. The bio-individuality of the person is going to determine what this ratio should be. A very popular ratio many vegans try to follow is the 80/10/10 diet consisting of 80% carbohydrate, 10% protein and 10% fat. Some individuals target even less fat which is very hard to do. (Check out my blog post for more information on Macronutrients: Carbohydrates, Protein and Fat!)
The most common question vegans / plant based eaters get is, “Where do you get your protein?” which is loosely translated into “Are you sure you are getting enough protein?” In order to answer this question it is important to understand how much protein you actually need, which requires a simple calculation. The World Health Organization recommends we get .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Therefore, if we consider a 150 pound person, the formula using pounds is:
Protein Requirement (grams) = .8 x (weight in lbs / 2.2) = .8 x (150 / 2.2) = 54.54 grams
Each gram of protein provides 4 calories of energy. Therefore, this 150 pound person needs to consume at least 218 calories of protein. If this person eats a 2,000 calorie diet, then this means they need about 11% of their calorie intake from protein. Of course, if they decide to, they can consume a higher percentage of protein. However, what most people don’t realize is it is important not to consume too much protein because excess protein increases acidity in the body which leads to calcium loss from your bones.
Getting 10 – 15% of calories from protein is pretty easy to do on a plant based diet as long as there is a good mix of fruits, veggies, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. Legumes (beans) contain the highest amount of protein which is why it is very common on a plant based diet but many are surprised to find out many vegetables contain more than 15% protein, such as cauliflower (18.9%). (Check out my blog post on Protein for more information on this topic!)
Once you identify the amount of protein you need, then it is up to the individual’s bio-individuality / preferences on how much of their calories should come from carbohydrates or fat. Some individuals may be able to eat a higher percentage of calories from fat than others. This can be particularly difficult for people living in the same household who eat the same meals. The amount of calories from fat can add up pretty quickly so if weight loss is the goal then you want to make sure you track your food in an app like Cronometer to make sure you are not getting too much. (Check out my blog post on Essential Fat for more information on this topic!)
If you are battling diabetes or are trying to lose a lot of weight, then you may want to aim towards 10 – 15 % of calories from fat. If you are diabetic, then I would recommend mainly eating veggies, legumes and grains for your carbohydrate intake and slowly incorporate more and more fruit as you become less insulin resistant. (Check out my blog post of Blood Sugar Regulation for more information on this topic!)
Now I know what you all are thinking, let’s say you are eating 15% of calories from protein and 15% of calories from fat, then that means I would have to eat 70% of my calories from the dreaded carbohydrates! How can we eat all of those carbs and still lose weight? The answer is due to the calorie density concept.
Many of us punish ourselves by working out at the gym, or running, or doing yoga and fail to pay attention to how many calories are coming in. We end up eating high calorie dense foods and overconsume on calories. The best part about eating 70% of our calories from carbohydrates is that carbohydrates are typically low calorie dense foods, especially fruits and vegetables. This means we can stuff ourselves with these low calorie dense foods and still lose weight.
Now that is my type of diet!