Credit: Holly Perez

I have to admit that I was a little afraid of writing about this topic because I knew this sensitive subject might ruffle a few feathers; but hear me out before getting too upset at the title. Many of my friends are vegan and these friends are very passionate about their lifestyle choice. My vegan friends have different reasons for choosing this food path, including: health reasons; ethical reasons; religious reasons; weight loss; or a combination of these reasons. Personally, I lean toward having a vegan diet for health reasons, but I am not committed to veganism, as I enjoy my occasional meat and dairy in moderation.

I’ve met plenty of vegans that maintain their desired weight and look glowingly healthy, but I’ve also met plenty of vegans that are very heavy and don’t look very healthy. Pardon this cliché, but if I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard a professed vegan friend complain about their inability to shed excess weight, I’d be wealthy.

Why Some Vegans Struggle with Weight

 I, too, started to wonder why my heavier vegan friends struggle with weight loss. After all, these people had cut out all products that come from an animal: no meats; no cheeses; no milk products; and no eggs, to name a few items. One would think that weight loss would be a natural result of cutting out so much fatty, cholesterol-filled foods. For my own personal research, I started asking my vegan friends what a typical day from their food diary looked like. For my thinner friends, their diets primarily consisted of a variety of vegetables with some fruits, but with minimal amounts of breads and processed foods. My heavier friends primarily consumed bread products, processed foods that fell into the vegan category, and consumed very few vegetables and fruits; the veggies and fruits were typically a side dish when eaten, but not a main course.

Just Because the Label Says ‘Vegan’ Does Not Mean it is Good for You

One of my favorite things to see while shopping at a grocery store is when I see the word ‘vegan’ (or ‘gluten-free’) on a product that was already vegan (or gluten-free) before those words were popularized and labeled on the packaging. I visualize people gravitating toward these products with a surprised look on their faces because they are excited that their favorite food is suddenly vegan (but maybe they didn’t realize it had been a vegan product all along). Marketers know what they’re doing.

Just for fun, here is a list of vegan foods, according to the Huffington Post that may surprise you:

  • Betty Crocker Bac-o's Bacon Flavor Bits
  • Oreos (though some argue they are not vegan since there may be milk cross contamination during manufacturing)
  • Pillsbury Crescent Rolls
  • Ritz Crackers
  • Kraft Creamy Italian Dressing
  • Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili chips
  • Unfrosted Strawberry Pop Tarts
  • Krispy Kreme Glazed Apple Pie
  • Sara Lee Oven Fresh Apple Pie
  • Fritos
  • Brach’s Mandarin Orange Slices
  • Superpretzel Baked Soft Pretzels [1]

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that the above listed foods do not help us lose weight. I started looking at the labels of processed vegan foods during my recent shopping trips. I was shocked at the amount of unpronounceable names on many of the labels. Just because the word ‘vegan’ is on the label does not mean it is healthy for you. I know that plenty of non-vegan foods have questionable lab-processed ingredients, as well, but some of the worst ingredients I found were in the faux meat products. Here are just a few ingredients:

  • Soy protein isolate – ‘...is a protein chain that goes through a chemical process to isolate that protein for uses in various products to 'enrich' those products with extra protein. It is processed with heat and acid. Your body does not receive the whole protein; the whole protein is processed to remove fat from the whole protein which also removes healthy properties that your body needs. The isolated protein is also deficient in key amino acids'[2]. Protein isolates are used in many protein bars, breakfast cereals, meal replacement shakes, soups, and to fortify meat-like products.
  •  Maltodextrin - ‘…is derived from plants, but is highly processed. Generally, it comes from corn, rice, or potato starch. The starches are cooked and then acids or enzymes are added to break it down further, resulting in a white powder. This food additive is used as a thickener or a filler with sugar substitutes in foods like sodas, candies, light peanut butter, and many other processed foods. The body absorbs maltodextrin as quickly as it absorbs straight glucose. Several studies have suggested that maltodextrin suppresses the growth of good gut bacteria and can negatively impact blood sugar levels[3]. 
  • Dipotassium phosphate – ‘...is a highly water-soluble salt that prevents food coagulation and is used as a preservative to prolong shelf life. It is generally deemed as safe for consumption, but people with impaired kidney functions should avoid it'[4]. Dipotassium phosphate is used in fertilizer, non-dairy creamers, dry powder drinks, and in buffering solutions to culture bacteria. 
  • Titanium dioxide - ‘… is a naturally occurring mineral used as a bright white pigment for paint, varnishes, papers, plastics, sunscreens, and cosmetics. In the food industry, it is used as food coloring. Titanium dioxide has excellent ultraviolet resistant qualities and acts as a UV absorbent…recent studies suggest titanium dioxide may be toxic, although further research is needed' [5]. Titanium dioxide can be found in some chewing gums, powdered donuts, some candies, and some toothpastes. (I am so grossed out right now.)

Many bread products are also highly processed and often have artificial ingredients in them too. So when I eat bread, I try to only buy bread that lists its first ingredient as ‘100% whole wheat’ and with a minimal list of ingredients.

Food Plate
Credit: Holly Perez

So What's Wrong with Eating a Lot of Breads and Other Processed Foods?

I think most of us know that having a diet heavy in breads or other processed foods is not ideal for weight loss. I’m not saying that we need to completely cut out all processed foods and breads. We are human. We crave a naughty processed treat once in awhile. Besides, for many people, changing the way we eat is a long, gradual process of change. No one is perfect and it’s fun to indulge sometimes, but ‘sometimes’ is the key word. Here is a very general breakdown of how our bodies respond to what we eat:

  • Simple carbohydrates (most breads & other processed foods) - are short simple sugar molecule chains that are easy to break down by your body; it’s already mostly broken down for you. Simple carbs are high in sugar, low in fiber, they’re digested very quickly, then stored as fat if not needed by your body. Additionally, ingesting large amounts of simple sugars at once signals your pancreas to panic then dump a bunch of insulin into your bloodstream; this causes a yo-yo blood sugar effect. You experience a sugar rush when you eat simple carbs, then, after your pancreas frantically releases insulin to drive down your blood sugar levels, you’re left feeling exhausted and hungry again; so you crave more carbs that will give you a sugar rush to get through your crazy day. The cycle continues.
  •  Complex carbohydrates (most vegetables & fruits) - are longer chains of sugar molecules that require more energy (calories) to break them down into simple sugars. Complex carbs are higher in fiber and smaller amounts of simple sugars are released over a longer period of time as your body works harder to break down these complex chains. This slower burn leaves you feeling fuller for longer and your blood sugar remains at a steadier level, which probably makes your pancreas very happy. [6]
Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, Revised Edition
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Everyone should read this; it just might save your life.

Am I a Healthy Vegan or an Unhealthy Vegan?

I would strongly recommend keeping an honest food diary. There are many free food diaries online and some incredible free apps for your smart phone that make tracking food very easy. While 45% to 65% of your calories should come from carbohydrates, less than 10% of those calories should come from simple sugars like cookies, crackers, chips, soda, and even most cereals [7]. For example, if I aim to consume 1500 calories per day, I should only allow a maximum of 150 of those calories per day to come from a simple sugar, if I want to lose weight and feel healthy; that would be the equivalent of a large hamburger bun or 3/4 of a cup of cooked pasta. The rest of my carbohydrate intake (the remaining 35% to 55%) should be complex carbohydrates, like whole vegetables and fruits, which would total between 525 and 825 calories, for a 1500 calorie per day diet. The remaining calories would come from protein and fat sources. If less than 10% of your caloric intake comes from simple carbohydrates, you’re a healthy vegan. 

Healthy Eating Tips

You’ve probably heard the following rules of thumb for how to eat healthy:

  1. Only shop at the outer perimeter of the store (where items without labels are stored).
  2. If it has a label and / or it’s in a package, you probably shouldn’t eat it.
  3. If you can’t pronounce the labeled ingredients or don’t know what they really are, you probably shouldn’t eat it.
  4. Eat a salad every day. If it must come from a fast food joint, avoid the fried toppings (e.g. fried chicken, wantons, tortilla strips), avoid the fatty dressings (or use half the serving), and avoid cheeses. Some fast food places offer 1/2 orders of salads.

My Personal Eating Tips to Help Me Stay on Track

  • Make a pot of healthy soup during the weekend. Keep it in the fridge and eat 1 to 2 cups of it throughout the week; if you're starving for convenience food, there's no excuse for not simply heating up that bowl of soup. I'll even pour it into a coffee mug to sip in the car, if I'm on the go.
  • Make your own healthy salad dressing (there are tons of yummy clean recipes online). You can use raw cashews and water in your blender to make the dressing creamy. Pre-wash and pre-cut fresh lettuce then store in a loosely sealed container in the fridge. 
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  • When I get tired of drinking water, I just throw some fresh fruit in it, which infuses my water with yummy goodness (e.g. oranges, lemons, limes, strawberries, raspberries).
  • Keep a food diary! I map out what I'm going to eat at the beginning of my day, so I have plan; sometimes I deviate from it....okay, I often deviate from it...but at least I have a plan.
  • Keep your freezer stocked with frozen fruit. You can blend with soy or almond milk or yogurt (for non-vegans), or even add fruit to a healthy vanilla protein powder with water.
  •  Keep your fiber intake high - I aim for at least 25 to 30 grams...veggies and fruits are usually loaded with them! You'll feel fuller for longer and it'll reduce your cholesterol as a bonus!
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  • Keep the following staples to throw in your salad: carrots, cucumbers, purple onion or green onions, grape tomatoes or roma tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, low fat string cheese, lean carved turkey, canned low-sodium beans, pre-cooked bacon, avocados, and any other items you'd like to toss in there. It takes just a couple of minutes to grab those handfuls of lettuce from the container and toss everything together.
  • Always keep fruit on your counter / kitchen table and in the fridge.
  • Make water your main drink - no fruit juices, sodas, energy drinks, or other sugary drinks except as a treat.
  • I limit gluten, dairy, and any packaged / processed foods (tortilla chips are my weakness) to one serving per day.
  • I limit my meat intake to twice per week. When I eat meat, I try to treat it as the side and vegetables like my main course.