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The Vegan Diet

January 2, 2008

A few days ago I picked up the latest issue of Vegetarian Times. I’m not usually a big fan as I prefer magazines with a more political bent or veg magazines that are coming from a vegan perspective. Still, the cover had a picture of a delicious looking bowl of soup and as I’m a sucker for soup in the winter, I had to pick it up.

It wasn’t until I got it home that I noticed the big headline above the bowl of soup:

Eat green, Get lean!

Sigh

The pushing of veg*ism* as a way to lose weight isn’t a new thing. Almost anything you read promoting veg*ism will mention the possibility of weight loss. There’s even a best-selling book, “Skinny Bitch”, which looks just like any other diet book until you open it up and find that it is instead a book about animal rights which also asserts that veganism is the bestest and most effective way to lose weight.

The rationale behind this topic is that you draw people in with the weight loss angle and voila! you have new vegans.

Step one: Collect Underpants.

Step three: Profit!

To be fair, if veganism was in fact the holy grail of dieting (that is, a diet that actually works) you might be able to get people to switch to and stay with a vegan diet, but it’s not. The only reference I could find for any study done on the efficacy of a vegan diet for weight loss was published by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) which is a group that heavily promotes a vegan/animal rights agenda.

The authors found that the body weight of both male and female vegetarians is, on average, 3 percent to 20 percent lower than that of meat-eaters. Vegetarian and vegan diets have also been put to the test in clinical studies, as the review notes. The best of these clinical studies isolated the effects of diet by keeping exercise constant. The researchers found that a low-fat vegan diet leads to weight loss of about 1 pound per week, even without additional exercise or limits on portion sizes, calories, or carbohydrates.

So people lose weight when you put them on very low fat diets? Wow. Interesting how there’s never any follow-up data. As many many many people can tell you, losing weight in the short term isn’t always terrible hard especially when you’re part of a clinical trial that’s probably drastically cutting your caloric intake. But I’m thinking that if they really got great results with everyone in the long term, then we’d already be hearing about it on the news and being treated to whole aisles in the grocery store dedicated to highly processed vegan snacks and meals at ginormous prices. Since that’s not the case I’m going to go out on a huge limb and assume that people lost a bit of weight, plateaued, were swamped with guilt and feelings of failure, and then gained the weight back.

But Attrice, you say, veg*ns do, on average, weigh less than their omnivorous counterparts, right? True, but right off the top of my head I can come up with a few reasons this might be true that are not “being veg makes you totally skinny.”

1. Class. Having more money does correlate (probable for a number of reasons) to weighing less. Veg*ns tend to come from and be a part of the educated upperish classes.

2. Fat people are definitely less welcome in some AR groups. Fat discrimination and mockery is even built into a lot of AR campaigns so it’s not surprising that fat people aren’t as drawn to the movement or even feel hostile towards it.

Not to mention that 3-20% is quite a big range and we have no idea of how people fall into those numbers.

Going veg won’t make a thin person out of a fat one. And it certainly won’t do anything for animal rights and veganism. Because diets, by their nature, are just fads. They have to be because they don’t work. Some diet comes along, gets some buzz, makes a few people a lot of money and makes a lot of people hungry and miserable, then enough people gain the weight back that there’s a tipping point and the diet is abandoned. It comes back later when there are enough people who don’t remember the previous incarnation. The idea that turning veganism into a weight loss diet will turn people into vegans is silly. They’ll be dieters. And dieters will always be ready to move on to the next diet when the one they’re on fails as it will most certainly do.

Veganism will only succeed as a legitimate ethical philosophy when it is presented as such. The arguments for animals rights are, imnsho, good ones. It may not be as quick to explain the idea of using sentience as a measure of determining interests as it would be to say “you’ll look totally hot when you’re vegan” but it has the benefit of being based in reality.

Also, those who push the idea of veganism as WLD do a big disservice to veganism in supporting the idea that veganism is about deprivation and denial. Let us not bring to mind flavorless pseudo food and unfulfilled appetites when we talk about veganism. Let’s post pictures of vegan cupcakes, vegan crepes, and vegan frittatas Let’s share recipes and tell people about how much we love our vegan food. And let’s not prey on people’s insecurity and their fantasies in order to try and promote our movement.

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19 Comments
  1. January 2, 2008 8:52 pm

    Hah, one of my neighbors bought that book and has been quite clearly gaining weight every since she and the hubs have been following its rules.

    She won’t listen to me, though, so…

  2. January 2, 2008 10:05 pm

    Another reason strict vegans might be thinner than their meat-eating counterparts is because of a dearth of available and commercial food products for vegans. I tried to go vegan once after being a vegetarian and I found I had to examine every food label and ingredient for vegan-unfriendly items. Eating out at popular restaurants was difficult to impossible unless I stuck with steamed veggies (which I had to insist were prepared sans butter) and lettuce. There are strictly vegan products available, but they are often pricey and affordable only by people with disposable income – the class issue, as you noted.

    I applaud people who are able to adhere to a vegan diet and lifestyle, but I had to go back to being just vegetarian. Obsessively examining food labels and ingredients led to a relapse in my eating disorder recovery, so for me, I had to place my mental health above my moral objections.

  3. January 2, 2008 11:37 pm

    Thank you for pointing out that veganism does *not* equal weight loss, and doesn’t have a damn thing to do with animal rights. I actually read Skinny Bitch and thought the message about animal cruelty got lost in the eww fatties suck! insults.

    @ Rachel, I had similar issues with trying to go vegan. For now I’m content to be a vegetarian who avoids dairy and eggs whenever possible, without obsessing over food labels or hidden ingredients in restaurant food.

  4. January 3, 2008 1:16 am

    Did you see Barnyard? I didn’t care for it but there were a handful of funny moments. But I really liked the farmer. The fat, round, cute VEGAN farmer 😀

  5. Shira permalink
    January 3, 2008 11:06 am

    Oh yeah. I’m normally a vegetarian who avoids all dairy except butter but eats eggs when the body allows (I have many and changeable food intolerances, including yeast and sugar which rules out about 90% of all food ever). At the moment, the body is not allowing eggs and even butter is making me feel sick, so I’m pretty much vegan right now. Which is fun, since I can’t eat anything soy-based or fungus-based which excludes all meat substitutes, and I also need to avoid high-starch things, being insulin resistant. I got fatter when I decided to stop making myself eat meat (I really cannot stand it) and go back to being veggie, and I am getting fatter still on a vegan diet. I guess that makes me a big fat liar who’s obviously snaffling up the lardycakes and bacon when nobody’s looking, right?

  6. pennylane permalink
    January 3, 2008 7:51 pm

    Excellent post. I get annoyed at the vegan/weight loss (or vegetarian/weight loss) thing. It really makes it seem much more like a vanity fad than an actual ethical commitment.

    I had a lot of time to cook over the break and have definitively proven that veganism will not lead to skinniness. Hell, I think I just gained 5 pounds looking at those delicious cupcakes.

    Glad you brought up the class issue. I feel like there are so many more great options for vegans now but they are expensive. And there are loads of delicious vegan recipes but time is really a luxury, too. That was one of the things that annoyed me about skinny bitch; it really seemed to obfuscate the privilege of fresh produce, etc.

  7. January 3, 2008 10:00 pm

    Rachel and Bunniee,

    Access and affordability are definitely huge issues in terms of realistically adopting a vegan diet. I lived in Atlanta when I first became vegan and was so lucky to have affordable produce, and lots of vegan dining options. It really allowed me an easy transition.

    Now that I live in a small town with only one kroger and some chain restaurants, it’s harder and if I didn’t already have a lot of experience with vegan cooking, it would be very very hard.

    Like I said in another post, I had to allow myself a lot of flexibility when I first went vegan in order to not exacerbate my DE tendencies. I always err on the side of *not* reinforcing those thought patterns.

  8. January 3, 2008 10:10 pm

    Orodemniades,

    Oh yeah, I’ve known a few other people who actually gained weight on a veg*n diet. Mostly,they hadn’t become vegan to lose weight so it wasn’t a big deal, but how odd to go all “skinny bitch” and then keep doing it despite getting results completely opposite from what you wanted. But I guess that’s the general dieting mentality for you.

    Shira,

    Of course you’re lying. Anyone following a vegan diet will be pasty white and weigh no more than 115lbs. This is because we are all genetically identical and our bodies are simple and highly predictable machines. Duh.

  9. January 3, 2008 10:25 pm

    Penny,

    The class issues surrounding veganism really aren’t talked about enough. Although I do think that it can become a bit of strawman as well since I’ve never heard people agitate as hard for changes in farm subsidies and the way food stamps are structured than some vegans. Other vegans however, like the “Skinny Bitch” authors, definitely completely overlook any possible class implications.

    I’m not wealthy, but now that I don’t live in a place of cheap and abundant produce, I spend a lot more money to eat. If I were living in poverty or had kids, making healthy, yummy and filling vegan food would absolutely be a challenge and until that changes, veganism will be impossible for lots of people.

    Oh, I have been cooking up a storm this holiday. I made some chai latte cupcakes that I was going to post some pics of, but they got eaten too quickly. I don’t weigh myself, but I’ve definitely been more comfortable in my larger size right fit jeans lately. :p

  10. Shira permalink
    January 9, 2008 1:19 pm

    Did I see the words “chai latte cupcakes”? How do you make those, then? I adore chai and I am sure that some point this year my body will permit me to have some sugar.

  11. January 9, 2008 7:48 pm

    It’s a recipe from “Vegan Cupcakes take over the World.”

    http://www.theppk.com/recipes/dbrecipes/index.php?RecipeID=386

    The only thing I change is that I use chai tea bags instead of mixing up the spices myself.

    They are heavenly!

  12. rebecca permalink
    January 11, 2008 5:58 pm

    Well, I agree and disagree. I’d been toying with the idea of going vegetarian for a while when I picked up Skinny Bitch – not knowing the content at all. It convinced me. Obviously I picked it up looking for a clever weight-loss book, but the environmental and animal rights issues that were addressed (however briefly and simply) PLUS the nutritional advice all convinced me to go vegetarian/vegan (I’m not super strict about ingredients, but I still find it pretty easy to avoid dairy and eggs).

    True, I was looking for a way to lose weight – but the environmental issues PLUS the health aspects of veganism are what keep me eating this way. And after 3 months, I actually HAVE lost 16 pounds – and for the first time found a style of eating that I am happy to stick to for the rest of my life. I try to eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods – more fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains than soy ice cream and french fries – but as long as it’s vegan, it’s allowed. However, when I’m craving nachos, is it the Skinny Bitch advice on weight loss that keeps me from eating them? Nope – it’s the knowledge that I’m doing something good for the the world.

    So maybe the idea of vegism as weight loss isn’t as bad for the cause as you think – the idea that I could lose weight was the tipping point for me, but the issues are what KEEP me on it. And once I started I found it mostly easy and totally delicious.

    Also, I do think any diet advocating whole, unprocessed foods would have produced the weight loss I’ve had – it’s not like I really attribute that to going veg. It’s just that somehow giving up meat and dairy has helped my cravings, so now I don’t feel the NEED to eat a ton of fries, or a pint of ice cream, or a package of cookies. Sure – sometimes. But I’m not constantly craving crap like I used to. Another thing – I don’t know if this has anything to do with my weight loss, but I suspect it does: my weight gain was due to medication and, even after 3 years off it, the weight just wasn’t coming off. I feel like a veg way of eating has really helped my body clean itself out from the effects of that medication, so it can start over and work better.

    So that’s my two cents worth.

  13. January 12, 2008 5:01 am

    Rebecca,

    I’ve had a few other people tell me something similar. That they were initially interested in the book b/c they wanted to lose weight and then became convinced by the ethical arguments.

    And really, I’m always happy to have more vegans, but I still don’t think the overall impact of the book will be positive for veganism and I don’t think it’s ok to throw fat people under the bus in order to make veganism more attractive.

    You have lost some weight going vegan. But if you go to just about any vegan forum or gathering out there and ask people what happened to their weight when they went vegan, you’ll find lots of people who gained weight or people who lost at first and then, after learning more about vegan cooking, gained it all back. Yes, you’ll find a few who lost weight and kept it off, but ime, the weight-loss isn’t significant…maybe 10% of their initial body weight.

    So, again, what happens when people follow all the “Skinny Bitch” rules and don’t lose weight or only lose a little or even gain some? How many people who were drawn to veganism at least in part by the promise of weight loss will stay vegan if it doesn’t work out?

    Honestly, I’m less concerned about how well the weight-loss hook works to get people to go vegan than I am with the awful, dehumanizing way that the book talks about fat people.

    The last chapter, which people often cite to prove that the authors really only want people to be healthy starts like this:

    “Don’t be a fat pig anymore.”

    And then there are gems like:

    “Healthy=Skinny. Unhealthy=fat.”

    and

    “Being a fat pig will hinder you, sober or drunk.”

    People are desperate to be thin. And people hate themselves for the “sin” of being fat. Playing into that desperation and into that hatred is just completely heinous to me.

  14. rebecca permalink
    January 13, 2008 2:55 am

    Well, as I said, I think any eating style that was healthy would have given me the same results – this is working (in my opinion), for the most part, because I started eating a lot more fresh, whole foods. And I’m going to disagree with you totally on the point that Skinny Bitch is promising something it can’t live up to. Sure, they promote veganism as a way to lose weight, and sure, simply going vegan won’t necessarily make you lose weight AT ALL.

    HOWEVER, the book promotes going vegan AND eating no refined sugar or bad fats. And THAT is good weight loss advice.

    I feel healthier – I’m not losing fast, but I am losing steadily, and I feel good about that. Your comment is awfully pessimistic, and sounds like what people say when they’re trying to “warn” you that your good luck isn’t going to last, and they just don’t want you to get your hopes up. Whether that’s the way you mean it or not (I suspect it’s not), it’s really just never helpful to tell people that the way they’re eating? The fact that they’ve gone vegan AND started eating way more whole, unprocessed foods? Well, don’t bother – IF you lose weight you’ll just gain it back, like everyone else. Some of us would like to believe we can make permanent changes in ourselves, and at the same time do something good and ethical.

    Whether it’s veganism or not, the book’s advice on eating whole, unprocessed foods has drastically cut my cravings, which was the reason I was never able to lose weight before (they were really pretty much uncontrollable).

    Also, I guess the book can be dehumanizing to fat people or not, depending on which parts you focus on. I didn’t read it as being rude about fat people at all (and I AM one, so I think I have some pretty strong grounds here) – here are the quotes I remembered after reading (I had to look them up to get them exactly, but this is what I took from it):

    “…for the love of God, don’t associate your worth with your appearance…our insides are much more important than our outsides.” (p. 191)

    “We conceived of the title, “Skinny Bitch,” to get attention and sell books…But we are not bitches, and we have no desire to promote bitchiness. There is nothing uglier than a pretty woman who’s nasty.” (p. 186)

    “Make healthy choices and take excellent care of yourself without getting neurotic and obsessive.” (p. 184)

    “We don’t want anyone to be obsessed with getting skinny. When you eat right and exercise, you feel strong and healthy and confident. You start loving your body – not because you lose weight – but because you feel great.” (p. 224)

    “So what if there is only one standard of beauty perpetuated by Hollywood that you don’t fit into? Don’t buy into that bullshit. Take excellent care of the body you were blessed with, and love, love, love it!” (p. 224)

    Like, I said in my first comment, I don’t disagree with your point completely – I just don’t agree with it either. I do think what Skinny Bitch advocates – no dairy (cheese! Oh, how I miss the cheese!), no refined sugar, and whole, unprocessed foods – WILL cut cravings and help you lose weight. I also think what it advocates – veganism – is just a good thing. Whether or not they do it the best way possible? Debatable – very.

    But I do think it’s important to point out, to those who don’t like the book because veganism – on it’s own – is not a valid weight loss option, that that IS NOT ALL the book advocates when it comes to weight loss. It doesn’t say that if you eat vegan junk food all the time you’ll still lose weight. If people read the book and come out with that message, they did NOT read it thoroughly. As for throwing fat people under the bus…I didn’t get that at all, but I can see how someone could. And I certainly don’t think fat people should be thrown under anything, unless it’s maybe a waterfall of money or chocolate or something pleasant.

    The end. (sorry for taking up so much room…)

  15. rebecca permalink
    January 13, 2008 2:55 am

    Oh my god, that’s WAY longer than I realized. I’m doubly sorry.

  16. January 13, 2008 3:46 am

    Never apologize for long comments! It’s always nice when something you write provokes a reaction.

    I think, at best, the book has a pretty contradictory message about fat people. I’m not sure you can call people fat pigs or talk about how fat will kill your social life and then tell people to love themselves and go after health rather than looking a certain way. Either the ‘fat pig’ talk is just to get attention (which is still pretty shitty as it’s a common thing that fat people get called in real life) or the love yourself message is hollow.

    As for this:
    “Your comment is awfully pessimistic, and sounds like what people say when they’re trying to “warn” you that your good luck isn’t going to last, and they just don’t want you to get your hopes up. ”

    This is a fat acceptance blog. And while I’m not out to knock people down or squash their hopes, I don’t think that diets work. If you’re interested in reading a bit more about that perspective here are a few links:

    http://babble.sneakykitty.com/index.php/2007/12/27/repeat-after-me

    http://kateharding.net/2007/04/12/diets-dont-work-but/

    My cynicism about dieting comes from personal experience and a lot of research on the efficacy of a multitude of dieting approaches.

    That doesn’t mean that I don’t see value in changing the way you (general you) eat or increasing exercise. Part of the reason I started this blog is that I’m a fat vegan who is also a bit of a health nut and I wanted to be able to show people that the rewards of ethical, nutritional food choices go far far beyond changes they might produce in your body.

    I too lost a bit of weight after I made a lot of changes in my diet and exercise habits. It didn’t make me thin and it eventually stopped even as those good habits continued. Not being a psychic, I have no idea of how it’ll go for you.

    But the point of this blog is to be a voice in the vegan community for body acceptance and health at any size as well as be an advocate for animal rights in the size acceptance community.

  17. rebecca permalink
    January 14, 2008 3:08 pm

    I am TOTALLY on board with diets not working. For a long time I dieted, always thinking, “Once I lose the weight I can eat what I REALLY want.” What I love about being vegetarian/vegan is that I don’t feel that way – sure, sometimes I want cheese (that’s the one thing I still crave!), but mainly it’s all about treating my body well, and this is something I can do for the rest of my life – and enjoy! – whether I lose weight on it or not; that’s not even the issue. Sure, I want to lose weight, but I don’t care so much about being “thin” as I do about just being healthy and able to do the things I want. Really, that’s kind of how I define thin – if you’re in good shape, and healthy, you’re thin as far as I’m concerned. And that will happen if you eat healthy foods and exercise – whether you’re vegan or not. I hope.

    And I do see what you mean about Skinny Bitch. Calling people “fat pigs” can certainly be hurtful. The way I read it, I took the way they use “fat pig” to mean how people feel about themselves, and how they treat themselves – like, if you eat crap and don’t exercise, you’re a “fat pig,” (in the Skinny Bitch world) whether you’re technically fat or thin or whatever. But you’re right – it could definitely be read differently; there’s no basis for my interpretation being better or more right than yours.

    So all in all, this is my experience, and what I believe: 1) Skinny Bitch was a GREAT thing for MY life and MY health, 2) I have made significant changes, for the better, in the way I eat since reading SB and going vegetarian/vegan, 3) Because of those changes, I am slowly but surely taking off the weight I gained from medication, 4) Because the weight was from the medication, I believe that the medication changed the way my body works, and a vegan/fewer processed foods style of eating is helping my body reset to how it worked before, 5) Fat has more to do with how you treat yourself than what size pants you wear, 6) A healthy diet is a good thing. A “diet” sucks big time, is punishing and pointless, and no one should EVER do it.

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