Today, a reader asks:
I went vegan on May 1. I have been struggling with 20 pounds I need to lose for a few years. No matter what I eat, it seems to stick around. I went vegan for health and moral reasons, so I am not changing that, but I wonder-should I do strict Eat to Live diet or something and keep out carbs and oil for awhile to lose it? I also don’t want to run or lift weights.
I like your approach–it seems really balanced. Can you share your vegan/exercise path with me, please?
Dear New Vegan,
Congratulations on embarking on your vegan journey!! You are in for an amazing transformation–and physical change is just one of the changes, although a really joyful one. But you shouldn’t expect to get to your goal weight overnight. Although some new vegans lose a substantial amount of weight quickly and keep it off, don’t feel anxious if your body doesn’t react the same way. After all, 20 lbs is a whole lot of weight. Imagine 20 lbs of free weights–and trying to get that much off of your body.
For most women, losing more than 5-10 lbs of weight quickly can lead to sallow skin, dull hair, even temporary loss of your period–making you feel less pretty and vibrant, not more. This is on top of the psychological burden that comes with depriving yourself, both physically and emotionally. For most of us food isn’t just fuel; it’s nourishment, culture, love, and delight. To reach your “happy weight,” where you feel confident and sexy as well as healthy and vibrant, it’s important to emphasize these qualities of food and not just view it as either forbidden or fueling.
I haven’t always had such a beautiful relationship with my body, but these days I feel better than ever. I haven’t counted calories in five years, or weighed myself in about two years. I never obsess over what I ate/will eat, or keep a food journal. I always eat as much as I want and almost always exactly what I want. And I still fit into clothes from 5 years ago. In most stores I wear a size 4, size 27, or a medium (I’m 5′ 7) and I feel happy in clothes. Here are some tips about diet and exercise that helped me reach a healthy relationship with my body.
1. Don’t count calories. Instead, eat mostly whole, unprocessed, and home-cooked foods. Despite what the mainstream “experts” tell you, it’s not a calorie math. If it were simple as calories in v. calories out, we wouldn’t have a weight problem. There is no one, myself included, who could feel satisfied and stay thin on a low-calorie/low-sugar/low-fat diet of un-wholesome foods. Your body is not a machine that burns all food equally for a single calorie currency. It’s a complex organism and the nutrients you receive from food determines your metabolism, your brain, your gut flora, and ultimately how lean you are. Here’s a study that shows that even controlling for the number of calories, people who eat more fruits and vegetables have lower BMI and smaller waistline than others.
When you’re eating home-cooked, mostly unprocessed vegan foods, your taste buds and satiety levels will change. And when you’re eating wholesome, lovingly prepared foods, you are much less likely to have cravings and much more likely to have energy to go to yoga or for a walk.
2. Don’t think of foods as just good v. bad. Think of meals as a time to reconnect with your body and share with your loved ones. How do you want to nourish yourself and your family? When you think this way, you make healthier choices naturally and enjoy them more. Most health magazines say you’ll lose weight eating a mesclun salad with bottled dressing and a tiny piece of protein (most likely meat). Who would feel satisfied eating like that? But a delicious vegan peperonata over polenta or sushi bowl with carrot ginger dressing, say, or vegan sunshine burgers, something colorful, fun, and flavorful, will truly satisfy you.
Involve your family in a positive way. Make meals something you enjoy together as a couple. Go to the farmer’s market together and pick out vegetables, or make a date night out of cooking aromatic foods with fresh herbs (so romantic!). If you have a backyard, plant a little garden!
3. Stock up on produce. The only thing in a box that I keep in my pantry is pasta. There is literally nothing processed in my kitchen I can snack on (not even bread), except non-dairy milk. It was never a conscious choice but something that became a habit. Spend your money on ingredients, nothing pre-made. If I need to snack, I might make a quick smoothie or homemade hummus, steam some vegetables, or (most often) just eat a piece of fruit.
4. Embrace satiating ingredients rich in healthy fats, umami, and protein. My main meals are built around plenty of colorful vegetables (with some whole grains, polenta, pasta, or root veggies, as needed). But you also need more filling ingredients like chickpeas, black beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, seitan, for protein and satiety. Healthy fats like avocado, olives, tahini, almond butter, and walnuts almost always make a meal better. For cheesy, umami-rich flavors, experiment with nutritional yeast, miso, sundried tomatoes, capers, herbs and spices.
5. Make exercise a priority. Even if you don’t enjoy weightlifting or running, there are other ways to be active. Don’t take up something just because other people recommend it for weight loss. The whole point is for you to enjoy it so you do it regularly and joyfully. I don’t lift heavy weights, nor do I belong to a gym. On the other hand, I absolutely love yoga, barre (a welcome reminder of my dance training), running outside, and body weight exercises.
Find a motivation for fitness beyond weight loss or beauty. What makes you want to be fitter? Personally, I started running in earnest as cross training for dance; I needed more stamina to be a better dancer. These days I workout because I need to be a better writer and editor, and (cat) mom, etc, and that requires fitness. (How Murakami of me!) I am active most days of the week–about 5-6 days, 45-90 mins each. On days I don’t formally workout or run, I walk around.
6. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. Following 1-5, you become in tune with your body’s needs. You don’t have to eat at 9 a.m. if you’re not hungry yet. If you’re hungry at 9 p.m., you can eat. If you’re hungry one day, you can eat more…and if you really listen to your body, you might realize you’re less hungry the next day. A meal might be a green smoothie, a big farmer’s market salad, or a warming bowl of creamy vegan pasta–all depending on your appetite and season. And each can be just as satisfying.
Trust your body, and your body will trust you too–and send signals for the right foods at the right time, not a desperate call for tons of dessert, fries, and sugar. Healthy hunger signals don’t feel frantic or nerve-racking–they even feel good, especially after a vigorous workout.
7. Sleep and Hydration. Make sure you get at least 7 hours of sleep every night, and drink plenty of water. I like to drink raw coconut water, lemon water, herb teas, or most often just plain water.
To summarize #1-6, it’s not about restriction, no carbs, no sugar, no fat, “Eat to Live,” or working out like a demon that’s going to get your body to it’s happy, vibrant state. It’s nurturing yourself with physically and spiritually wholesome, fresh foods and exercise. I don’t obsess over getting a perfect body because my body is a home, not a temple. And this body, with its flaws, has been up for any challenge, and taken me wherever I needed to go. When you appreciate your body this way, you can find the right balance of health, fitness, pleasure, and satisfaction.
For more helpful healthy living articles, recipes, and workouts, you’ve no better place than Peaceful Dumpling! 🙂 Congratulations on becoming a vegan, and please keep me posted about your progress!
More reader questions: I Need Help Finding an Engagement Ring for my Vegan Girlfriend
Photo: Mary Hood; Cleber Mori via Flickr; Peaceful Dumpling