How do I lose weight as a vegan without counting calories?
June 21, 2010 2:59 PM   Subscribe

How do I lose weight as a vegan without counting calories?

I am a vegan and am very cautious about what kinds of foods I put into my body. (I don't eat white starches or sugars either.) Essentially my diet is made up of whole grains, vegetables, nuts and fruits. I have, however, still managed to maintain an excess of about 70 pounds from my pre-vegan days (I have been a vegan for about a year) that I would like to lose. This means that while I am eating healthfully, I am still eating too much, or too many fats and starches and not enough fruits and vegetables, or some other combination. I am not interested in/will never be able to take the time to count the calories of everything I eat. They don't make vegan food in 100 calorie packs, so it's not quite as simple as many other diet plans. As an addition, I do exercise for a half an hour or so about 5 days a week. What tips can you give me to help me drop some weight while not driving myself crazy counting everything I put in my mouth?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This is a very small point, but I would cut back on the nuts assuming you are eating a lot of them. I was astounded to find out how much a small handful tossed onto my salad was and when I'm snacking on nuts around the holidays I regularly would probably down somewhere from 500-1000 calories worth without even thinking about it. If you are having a few handfuls a day (and that seems somewhat common from the vegans I know), cutting way back might help.
posted by whoaali at 3:07 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

i'd look at the nuts first - what kinds, how much?

you say you won't count calories - but would you keep a food diary for a month? write down absolutely everything you eat (and the portion size) - you could even take a picture with your camera phone (if you have one), type 10 words about what you're eating, and text it to yourself. after the month, it might be incredibly easy to see what the problem is.

would you splurge on a few sessions with a nutritionist? a vegan trying to shed 70 pounds is the sort of thing you might need a professional to help you suss out - because you need to make sure you're losing weight but not skimping on the essentials.
posted by nadawi at 3:09 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Would you be willing to count exchanges? It should be easier for you than for people eating processed foods since you know exactly what you are eating.
posted by bgrebs at 3:12 PM on June 21, 2010

Some simple changes to think about: Watch the proportion of grain to veg. So instead of a big bowl of brown rice with veg on top, how about a big bowl of veg with a small serving of rice. And you might want to limit your fruit. I try to stick to one fruit a day, preferably first thing in the morning. (I know that's very, very hard during the summer.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:16 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

You aren't going to really get a sense of what exactly you are putting into your body until you start counting calories. And it really isn't all that time consuming. There's an app I have for my Droid which makes it super easy and I know they make it for other phones too. I'm also a vegan that avoids the same things you do, but man, I sometimes go way overboard on the calories. Once you get a little experience in exactly how many calories are in the things you eat, you'll be able to gauge things as you go and keep a tally in your head. The things that kill me the most in calories are nuts, fruit, fruit juice and hummus.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:20 PM on June 21, 2010

I forgot to add that if you aren't able to access an app through your phone, there are a ton of resources online to tell you how many calories are in the foods you eat.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:22 PM on June 21, 2010

Count 'servings' rather than calories. Once you know how much of each food is a serving (ie half a cup of oatmeal = one slice of bread = one grain serving), and once you know how many servings you should eat a day, it will probably help you quantify.

Perhaps an initial meeting with a nutritionist or dietician may help, since there isn't a lot of "for this weight, eat this" type of advice for vegans.
posted by Kololo at 3:27 PM on June 21, 2010

I have to agree that you should really count the calories for a short period of time. Even just a week or two should give you a good idea of what's going on. The first time I did it I was shocked (SHOCKED!) at how many calories some things had (tortillas I'm looking at you).
posted by grapesaresour at 3:29 PM on June 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think when you're eating fresh foods it's much easier to "count calories" compared to people trying to portion out bags of potato chips and boxes of processed food.

Is it that hard for you to find out how many calories a serving of each of the main staples of your diet are?
I find it very easy to make a rough estimate of the caloric value while preparing the meal. Use a site like to educate yourself on that.

You'll also need to figure out how many calories you're supposed to be taking in a day for any of that to mean much. (as well as many other sites) can give you a good estimate on that. All those are ESTIMATES though, you'll find through about a month of steady eating where your body is at, but the estimates are a good starting point.

You didn't give much information so it's going to be pot shots at why you are maintaining the same weight.
My guess is you aren't eating enough, your metabolism is at a crawl, you're not getting enough complete proteins, you're eating too many whole grains, and you're doing 30minutes of pretty lame steady state cardio. A carb heavy diet doesn't work well for many esp. for people that get next to no exercise.

I would cut out a lot of the whole grains and look at replacing them with sprouted grains. Your body has a much better way of digesting those (whole grains really aren't all that much better than regular crap bread\'s basically a lot of marketing)
Sprouted grains have a very low Glycemic Index AND they are a complete protein source! It's a win-win.

Eat as much beans and vegetables as you want...I'd really watch the whole grains and fruits though.
posted by zephyr_words at 3:36 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I also agree that, if you count calories for just a few days (say one or two weekends in a row if your weekdays are too busy), your intuition gets a million times better and then you can stop. It really, really, really helps. (In my case I was trying to gain weight.)
posted by zeek321 at 3:39 PM on June 21, 2010

Oh and look at adding more fats in your diet to make up what you lose in carbs. All natural peanut butter, olive oil, and I heard coconut oil is great for vegans if you aren't already including that in your diet.
posted by zephyr_words at 3:41 PM on June 21, 2010

Fitday or MyNetDiary. Seriously--counting calories is not that bad. If its too annoying to look shit up roughly 4x a day, you are probably eating too much. I am not saying this to be mean, but if you're eating a healthy diet, you're also eating way too many calories to be plateauing.
posted by shownomercy at 4:06 PM on June 21, 2010

I think you will see that exercising will make all the difference, especially if you maintain a diet of whole foods. Beware of really high-calorie produce like bananas and avocados. I personally don't eat more than one banana a day, the rest of the time I stick to greens and less dense produce like grapes and berries.
posted by thanksfive at 4:09 PM on June 21, 2010

Beware of really high-calorie produce like bananas.

Bananas are not a high-calorie food: there are about 120 calories in a large one, equivalent to about 16 almonds.
posted by halogen at 4:26 PM on June 21, 2010

If you want to lose weight and you don't want to count calories or otherwise track your diet, the remaining variable would seem to be exercise.

If you're not already doing weight training, I'd suggest adding it at least twice a week -- as a beginning lifter, you will gain muscle and lose weight if you stick with it, especially if you take care to eat a protein-y meal for dinner (quinoa, beans & rice, spinach, almond butter, and vegan protein powder are your friends). If you're not sure how to start with weights, check this AskMe question about how to learn to lift using the internet. There's plenty of good advice there.

This'll probably help in more ways than one, as adding protein is a good way to cut carbs, and cutting carbs is a good way to lose weight. It's especially easy for vegetarians and vegans to end up getting a large percentage of their calories from carbs...
posted by vorfeed at 4:31 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oops: by "at least twice a week" I mean "or three times a week", not "argh rar lift every day". Recovery is really important for exercise; you should try to have a day off from lifting between each session. Doing cardio that day is fine, though.
posted by vorfeed at 4:33 PM on June 21, 2010

Bananas are high-calorie compared to other produce though
posted by thanksfive at 4:52 PM on June 21, 2010

This is different for everybody, and I'm pretty wary of 'fad' diets, but dropping carbs altogether did it for me; and I'm mostly vegetarian. Cutting out grains completely and replacing them with veggies and particularly legumes was the key.

But, of course, I'm no expert, and this is just what worked for me.
posted by koeselitz at 5:28 PM on June 21, 2010

Lift Weights. Get huge. Maybe you won't get asked "Where do you get your protein?" all the time. Let me know.

Do you drink much beer?
posted by low affect at 5:56 PM on June 21, 2010

I am going to recommend a blog to you, which is written by a woman who is both on a weight loss journey and a vegan. I bring to you: BitchCakes.

She links to a ton of vegan blogs, blogs a ton about being vegan and what she eats, and is super honest about losing weight and what she chooses to put in her body. She is awesome, and if you have a question, if she can at all, she will answer your email and/or blog about your email/question. I cannot recommend her enough.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:35 PM on June 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

You said you didn't want to count every thing you put in your mouth. I can understand that - but I think you'd be surprised how much we actually eat without thinking about it. Also, there are many food we think are good that are actually really really calorie heavy - like fruit juice. (It has the same # of calories, oz for oz, as pop.) Nuts are good fats, but more than a dozen or so and the calories will add up fast! Even healthy, grainy breads - there are an easy 300 calories in a bagel, for example. When you are counting calories and are only eating 1500 a day, that one bagel is 1/5 of your daily calories, before anything is added!

I just finished losing 50 lbs (and over 25% of my original body weight) using weight watchers, and I can't believe how bad some things really are. I had no idea. And portions are so out of control. If you eat less, your stomach will shrink and you will feel full sooner. But those first couple of weeks getting there - yeah, they suck. But in the end, it boils down to simply eating less, eating smart, and exercising. In that order - or at least that's how it worked for me.
posted by cgg at 6:53 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I strongly echo koeselitz and zephyr_words' advice about dropping the carbs/grains as much as you can. They don't have much nutritive value for what they give you. I also think fruit is pretty much bullshit since vegetables offer the same deal with less sugar.

As a former vegan, I know that carbs are lots of fun to eat and extremely comforting especially when you're famished, but after reading Good Calories, Bad Calories, I'm fairly convinced that calories are not created equal. Carbs (in whole grains, in cookies, in strawberries alike) make you hungrier faster, teach your body to hang on to excess fat, and simply aren't worth the intake for someone looking to lose weight. It will be harder to accept this lifestyle change as a vegan than as a carnivore, but if you're really set on not counting calories, then you need to know how different foods affect your body's willingness to store fat. Look into dramatically increasing your proteins (almonds, walnuts, soy protein powder) and cutting down your starches.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:10 PM on June 21, 2010

re: nuts, I'm not sure I believe it but Lyle McDonald had an interesting post a while back that posited that nuts do not end up negatively impact body weight. I don't personally

Personally, I think if you don't want to count calories, you have to give up most of the grains in favor of veggies. Salads, not sandwiches. Limit the quantity of grains you eat and fill up the balance with green veggies. If that doesn't work, then you can resort to counting calories, but no need to give into that immediately.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:23 PM on June 21, 2010

One thing I might add, again with the caveat that everybody is different – and I mean it, every body is different, and what works for one won't always work for another; it's all about getting to know your body –

In my case, I discovered that what really, really mattered was aerobic excercise. That is, I had to be doing continuous exercise, and it had to be something that got my blood rate up for at least ten minutes and made me break a sweat and breathe hard. I did a whole bunch of muscular stuff (probably not enough, but between half an hour a day to an hour a day) for a long time, and it had very little effect on my body. Whereas adding running for twenty minutes a day to that has had an enormous impact on the way my whole body feels; my lungs, my upper body, my lower body, etc. There have been times in my life when swimming or biking did the same thing for me; I think one of these three things can be a really important part of exercise. For me, at least, aerobic exercise, the kind that gets you breathing more and moving around for a prolonged amount of time, was essential.
posted by koeselitz at 7:51 PM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing you should count calories for a period of time, even if you don't plan to make it a habit. Calories in/out is the most (if not only) important factor in weight gain/loss. There's just no other way to get a sense of the relative energy weight of what you eat.

A word of caution about exercise: it makes you hungry. And especially if you're vehemently opposed to counting calories, you probably eat enough to more than compensate for whatever you burn.
posted by ista at 8:16 PM on June 21, 2010

Fruit is the world's easiest 100 calorie pack. A big apple, a banana, a grapefruit. Most of us eat the same foods frequently. Get a sense of what 100 calories of those food look like. You don't need to get absolutely nitpickity about it; just eyeball it and keep a mental tally all day. You'll still benefit even if you don't take up calorie counting as a religion.

How are you preparing your foods. Are you adding fats? Sauteing veggies? Even healthy oils are part of the equation. As mentioned above, those nuts are yummy calorie bombs.

Thirty minutes a day of exercise is great, but you need to factor in intensity. Your current exercise plan might be excellent when you want to maintain your weight, but not enough to help you lose.

The last item is picking food that are high in volume, but low in calorie density. These are foods that are higher in water content and fiber (the good old fruits and veggies and their unprocessed state). For 100 calories you can have 2 cups of watermelon, a bit less than a cup of peas or 14 cups of raw spinach. Water and fiber greatly increase the volume of food without bumping up calories. Nuts are pretty much the opposite - small, very little water content. For 100 calories you can have 1/8 of a cup of cashews. The book Volumetrics gives a great overview of this. It's not vegan specific, but the concepts are sound and would apply to someone who's following a vegan lifestyle.
posted by 26.2 at 8:21 PM on June 21, 2010

I agree that counting calories for a few days is necessary. I think that it would be good to really analyze the calorie breakdown two.

For one week, measure and write DOWN everything you eat. Record the amount, food and time that you eat things. (Make sure that this week is representative of you typical food behavior) Enter this information into an online diet analyzer like FitDay. Many times people are surprised by how much they eat when they write it down. Also people are often surprised about the hidden calories in their food (This are calories that you add though cooking, like oil for example).

FitDay is free and it will tell you where the calories are coming from and what nutrients are currently present and absent in your diet. Sometimes, nutrient deficiencies can cause body weight issues.

It can also help you determine what your calorie needs are for you age, weight, gender and activity level.

From here you can see how many calories you need to eat to lose weight and how many you are eating and it will help you make adjustments from there.
posted by neanderloid at 9:29 PM on June 21, 2010

My nutritionist suggested counting servings vs. calories. If you decide that a reasonable allowance of carbs is five servings, and you have a good sense of what constitutes a serving (ie. 1/4 of a bagel, or a 1/2 cup of brown rice or an apple or whatever), then it's pretty easy to just portion that through your day, along with however many protein servings (2-3). Beyond that, you want to eat small amounts of healthy fats, and then fill in the gaps with vegetables. This gave me a good sense of balance in my day (ie. I'm going out to eat for dinner & will save up my carb & protein servings for that) without making me feel like I was making myself crazy tracking things at the calorie level.
posted by judith at 11:18 PM on June 21, 2010

Nuts are a garnish, not a food. Yes, they contain protein. But when eating them, think "I'll have two almonds and three walnuts" rather than "I'll have a handful of almonds and walnuts." Each nut is a calorie package unto itself.

Also, you didn't mention this, but if you're buying and consuming any packaged or prepared vegan food, such as granola, stop right now. Even though the shelves (and profits) of health food stores are groaning under the weight of these products, they're laced with sugars. Of course, the sugars are supposedly healthy ones like honey or agave, but they still pack an incredible caloric punch. Worse, stuff like granola is often sold in bulk, and it's hard to verify the calorie count (unless you go online). When I checked the calories for my favorite granola on the internet, I discovered that as much as 1/3 of my daily allotment was coming from my breakfast "cereal." Half a cup contained 270 calories. Wow.

In short, avoid all processed, packaged or prepared food, no matter where it's sold. That "healthy" granola sold at your natural food store at a premium price? It can equal or exceed the caloric count of Cheerios. An that goes for protein bars, health food "cookies," carob brownies and the rest. These products may be free of preservatives, maybe, but they're loaded with calories.
posted by Gordion Knott at 5:53 AM on June 22, 2010

A little late to this game, but the book Eat To Live recommends a vegan diet and has been great for my waistline. It emphasizes eating a very large amount of leafy greens and fruit, rather than restriction. It's about eating better food, rather than less.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:01 AM on June 22, 2010

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