Natalie Portman is a vegan. So are Ginnifer Goodwin, Lea Michele and Tobey Maguire. Ellen DeGeneres slimmed down after going vegan; Alicia Silverstone said that “magically, all this weight came off” when she switched; and Alanis Morissette said it helped her drop 20 pounds. Veganism is exploding: Restaurants and blogs abound, and more than half of the 1,527 chefs who took the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2011” survey cited vegan entrees as a top trend. But what does it mean to go vegan, anyway? Could it help your health and waistline? We got answers to the most pressing questions.
How Is It Different Than Being a Vegetarian?
A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat animal flesh, whereas a vegan doesn’t eat anything that comes from an animal—even, say, dairy or eggs, says Kathy Freston, author of the new book Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World (and the person who convinced Oprah to go vegan twice!). A vegan diet also excludes gelatin, which is derived from the bones and tissues of animals. In fact, some vegans avoid all products with animal origins—not just foods, but also leather, wool and silk. Even some soaps and candles (those made with tallow, an animal-based fat) are off-limits. But a vegan diet is not the same as the “raw” diet (in which foods aren’t heated beyond 118*F); plenty of cooked foods, explains Freston, are just fine for vegans.
Sounds Tough. Why Do It?
Many people become vegan because of animal-rights or environmental concerns. (While there’s no data on vegan diets, one study found that vegetarian diets used 2.9 times less water and 2.5 times less energy in food production than a diet containing meat and poultry.) Others choose veganism for the health benefits: Research has suggested that vegans tend to be at healthier weights, with lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure than meat eaters—and some studies show that vegan diets may reduce the risk of diabetes and certain types of cancer. “I credit a vegan diet with how strong I feel and how healthy I’ve become,” says Kris Carr, author of Crazy Sexy Diet, who went vegan after being diagnosed with a rare, incurable stage IV leukemia in 2003. “My weight came into balance, my skin got better, and my cholesterol dropped. I haven’t had a cold in eight years.” These benefits make sense when you consider that vegans generally eat less of the harmful stuff the rest of us ingest (like saturated fat and cholesterol) and more of what’s healthy (like fiber, magnesium, potassium and vitamins C and E). But the key word here is generally. “Being vegan can be healthy, but it is not automatically so—it’s a matter of nutritional balance,” says Walter Willett, M.D., chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Many women who cut animal foods from their diet end up tired, hungry and deficient in things like protein and iron, Dr. Willett cautions. “Vegans need to pay extra attention to what they’re eating to make sure they’re getting enough nutrients,” he says.
Can You Really Lose Weight on a Vegan Diet?
“I’m seeing more people going vegan because they’ve heard it can help them lose weight,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., author of The Flexitarian Diet, who estimates that the average weight of a vegan is up to 15 percent less than that of someone who eats meat—which translates to 20 to 25 pounds for the average woman. She and Cynthia Sass, R.D., agree that a vegan diet can lead you to drop pounds. “If by going vegan, you end up eating more veggies, fruit, whole grains, beans and lentils than you were before, then it can be a way to reduce calories without feeling like you are,” says Sass, author of Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. “But I see a lot of junk-food vegans who overdo it with chips, vegan cookies and vegan candy.” (Consider: One 1-ounce Uncle Eddies Vegan Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookie contains 140 calories; one regular 1-ounce Chips Ahoy Chewy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookie actually has less—120 calories.) Follow that kind of vegan diet and you could end up gaining.
What Should I Do If I Want to Try It?
Plan carefully: You can’t just eat what you’re eating now, minus the meat; you’d be protein-deprived and exhausted. The easiest way to ensure you’re getting enough protein, iron and zinc is to swap in legumes wherever you’d eat meat, Blatner says. Use extra beans instead of ground beef in chili, or stuff a pita pocket with lentil salad instead of turkey.
Adding soy can also help you rack up protein. Snack on edamame, add extra-firm tofu to stir-fries and the silken kind to smoothies, and gulp soy milk fortified with vitamin D and calcium, two nutrients you may lose when you ditch dairy. (Keep it to one to three servings of soy a day; some experts have concerns that too much soy could be unhealthy.) Fortified orange juice and almond milk can also be sources of calcium and D.
Another challenge to contend with: Vegans may not get enough vitamin B12, which keeps nerve cells firing properly and is plentiful in fish, meat, eggs and dairy, but nearly nonexistent in plants, Dr. Willett says. Fortified cereals can help with this shortfall. And since fish is off the menu, reach for walnuts and flaxseed as sources of heart-healthy omega-3s. Nutritionists recommend vegans take a multivitamin, too, for insurance.
If all of this sounds like too much work—or if life without steak or eggs makes you cringe—consider scaling back the amount of animal foods you eat, going somewhat but not entirely vegan. “You don’t need to be a strict vegan to get most of the benefits of a primarily plant-based diet,” says Dr. Willett, who himself is not a vegan (in fact, most top nutritionists and M.D.s aren’t). “Adding modest amounts of eggs, dairy foods, fish and poultry can provide a diet that is just as healthy—and perhaps healthier.”