Health

Beyond Veganuary: Is going plant-based a smart way to lose weight?

Laura Banks / Sumaya Tarabi Image copyright Laura Banks / Sumaya Tarabi

Search for #Veganuary on Instagram and you'll find meatless burgers, dairy-free croissants and porridge topped with just about every plant-based food you can think of.

You'll also find people posing in gym wear, adverts for "diet" protein powders and posts about weight loss.

People do Veganuary for a wide range of ethical and health reasons. For some it's weight loss - especially if they're inspired by celebrities like Beyonce, whose pre-Coachella diet was described by nutritionists as potentially dangerous.

But is it a viable or healthy way to shed pounds in January, or in the long-run?

For Laura Banks, 23, losing weight was one of the main drives behind doing Veganuary, and she has been documenting her progress on Instagram.

"I do feel a lot more healthy," she says, three weeks in. "But I've had a similar weight loss to when I was an omnivore."

Image copyright Laura Banks
Image caption Laura Banks says she had a similar weight loss to when she was an omnivore

She says she feels adequately informed about maintaining a balanced diet because she studies nutrition at university, and stresses the importance of planning meals ahead.

One challenge she's found to weight loss, however, is the availability of vegan fast-food - especially since she doesn't have enough room in her student accommodation to store the fresh produce she'd like to buy.

Sam Calvert, spokeswoman for the Vegan Society, stresses that being vegan doesn't necessarily mean being slim, and that whether or not you lose weight by going plant-based will depend on what you eat.

"You can eat nothing but vegan chocolate and chips and be vegan, but you won't lose weight and it won't be good for you," she says.

She adds that veganism is a broader "belief" that goes beyond diet, and hopes that ethical considerations are the main reason people choose to stay vegan after January.

Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert takes issue with celebrities promoting vegan diets.

She thinks Veganuary is founded on "good motives", but that doing it to lose weight is "not very sustainable" if shedding pounds is a long-term goal.

Image copyright Rhiannon Lambert
Image caption Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert takes issue with celebrities promoting vegan diets.

"Straight away if you have one month in your head, or one way of eating in your head, you're limiting yourself and making it harder for yourself to keep up those changes," she says.

She urges people considering going plant-based after January to make small changes such as meat-free Mondays.

This way your body can get used to having fewer animal products over time, rather than having to cope with a sudden change that can be a "shock" for the digestive system, she says.

She adds that people who do go plant-based need to ensure they get enough protein, iodine, calcium, B12, iron, vitamin D and omega 3.

Toni Vernelli, spokeswoman for Veganuary, says people who signed up through the campaign's official website receive daily emails about nutrition.

She stresses that going vegan "doesn't mean deprivation" but, like Laura, says it does require common sense and planning.

'I wasn't very educated'

Sumaya Tarabi, a vegan food blogger from west London, says she didn't know enough about nutrition when she became vegan at 15, and warns people against going plant-based to look like "skinny" Instagram influencers like she did.

"I wasn't very educated so I used veganism as a way to restrict myself," she says, adding that she was "constantly starving" because she didn't know enough about nutrition.

Image copyright Sumaya Tarabi
Image caption Sumaya Tarabi says she "wasn't very educated" about veganism when she was a teenager

She says she also exercised excessively, and was forced to reassess her diet and attitude when a treadmill she had been setting up collapsed on her because she was too weak to hold it.

Now 18, Sumaya follows vegan influencers who promote strength and a balanced diet.

She wants people who want to go plant-based after Veganuary to make sure they know how to fuel their bodies.

"I realised I can be vegan and I can be healthy... I don't need to be super-thin," she says.

'Spot the signs'

Tom Quinn, spokesman for eating disorder charity Beat, says some people with eating disorders may use veganism as a "socially acceptable" way to follow a restrictive diet.

"It may make it harder for people around them to spot the signs," he says.

However, he adds that for those in recovery, meal plans can provide "reassurance and stability".

He says more research is needed into the "risks" that veganism could potentially pose for those who already have problematic relationships with food.

After Sumaya's accident, her mother told her to pause her vegan diet and gain weight - and now Sumaya wants other parents to keep tabs on their children's eating habits too.

"Check [your children's] habits, make sure they're eating enough, and make sure that they're not... following influencers and YouTubers that are talking about random life hacks and silly fitness things that aren't backed up with science," she says.

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