Unlimited Eating For Vegan Weight Loss!
It’s something we’ve heard a lot of people in the vegan community tout over the years. If you’re considering a buffet of low fat, unprocessed whole plant foods, you can eat as much of it as you want and still lose weight. Banana Smoothies? Brown Rice? Eat till satisfied. Never track calories.
But does this advice really work? Will you end up overeating and not losing any weight at all, or perhaps even gaining weight?
Drawing on scientific research into the subject, my own personal weight loss success, and seven years of coaching people to help them with their vegan weight loss attempts, I can offer an unequivocal answer: Yes And No. It depends, really. 🙂
Clearly, the unlimited eating approach works for plenty of people, but many fail to lose weight, or at least don’t see as much fat loss as they’d like. This is the case even if they’ve dialed in caloric dilution to the hilt.
In this article we’ll quickly review some of the prevailing advice vegan weight loss advocates give, talk about whether there’s any science behind their claims, and then I’ll dive into my personal experience with losing more than 60 pounds and what many years of weight loss coaching has lead me to believe.
The Flavors Of Vegan Weight Loss
There are dozens of authorities peddling their own version of the ultimate vegan weight loss diet. Here’s a quick overview of where some of the more popular authority figures stand on the issue.
Dr. John McDougall’s (Starch Solution, et al) Message: Unlimited eating from his list of approved, whole starchy foods will lead to weight loss, though you’ll sometimes hear an addendum for those who aren’t losing weight: eat as much as you want, but practice eating with caloric density and caloric dilution in mind, and be careful to stop eating as soon as hunger slackens. Don’t count calories.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s (The End Of Dieting, et al) Message: This diet is calorically diluted and micronutrient rich, so you can lose weight while eating till satisfied, so long as you stick to the foods he suggests. Don’t count calories.
Raw Food Vegan Diets: It’s a mixed bag. Some say eat as much as you want. The 80/10/10 Diet does describe weight loss through caloric restriction, but my experience with the author, Doug Graham, is that he suggests active but overweight people should be able to lose weight on an unrestricted version of his diet because fruit is already calorically dilute, and it can be further diluted through upping the intake of greens.
Rip Esselstyn’s (Engine Two Diet, et al) Message: – Vegan weight loss is easy when you eat as Eat as much as you want from healthy low fat plant foods. Don’t count calories.
Dr. Alan Goldhamer’s (The Pleasure Trap, et al) Message: To lose weight, eat nonstimulating, low fat, unprocessed whole plant foods until satisfied to lose weight. He approves of intermittent fasting as a way to curb caloric intake if people don’t lose weight on this regime. He doesn’t suggest people track calorie intake.
Strangely there are even numerous vegan gurus on youtube who will demand you eat enough to hit their arbitrary caloric target, even if you’re not hungry, and even if you’re gaining weight. I addressed how bizarre this approach was with my eat-as-much-as-I-wanted-from-low-fat-raw-foods weight gain experiment video.
The Science Behind Unlimited Eating For Vegan Weight Loss
What do scientific studies say about the unlimited-eating-so-long-as-it’s-healthy vegan weight loss approach to slimming down?
We actually have good reason to believe that it does wonders, at least for some.
When it comes to the best steps for bringing about sustainable weight loss in obese people, there isn’t a well-documented strategy that works long term. Plenty of studies have put people on low-calorie diets and forced them to exercise a ton, but the participants usually regain all the weight after the study ends because they can’t sustain the exercise or the lower-than-desired amount of food intake. This is the strategy we see so dramatically backfire again and again in The Biggest Loser.
But a recent study putting obese people on a program of unlimited eating from low fat whole plant foods without caloric restriction or tracking has demonstrated what researchers call, “greater weight loss at 6 and 12 months than any other trial that does not limit energy intake or mandate regular exercise.”1
After six months, participants lost an average of 12.1 kg (26.6 lbs), with one person losing an impressive 28.3 kg (62.6 lbs). Over the next six months, despite the study being over and no more support or advice being given, the participants regained an average of only 0.6 kg, a bit more than one pound.
This is hardly the first study to get similar results. Back in the 1940s, the extremely strict Kempner Rice Diet recorded (in a series of case studies) average weight losses of 63.9 kg (140.5 lbs) in obese patients 2.
Although focused on Multiple Sclerosis and not weight loss, the overweight subjects in John McDougall’s MS study lost an average of 19 pounds eating all the whole plant foods they wanted. However, notably, all their weight loss occurred in the first six months, and then plateaued at an average BMI of 27.8, which is still overweight. The participants’ weight increased over the last six months 3.
So clearly, there’s something to this unlimited eating thing. It works well for the obese, but maybe it’s not a universal weight loss panacea.
What you won’t find much of in the published literature are studies showing this method working as reliably for people who are merely a few pounds overweight, or trying to finish slimming down to what most consider an aesthetically pleasing lower body fat level. Future research may document such an effect, but there’s little we can point to currently.
My Vegan Weight Loss Coaching Clients:
Over the last seven years I’ve worked with dozens of coaching clients who had the specific or secondary goal of losing weight. Some were obese or very overweight, while others were merely a few pounds from their ideal.
I’ve variably suggested either unlimited eating or eating to hit a caloric target based on their specific goals, how far they are from their ideal weight, what other health conditions they have, and what their preferred form of exercise is.
My experience is that obese and very overweight people will almost always lose weight if they stick to whole, low-fat plant foods and practice caloric dilution (with several exceptions for binge eaters I’ve worked with). Some of them continue to lose weight until they’ve reached their ideal body composition, but many hit plateaus at least once and need to have their program modified.
Those starting off 30 pounds or less from their ideal can sometimes rapidly lose weight with unlimited eating and caloric dilution, but often it doesn’t work.
It’s a matter of varying margins of error.
If you’re a 300lb, 5’6 woman who’s fairly sedentary and you want to slim down to 130 lbs, you can eat anything less than 2,517 calories per day and you’ll continuously lose at least some weight. Adding some exercise will increase your caloric burn even further. With that kind of wiggle room, doing simple things like stopping the consumption of processed foods, drinking only water, and avoiding fatty oils and animal products will likely lead to weight just falling off you without too much effort.
But by the time you’ve gotten down to 140lbs, the loss of body mass has shaved almost a thousand calories from your total daily energy expenditure. You’ll now need to keep your calorie consumption under 1,646 every day if you want to continue to lose weight. But by this point, all the low hanging fruit is gone. You already cut the high-calorie junk and animal foods from your diet and reaped the benefits. Now you’re just consuming whole unprocessed plant foods.
You can further dilute your meals with more greens and low-calorie vegetables, and that might work, but if your appestat takes awhile to kick in while you’re eating, or you just like to eat a lot of food and be full, you might not actually lose any more weight with this method.
Although I sometimes suggest dialing down on caloric dilution, it’s at this point that I often tell my coaching clients to begin doing one of two things. One option is beginning some version of intermittent fasting but eating unlimited food during their eating window, and the second is to start tracking calories with a food scale and an app and start shooting for a target.
Doing this doesn’t make them a failure, physiologically broken, or indicate that they’re “doing it wrong,” despite what people will try to tell them. Many of them find this approach less stressful than guessing about whether or not they’re eating too much, and they’re certainly pleased that to see their weight loss start up again.
If they’re willing to put in the work, a healthy diet and a good program can get them there, and caloric dilution can make it a lot more satisfying. But simply being aware of intake can make a huge difference and take a mental load off.
My Own Vegan Weight Loss Story
I weighed 220 lbs when I was 17 years old, and that was long before I started to build muscle through strength training. I qualified as obese and was pretty miserable.
But by simply reducing my caloric density and exercising for a couple hours three times a week, I starting shedding weight.
I stopped drinking the milk I’d once had at most meals and replaced it with water. I almost totally excluded soda at the same time. In place of the processed deserts I’d once had most nights, I ate fruit instead. With this simple routine I dropped down to 190 pounds inside of a year, but eventually my weight plateaued.
Perhaps a year later I started eating a mostly-low-fat, unprocessed cooked vegan diet and took up running. This shaved another 10 pounds off me, but I was still overweight.
Awhile later, my worsening colitis forced me to adopt a raw food diet, and another 10 pounds fell off me. But after that initial loss, my body fat levels plateaued for over a year. I tried to decrease caloric density, but I always naturally ate more food than my body needed to support a lower weight.
After awhile I just gave up and started running a small calorie deficit, and eventually I got down to 158 pounds without all that much trouble or suffering. It took more attention to my intake, certainly, but it’s not like I was ever more than mildly hungry.
I’ve put on about 30lbs of muscle since I started strength training in 2011, and you might imagine that I could just go back to eating as much food as I like, but I find this is not the case. If I eat as much as I want, even from calorically diluted, low-fat plant foods, I will gain weight – end of story.
In fact, I demonstrated that I could get fat eating all I wanted on a low fat raw vegan diet in this video.
Over the last two years you may have noticed (if you watch my videos) that I’ve gained and lost weight twice. This is because I’m doing a weight loss/gain experiment with several varied nutritional factors. I’ll be talking about these when the second phase wraps up later this year.
But for each of the weight gain phases I simply started eating as much as I wanted, but from the same low fat plant foods I always eat. On each occasion my weight effortlessly increased to around 190 pounds (Keep in mind, I have much more muscle on me now, so 190 pounds currently is different than the 190 pounds I was at after I hit my first plateau at age 17.)
I also find it much less of a mental burden to simply have at least a loose tally of my caloric consumption in my head, which is pretty easy when you eat tons of fruit and whole unprocessed vegan food.
I’ve been criticized for this stance. People have accused me of not eating right because, after all, low at vegan food is a universal panacea to not only body fat woes, but all other health problems, so I must not be doing it right. Other have told me that I’m not mentally centered enough. As a daily meditator I disagree – I think I’m quite In the moment when I’m eating.
But at the end of the day, you’re not going to please everyone.
My Advice For Vegan Weight Loss:
If you want to lose weight but don’t want to track calories, feel free to try eating as much as you want from low fat, unprocessed plant foods.
It works for a lot of people. More whole raw fruits and leafy greens will always help with caloric dilution and satiety. You just might find this approach lets you hit your bodyweight goal. Even if you end up tracking calories, caloric dilution will help by leaving you better satiated, and improve the nutrient density of your meals.
But if you’re not losing weight on the unlimited plan, or your weight loss stalls out after awhile, just start tracking calories and eating a small deficit. You’ll likely find it the more surefire approach, and less stressful than worrying about how well your appestat is functioning that day. Even my coaching clients who restrict their calories a bit tell me they don’t feel fuel-deprived while doing it, so long as they’re making the right food choices.
Want some tips on stopping the urge to overeat on an unlimited vegan weight loss diet? Check out this article and video.
Want to know why some people can get away with eating tons of even the most unhealthy food without gaining much weight? Check out my video on NEAT.
Weight, N. Et al. The BROAD study: A randomised controlled trial using a whole food plant-based diet in the community for obesity, ischaemic heart disease or diabetes Nutrition & Diabetes (2017) 7, e256; doi:10.1038/nutd.2017.3 ↩
Kempner, et al. Treatment of massive obesity with rice/reduction diet program. An analysis of 106 patients with at least a 45-kg weight loss. Arch Intern Med 1975; 135: 1575–1584.↩
Yadav, Vijayshree. Et al. Low-fat, plant-based diet in multiple sclerosis: A randomized controlled trial. Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders 9 (2016) 80–90↩