We are excited to have Ginny Messina, nutritionist and renowned vegan author, as a guest blogger this week. Ginny has recently co-authored the book “Vegan for Her: The Woman’s Guide to Being Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet.” This new book tackles the issues most pertinent to vegan women, and provides health-supportive recipes and lifestyle tips. In her guest blog post, she tackles the issue of veganism, weight, and “fat-shaming.”

Beyond the Scale: Healthy and Compassionate at Any Size

By Ginny Messina, MPH, RD

People come to vegan diets for all different reasons related to ethics, personal health and a desire to shrink their carbon footprint. Lately, a vegan diet has been touted as a way to shrink your waist, too.  That’s because research shows that the average BMI of vegans is lower than that of the general population.

But average BMI doesn’t tell us too much about individual vegans. In fact, vegans come in all shapes and sizes and some are overweight. The prevailing wisdom about that supposedly surprising finding is that vegans get fat only if they are eating “junk food” vegan diets. While that may sound reasonable, it’s not actually supported by any data. And it has the unfortunate effect of shaming and blaming people who are overweight. It suggests that if they just started eating the “right diet” all vegans would be slender.

In fact, you can eat a healthy vegan diet and still struggle with weight. Experts continue to grapple with the issue of obesity, which is due to some complex interplay among habits, genetics, and environment. They recognize that some people—especially those who have been overweight all of their lives—struggle more than others with weight. It’s both naïve and unfair to pretend that there is some simple approach to weight management that works for everyone.

It’s also unfair to assume that every overweight person “should” be attempting to lose weight. Many who are above “ideal” standards for weight are actually in perfectly good health. And even if they aren’t, constant attempts to lose weight, along with the assaults to self-esteem that occur when those attempts fail, can be worse for health than carrying around a few extra pounds.

In Vegan for Her, I suggested a shift in paradigm—away from a number on the scale toward habits that are healthy and compassionate. Your “happy weight” or “ideal weight” is one that you achieve when you eat healthy foods that you enjoy, exercise regularly, and eat in response to hunger (rather than in response to emotional cues.)  It’s an approach that encourages a focus on healthy whole plant foods—vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains—but doesn’t forbid any particular plant food.

If you’re overweight and you do have risk factors for chronic disease, making lifestyle changes related to food, exercise, and stress management can lower your risk, even when the changes don’t produce a weight loss.  And if you don’t lose weight, it doesn’t diminish veganism in any way. It’s enough to embrace health and compassion. You don’t have to be any particular size to reap the rewards of a compassionate vegan lifestyle.

Ginny Messina

Ginny Messina, MPH, RD writes about vegetarian and vegan diets for both the public and health professionals and speaks on vegan nutrition at scientific events for health professionals as well as events for the public. She is the co-author of Vegan for Life and Vegan for Her and has also co-authored a vegetarian textbook for health professionals, The Dietitians’ Guide to Vegetarian Diets.

She lives in Port Townsend, Washington with her husband and an ever-changing population of rescued cats. Ginny blogs at TheVeganRD.com and is also TheVeganRD on twitter and facebook. She is co-owner of a website for vegan women, veganforher.com.