Stephanie Schwartz, a New Yorker who works in retail, tried a 21-day vegan challenge with a friend in 2015 because “I wanted to lose a few pounds and see if I could get visible abs, like all the yogi vegan Instagram girls, and this seemed like a healthy way to do it.” So Schwartz, then 25, abstained from all animal products—meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and eggs. The trial period came and went and she stuck with it, absorbing the plan’s “cruelty-free” ethos. As her passion for animal welfare grew, though, something else did too: her waistline.
Instead of toning up, within four months “I gained 12 pounds, lost muscle tone, and felt so bloated,” she says. She also overheated easily and lost her period. “My body was like, ‘Excuse me, I don’t like this.'” She couldn’t figure it out, but she did notice she always felt ravenous—and was constantly eating. Like 70 percent of people who try going vegan, Stephanie ultimately went back to eating some animal products. Interest in veganism, the stricter, coconut milk-ier cousin of vegetarianism, has surged in recent years. In Hollywood and on social media, it seems as if every flat-bellied celeb (Olivia Wilde, Jennifer Lopez, Lea Michele) is reported to have tried the lifestyle, and luminous-skinned fitfluencers (vegan chef Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows; blogger Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella; Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram, the local-organic-raw pioneer behind FullyRawKristina) have been touting the lifestyle. Some sources show that the number of vegans in the U.S. has spiked by as much as 600 percent in the past three years, and search interest in veganism was 460 percent higher than vegetarianism in the past year alone.
It’s not surprising that an increasing number of women have taken Schwartz’s tack, looking beyond veganism’s moral raison d’etre and health benefits—which include a reduced risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, blood-sugar issues, hypertension, and overall mortality—to a hope of weight loss. After all, while veganism is not considered a weight-loss diet per se, multiple studies have shown that people who shun animal products tend to be lighter than their omnivorous counterparts. A recent Harvard University meta-analysis found that vegans lost about five pounds more than meat eaters over an average of 18 weeks. Another study found that vegan women tend to have a BMI of 22, which is 1.5 points lower than the average of those who dig meat. But people who go vegan specifically to shed inches may be doing themselves a disservice, says Pittsfield, Massachusetts, nutritional consultant Virginia Messina, R.D., M.P.H., creator of TheVeganRD.com and coauthor of four vegan-centric books. “Women read stories that promise the pounds will just melt away”—but simply starting your day with a quinoa bowl rather than an omelet doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to drop pounds.