One of the ways that I like to keep on top of what is going on in the vegan world is by subscribing to Google Alerts. Something that keeps popping up is celebrity weight loss using a vegan diet. While I think that having celebrities represent veganism can help to normalize the lifestyle, I also believe that promoting it as an approach to weight loss can be harmful.
Sure, following a vegan has been shown to produce weight loss (1). But then again, it might not have that effect on everyone. If it does result in weight loss, it is probably because a person would be more conscious of their overall food choices, not necessarily because they are following a “vegan diet”. Including more plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds) will improve your health, it just might not make you drop the pounds if your calories are the same as they were before. And that is okay, because you will still be healthier for it.
The idea of following a diet for a goal such as weight loss also turns it into a temporary intervention, as opposed to a long term lifestyle change... And temporary interventions mean a temporary weight loss.
The main motivation for weight loss diets is the desire to fit into society's idea of what a healthy body should look like... But does what we collectively assume is the appearance of a healthy body define what healthy is? No. Typically, what we associate with the appearance of health is just a common belief. You cannot necessarily measure a person's health by looking at them, or by knowing how much their body weighs. Healthy bodies can come in many different shapes and sizes.
Let's get back to the use of a vegan diet for weight loss. For one thing, promoting the idea of a vegan diet for weight loss causes harm as it dilutes the credibility of veganism. It does this by making it seem like a trendy new weight loss program, instead of a commitment to improving health, animal rights, and/or the environment. Following a vegan diet for weight loss (or any diet for weight loss, really) can also cause harm to an individual as it might result in “weight cycling”. This refers to losing weight then gaining it back, then losing it again, and gaining it back again (as a cycle), which can be harder on a person's body than staying at a consistent weight (2). Weight loss does not always equal health. Remember, a person can do very unhealthy things to their body to get to a “healthy body weight”.
So what do I think is the best motivation for starting on and sticking to a vegan diet? That would be to think of it in terms of food choices and lifestyle actions you take to better your entire self (body, mind, and spirit), advocate for the ethical treatment of animals, and take care of our planet.
(1) Turner-McGrievy, G., Bernard, N., Schiall, A. (2007). A two-year randomized weight loss trial comparing a vegan diet to a more moderate low fat diet. Obesity, 15:9, 2276-2281.
(2) Bacon, L., Aphramor, L. (2011). Weight science: evaluation the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition Journal, 10:9