Are Vegans Skinny? (Myth Busting With a Dietitian)

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Are vegans skinny? No, we can’t say that all vegans are skinny.

Some research suggests that vegans may have a smaller BMI compared to non vegans. But that does not mean that all vegans are skinny.

As a dietitian and vegan, I wrote this article to set the record straight. Keep reading to find out what we know about the research in this area, and why making generalizations does little to forward veganism as a philosophy and lifestyle change!

Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for medical or dietary advice. Always talk to your doctor about any major diet or physical activity changes, health concerns, or supplements. 
This article discusses body weight and weight loss Please use discretion with reading if these topics are not in your best interest.
See our Disclaimers for more details.

What Does it Mean to be Skinny? Are Vegans Skinny?

What does the word “skinny” actually mean?

Spoiler alert: It’s probably not what you thought!

Here’s part of the definition for “skinny” from Merriam-Webster.com:

“2. a: lacking sufficient flesh: very thin: Emaciated
b. Lacking usual or desirable bulk, quantity, qualities or significance”

Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/skinny

Based on this definition, is it appropriate to say that all vegans are skinny?

Of course not!

Some vegans may be very thin, but being vegan does not automatically make one thin. (and no, news reports of one vegan who ate a very restrictive diet do not define vegans!)

Much of the research on large groups of vegans suggest that their weight falls in the “healthy” BMI (body mass index) range.” However research in this area is limited, and because of so much variability within the vegan community, it’s unfair to classify vegans as having one “look.”

Saying that all vegans are skinny is not only untrue – it also creates an unfriendly environment for all body types (more on that later).

First, lets understand what BMI is so we can talk about the research.

What is Body Mass Index (BMI)?

BMI is a calculation that uses your height and weight to make weight classifications.

For adults, a BMI value below 18.5 below is classified as underweight, while a BMI of 25 – 29.5 and is overweight. A BMI of 30 and above for is classified as obese.

According to BMI, a “healthy weight” is classified at 18.5 – 24.9. However, there are several flaws with BMI, including it’s inability to calculate muscle mass, distinguish between ethnic groups, older age, and gender differences (1).

As an example, a body builder who is constantly strength training may have a BMI classified as overweight without taking muscle mass into account.

Fortunately, many health care practitioners know that BMI is only one tool that does not give you the complete picture of health status. For example, someone with a “normal” BMI may have heart disease. Make sense?

Now that you know about BMI and it’s flaws, lets look at the research on the weight status of vegans vs. non vegans.

Are Vegans Thinner Than Omnivores?

Several large studies suggest that those on a vegan diet have a lower BMI (body mass index) than omnivores.

The commonly held stereotype that vegans are smaller than meat eaters might come from this research.

For example, the Adventist Health Study 2 looked at about 73, 308 seventh day Adventists and categorized them by dietary pattern.

Vegans had the lowest average BMI at about 24.1 on average, while the non vegetarian group had the highest BMI at 28.3 (2).

Fun tidbit: I identify as an Adventist, and some thing called the “health message” is strong in this church group, with the intention of promoting a healthy vegetarian diet.

It’s possible that other vegans may not put as much of an emphasis on this. I’d love to see more large studies done on vegans, but they can be hard to conduct.

As another example, in the Epic Oxford study with about 65,429 participants, the vegan men had an average BMI of 22.5, and the vegan women averaged a BMI of 21.9.

In comparison, men in the “meat eaters” classification had an average BMI of 24.9, while the women of the same group had an average BMI of 24.3 (3).

Of note, height and weight were self reported from both studies which carries its own issues (4).

In summary, vegans tend to weigh less than omnivores based on large cohorts studies. Still, with the growing number of vegans, generalizations are tough to make

The other questions the above studies didn’t answer is whether or not vegans have more muscle mass despite being thinner.

One common myth is that vegans are thin and weak. Lets untangle that next!

Vegan Skinny Fat – Is That a Thing?

Vegan skinny fat is a slang term referring to a vegan who has a BMI in the “healthy” range, but has a higher body fat percentage than muscle.

Studies, like the ones mentioned above did not include body fat percentage or muscle mass.

Regardless, we can not make a generalization that there are more “skinny fat” vegans than “skinny fat” non vegans.

Again, vegans come in all sizes, just like non vegans!

While we can’t make generalizations, some individuals do experience weight loss on a vegan diet.

I’ll talk about what factors may influence that next.

Why You Might Lose Weight on Vegan Diets

Summary: Vegans might lose weight for a variety of reasons. Common factors include:

  • Calorie deficits and eating fewer calories socially
  • A poor understanding of balanced vegan nutrition
  • Feeling full too quickly from low calorie, high fiber foods

A note of importance: This is not a comprehensive list! There are several reasons why individuals might lose weight that go beyond dietary habits. For example, some medical conditions contribute to weight loss and should not be ignored.

Talk to your doctor and get appropriate care if you have weight loss-including weight loss that is significant, rapid, can’t be explained, or unintended.

Calorie Deficits and Eating Fewer Calories Socially

Several new, and even well seasoned vegans may cut calories unintentionally. For many, cutting out meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and honey means we eat less calories over all.

Changing eating habits comes with a new learning curb. Sometimes it feels much easier to make a shake with vegan protein powder rather than a balanced meal, especially when you are new to cooking!

Also, new vegans might also avoid eating in situations where they don’t think anything vegan is available.

That’s why it’s so important to understand what plant based foods are going to give you enough energy and fuel your body. Check out my in depth post: Vegan for Beginners to level up your knowledge.

A Poor Understanding of Balanced Vegan Nutrition

One mistake many new vegans make is thinking that the only vegan foods are whole fruits and vegetables.

Sure, you could get a variety of fruits and veggies from the produce aisle.

But if you don’t seek out the other aisles- you know- the ones after the mountains of bananas or shelves of kale, you’ll also miss out on a variety of other healthy foods! I’m talking foods like whole grains, legumes, and a a variety of healthy fats.

I wrote a detailed post about what vegans should know at the grocery store in an effort to help you throw some balance in your cart. So definitely check that out if you’re stuck.

And of course, if you need extra help with any of this, consulting with a Registered Dietitian is ideal. That way, you can get specific questions answered about your personal nutrition needs as a vegan.

Feeling Full Too Quickly from Low Calorie, High Fiber Foods

One cross sectional study based on participants in the Adventist Health Study 2 suggests that the vegetarians consumed more fiber than the non vegetarians, with the strict vegetarians consuming the most on average(5).

Since fiber takes longer to digest, you can see how adding a a lot of low calorie, high fiber foods could make you feel full quicker!

Animal foods do not include fiber. When new vegans add too much fiber too quickly, they might also experience digestive issues (learn about this and more in my article here).

While high fiber, low calorie fruits and veggies (like blueberries) are healthy, it’s important to balance them with other nutritious foods, like whole grains, healthy fats, and legumes. High calorie foods have a place in a vegan diet too! If you need personalized help with this, again, meeting with a Registered Dietitian can help.

Final Words: Any Body Size Can be a Vegan Body

a small picture of women of diffrent sizes with their hands raised up. Text reads: vegan body stereotypes: make veganism seem like a club. Can cause feelings of guilt, inadequacy, shame. Are simply not true. Any body size can be a vegan body!

You know the saying “any body size can be a beach body?”

Well, I’d like to modify that a bit and say: any body size can be a vegan body!

Let’s dismantle this idea that all vegans are skinny. It’s simply not true, and discourages individuals from joining this movement, philosophy, and lifestyle that seeks to reduce animal exploitation.

As vegans, lets extend our compassion for animals to human beings!

Any body size can be a vegan body.

I hope that you learned something from this article! How are you dismantling the idea that veganism is a “club” that is only for thin people?
Feel free to share in the comments. Tell your friends about this post, so we can help more people understand together!
If you want to learn more, check out these deep dives into:
Vegan Fats (goes over healthy fats and not so healthy saturated fats too!)
Veganism and Intuitive Eating
Plant Based Diet Books
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