The Pressure of Being An Overweight Vegan

The Pressure of Being An Overweight Vegan

“If being a vegan is so good, why is Michael still fat?” My mother asked my wife…

This right here, ladies and gentleman, is the question. It’s the question that pushes culture towards or away veganism, rightly or wrongly.

Lot’s to unpack in this post. Let’s start at the beginning.

My genetics.

 

I was five weeks premature when I came out of my mum’s womb. Her birthing experience with me was life-threatening and traumatic for the both of us.

In the end, I made it into this world weighing in at 2.5kgs.

Thankfully, I was healthy, with a few hiccups including an underdeveloped right thumb, one kidney and significantly pigeon-toed.

Despite these minor setbacks, I was a breeze of a baby. I slept regularly, I was happy all of the time, and most of all, I was a massive eater.

It’s like I came into existence wanting to make up for being slightly underdeveloped. I ate and ate and ate.

Within months, I transformed from an underweight baby to a chubby eating machine.

Besides overeating, together with my sister, we have the fat gene from my mother’s side of the family. It’s interesting though because the gene seems to target about 70% of people on my mum’s side.

My youngest Uncle and late Auntie have always been skinny. And basically, my whole dad’s side is skinny, excusing their incredibly round beer guts.

overweight vegan toddler

And so my weight troubles began.

 

I went all the way through elementary school overweight, again eating, playing and sleeping. Staying true to my personality. I was an incredibly active child, constantly moving.

In grade three my brother introduced me to basketball and I quickly became obsessed. Through the sheer hours dedicated to the sport, I maintained a relatively stable weight, until I hit puberty in grade 7.

In high school, I had a growth spurt and leaned out. I went on to have a five-year run as a bonafide basketball athlete. I still ate a ton, but my output was so extreme that the food I ate had no impact. I would just burn it off.

Note: throughout this whole time, I ate like shit. I drank soft drinks, ate meat pies and loved chicken satay. At home, I ate pasta, rice, African soul food at scale. And since a young child, I saw my brother put honey and peanut butter on bread and chase it down with a hot cup of milo.

The first time I had this combination, it changed my world! I iterated on this complex recipe, only opting to eat crunchy peanut butter (I mean, who eats smooth?) together with the honey. I would then proceed to fold my incredibly processed white bread and dip it into a hot cup of milo which had added brown sugar (because I’m crazy).

overweight vegan child

My lean days came to an end.

 

So I was a dedicated athlete all the way through till grade twelve, then I went on a holiday to Ghana for six weeks, and that’s when everything changed.

This was my first trip to Ghana since I was a baby, so my relatives were on a mission to welcome me with obscene amounts of food. As you know by now, I’m a big eater, so I embraced this challenge of traditional Ghanaian food with grace. And of course, I didn’t want to be disrespectful to my family who expressed their love through food (so I told myself).

The problem was while I was consuming all of this food, I wasn’t exercising. For anyone who has travelled for an extended period, you know how hard it is to exercise when you’re so deep in holiday mode.

I think I went for one run and one gym session over six weeks in my dad’s hometown in Ghana.

During this time, I started to pack on weight, and by the time I got back to Australia, it was an uphill battle.

I thought I would lose weight when I became vegan.

 

Since I was 18, I’ve progressively gotten fatter. While I was still active, I never ate well, and this combined with my fat gene became a real struggle.

Four years ago, I became vegan overnight for ethical reasons, first and foremost. But after seeing so many weight loss stories online after people became vegan, I would be lying if I didn’t think that I would lose a couple of extra kilos when I became vegan.

On top of that, Maša has always cooked healthy food with the best organic ingredients vegan or not. So it’s not like I was a junk food vegan. Although I do like my fair share of vegan burgers, pizza’s and curries when I get the chance.

But as months went by, my weight stayed the same. There was no “fat just started falling off me” story. Internally, I did feel a little bit better. I’ve always been an energy-rich guy, so there were no changes on that front. But I did experience much better digestion.

Admittedly, my results were disappointing, but I was so motivated by saving animals that my weight wasn’t a significant factor. But in a way, it’s this point that has created internal friction.

The pressure of representing the animals.

 

First of all, I’m human. So, of course, I would like to feel better about how my body looks. But in all honesty, I’ve found relative peace with who I am and how I look. At the end of the day, I’m healthy and energetic, and that’s more than what I could ask for.

Where things become incredibly hard for me is how there’s added pressure for vegans to look super healthy.

Despite my best efforts to talk about the devastation of animal oppression, many folks are not interested in supporting the results for someone outside of themselves. They want to know what’s in it for them when it comes to veganism.

People are so focused on how they look and they associate success of veganism on appearance. And quite frankly, I don’t blame them. When vegans position veganism the best lifestyle for health, weight loss, clear skin, better energy, then that’s what we’ll be judged on.

Now, I don’t have a problem with using the body as the ultimate sales pitch for veganism. Over the years, marketing vegan body transformations have been extremely useful to get people on the lifestyle. Typically those who are plant-based, see their support for the animal industry as a by-product of their health decisions. And that’s totally okay. More animals are saved, I’ll take that!

The importance of messaging.

 

The reality remains that people are going to judge the success of veganism based on how you look. There are a couple of ways I’ve chosen to look at this.

Firstly, I think anyone showing interest in your vegan values is positive. I try to speak to the reasons I became vegan which are based on avoiding the harm of animals. I’m quite upfront with them when it comes to health. I tell people that I didn’t transition to veganism for health reasons, but I’ve come to understand some benefits. This is when I’ll refer to high-performance vegan athletes.

This approach enables me to control the narrative of the conversation. Now inevitably, someone who is motivated by how they look will take one look at you, and discredit your reasons for going vegan. Despite there being many more overweight omnivores in the world.

The other thing to consider is being real with ourselves. Despite having the fat gene, I know I could lose weight if I really put time and effort into it. And being externally motivated on aesthetic is okay…sometimes. But for me, it’s not being driven to have this out of this world chiselled body. My motivation would be to represent the billions of animals slaughtered each year.

In my books, this is not a bad motivation at all, and maybe one you resonate with.

Overweight vegans around the world.

 

Do you feel the pressure of being an overweight vegan? By the way, this pressure doesn’t just exist with weight. It’s true for your overall health. If you’re always sick, then people will think that a vegan diet makes you weak. If you have bad skin, then people think a vegan diet will make you break out.

These are real human judgements vegans are experiencing with people every day. I don’t write this to make you feel pressure. I write it to empower all of us to be confident in who we are and to redirect people away from their own needs and inspire them to be selfless.

We owe it to ourselves, and more importantly, we owe it to the animals.

18 comments… add one
  • Diana Hoover 03/09/2018

    I think it’s important to point out here that being vegan alone isn’t going to lead to good health. It’s a critical aspect of it, but so is portion control, good nutrition, and exercise. It’s possible to be vegan and eat a lot of baked products made with vegan fats and sugar, vegan cookies, vegan chocolates and other sweets, processed vegan “meats,” vegan breads, etc., without a lot of vegetables, and not exercise on top of it. This, of course, will lead to being overweight. As we educate people about veganism, we also need to educate them about doing it healthfully.

    • Hi Diana, you make some great points! There are people who are healthy on a vegan or non-vegan lifestyle because they commit to their health. I do however believe that there many who claim that a vegan diet broadly speaking will transform your health. While there are way more considerations of what you eat within a vegan diet that will yield the results you seek.

  • Simone 03/09/2018

    Thank you for sharing Michael! <3

  • Jenni 03/09/2018

    What a topic, I weighed myself this morning and am heavier than I have ever been. I went completely vegan over a year ago and yes I must admit I am a junk food vegan (obviously!), and yes I really do relate to trying to look and present an image of vegan vitality to encourage others. I also went vegan purely for the animals but I know for the sake of veganism I have got to get my act together. Thanks for your article, I have not read anything related to this topic before so enjoyed reading it.

    • Hi Jenny, I’m glad you enjoyed the angle of this post. Saving animals is definitely a motivator to live our healthiest lives. You have also inspired me 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience a year into veganism.

  • Keish 03/09/2018

    I can appreciate this topic. I did lose weight when I went vegan, but I am (and have always had a tight but curvy body shape). The end especially speaks to me as I have a number of health issues that many people would like to attribute to not getting nutrients from animals. Two are genetic blood disorders and the other is an allergy that did begin after veganism had entered my life–a strange coconut allergy. I began reading about gut health and how it can tip off hives and reactions. I quickly learned many processed vegan foods had things that are bad for your gut health. For example, soy is bad for my blood disorder and apparently not good for gut health. It’s a learning process that I have chosen to embrace. My skin has cleared up and inflammation has decreased. I’ll keep building on the positive.

    • Hi Keish, thank you for sharing your experiences. I could have easily re-titled this post “The Pressure of Being a Healthy Vegan” as it this topic goes far beyond weight. As you said, there is still so much to learn about the plant-based diet and how it relates to our vitality. I’m glad you were able to find some solutions.

  • Lea 03/09/2018

    Thank you for sharing! I think the problem is that veganism gets marketed as a single cure for everything – for the planet, for people’s health etc. A good example is the documentary “What the Health”. It ends like a cheap TV-commercial, promising going vegan will cure all ailments in a matter of weeks. I understand this format might have been consciously picked to appeal to mass audiences (and like you said, people mainly want to know what’s in it for them), but I feel like it’s misrepresentational and can produce the opposite effect when people don’t get the results they’ve been promised. There is no magic solution that cures everything, why do we need to act like there is? It just leads to disappointment.
    Don’t get me wrong, veganism is the solution for a lot of problems. Still, not all of them. The problem is we are so scared of admitting it because people might lose interest in giving it a try. I still feel like being open and honest is the best solution.

    • Hi Lea, I also remember watching What the Health and feeling the same way as you. I even had friends approach me after watching the documentary saying that they’re going to become vegan because of the argued health benefits. But even then, there’s so much to explore in a plant-based lifestyle to optimise health in a way that’s specific to each individual.

      “The problem is we are so scared of admitting it because people might lose interest in giving it a try. I still feel like being open and honest is the best solution.”

      I love what you said here. This is what it’s all about. Let’s lay it all out on the table for people considering this lifestyle. If anything, that honesty ends up being more appealing to people as it’s more “real”. Thanks for sharing.

  • Cara 04/09/2018

    Losing weight is not easy, but I think that, as strict vegetarians, or as vegans we should set a good example so that we are at a healthy, low weight (not average according to new standards of fatness). Though I was not fat, I needed to lose about 5lbs to be at my best & healthiest weight. Following the recommendations of The Plant Paradox book by Dr. Stephen Gundry made dropping weight really easy. It’s vegan-friendly and shows you how to get your microbiome (whence our health and weight derive) back to a good state.

    • Thanks for the resources, Cara. I think it’s definitely something to aim for.

  • Deborah 14/09/2018

    Boy, does that resonate with me. I am a 15-year whole foods vegan, who is also 15-20 pounds overweight. However, I am textbook healthy. At 62, I have perfect BP, very low cholesterol levels, and normal blood sugar levels, and unlike most of my peers, I take NO meds for “lifestyle diseases.” Yet, I have been treated to rude comments to my face and behind my back about being “fat.” I was a heavy child who stress-ate, a borderline anorexic college girl, and a thin, but perpetually hungry young adult. As a mature adult, I refuse to make food an enemy any more. I do fast intermittently. I was doing so before i knew the practice even had a name. It is not difficult for me to go many hours without food–it even energizes me to do so. But when I break the fast, I eat well, always plant-based, rarely processed, simple and down-to-earth (literally and figuratively). I may have a plump hour-glass figure, but in my sunset years, I have grown fond of my shape. I am proud of its strength–I can walk for miles and carry things most women half my age struggle to pick up. Once again, you have written an inspiring post that speaks profoundly to me. I wish I knew more people like you.

    • Deborah, you ought to be proud of the conviction in the way you live. When I read your story, I see intentionality and purpose. I too feel great “under the hood”, but it’s not reflected in my weight. I think at the end of the day, regardless of your appearance, if you bring clean energy into the way you live, people, perhaps respect that more than your appearance. You have inspired me today, and I thank you.

  • Adele 18/09/2018

    I actually do not see you as overweight although I am assuming you are going by measurement charts or other medical criteria. You have a healthy glow that speaks volumes for your compassionate path. I have been vegan for two years now. I am older and get compliments on my ‘glow’ and I am aging really well and I attribute this to veganism. My weight is about the same as before. The most important part of veganism for me is the compassionate path that I am on and it is wonderful that this path also promotes health and well being.

    This blog is lovely. Do not get discouraged or swayed. You are radiant!!!

    • Hi Adele, you are too kind.
      Putting measurements aside, I actually feel great and I know I’m blessed with more energy than most people I know. Also, since becoming vegan, I rarely get sick. But this is just my journey. Everyone has their own story.
      Thank you for sharing your experiences on the compassionate path. Keep on glowing.

  • Sandra 18/09/2018

    Hey Michael,
    Thanks for sharing such a personal story. I can also relate with your story, being a bit chubbier myself. I’ve heard a couple of times “why aren’t you skinnier”?
    But I agree with what you say: ” I’ve found relative peace with who I am and how I look. At the end of the day, I’m healthy and energetic, and that’s more than what I could ask for.”

    Cheers,
    Sandra

    • Hi Sandra, you’re very welcome! That perception is certainly there, whether we like it or not. So it comes down to how we feel about ourselves.

      Thank you for all of the work you do on your blog.

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