I started my fitness journey in a condition many call skinny fat. I’d already been vegan for about 7 years at that time, eating relatively healthy. But even after a year or two of exercising regularly, I still looked about the same—skinny fat. Why?
Here are 5 reasons why many vegans are skinny fat—even if exercising and eating a healthy overall diet:
- Not Eating Enough Protein.
- Not Doing Heavy Strength Training.
- Too Much Focus on Cardio.
- Very Low-Calorie Dieting.
- Refusing to Manage Portion Size or Count Calories.
Below, I’ll explain why each of these problems can lead to a skinny fat physique. I’ll also answer the age-old question: If you’re skinny fat, should you “bulk” or “cut” first? But first, let’s define “skinny fat”!
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What Is “Skinny Fat”?
Skinny fat is not a “clinical term”—so there’s no strict, official definition. But it refers to having a low overall bodyweight but still having a relatively high body-fat percentage.
It’s very common to be skinny fat to one degree or another.
Most people really want a “toned” or “chiseled” body. A skinny fat physique is a type of “skinny” that is not those things. It’s also not quite “skin and bones” skinny.
Often, a “skinny fat” person will have skinny arms, while still having the “muffin top” or “love handles” shape to their lower abdomen.
Sorry if these descriptions are rude or insulting. It’s not really shameful to be skinny fat—it’s very common. It’s just not what most people want. It’s where many people start their fitness journey.
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Why So Many Vegans Are Skinny Fat
To be honest, many people in general are skinny fat—not just vegans. So a lot of these 5 reasons apply to non-vegans, too.
But here are the 5 reasons you may end up skinny fat as a vegan, even if you’re doing regular exercise and eating pretty healthy.
1. Not Eating Enough Protein.
I hate to admit this one. When you’re vegan, it’s so annoying to hear all your naysaying family and friends ask, “Where do you get your protein?” over and over. You just want to yell at them: “Beans!!! I eat beans!! You idiot!!!”
But even though most vegans get enough protein for baseline health, that doesn’t mean we get an optimal amount for building muscle or an athletic body.
Sure, we can point to protein sources we eat: Beans, nuts, quinoa, rice, seeds, and maybe some heavier-hitters like tofu, tempeh, seitan, and mock meats, too. But have you actually tracked your protein intake?
Protein recommendations for athletes range from 0.7 to 1.5 grams per pound of bodyweight per day. And I’d wager a lot of money that most vegans fall below that range.
Tracking my own protein intake, I found that I need to add a very protein-rich meal like two full cans of beans or a full pound of tofu to even approach the lower end of that daily range.
In fact, I’ve personally noticed performance differences in my strength training when I’m eating that full block of tofu each day versus not. The fact is that extra protein helps you keep, repair, and build new muscle.
So without as much protein, you’re just less likely to keep or build as much muscle over time. You’re more likely to have more soft, pudgy tissue compared to firm muscle tissue. Hence, skinny fat.
2. Not Doing Heavy Strength Training.
Many vegans—especially women, but many men, too—don’t want to look like bodybuilders. Your fitness goals are more based on being “toned” or something. So you don’t lift heavy weights. But that’s a mistake.
Strength training is how you hold onto maximum muscle tissue while burning fat away. And unless you’re taking steroids, the most effective way to do this is with compound lifts with heavy weights:
- Bench press
- Overhead press
- Pull-ups (working up to weighted)
- Dips (working up to weighted)
You don’t need to do all of those, but each workout should include at least one or two of them. Watch tutorials of how to do them on YouTube, or get a trainer at the gym to show you. The most common advice is to work with weights that you can lift for anywhere between 4 to 12 reps in a set.
I won’t write out a full workout plan here, but if you want to fix skinny fatness, trust me: Start doing more strength training! And not just with light weights. Build up your strength on the compound exercises above.
3. Too Much Focus on Cardio.
This is an extension of number 2 because, if you’re not lifting heavy weights, your fitness routine is likely based on cardio instead.
Cardio by itself, it turns out, is not a great predictor of fat loss (source). Your overall calorie balance is much more important than whether you did some cardio. As a result, often just eating a bit less is more effective for fat-loss than adding tons of cardio.
If you do too much cardio, it can eat into your existing muscle (if you’re in a calorie deficit) and it can hinder your attempts to build more. Indeed, studies show that too much endurance exercise can limit your amount of muscle gain (source).
People think because they want a lean physique, they should emphasize cardio rather than strength training. But most people don’t actually want the body of a marathon runner who doesn’t lift weights. The ideal physique most of us picture in our heads has more “shape” to it, which is not built with cardio.
4. Very Low-Calorie Dieting.
This one doesn’t apply to all vegans. But if you’ve ever done a very calorie-restricted form of veganism to lose weight, this one’s for you.
When you try to lose fat with a very large calorie deficit—significantly more than 25% of your total daily calories—you’ll often end up burning muscle, too, not just fat.
So after however many months, yes, you lost a bunch of fat—but your body doesn’t have any great definition or shape at the end because you were burning off your muscle, too.
If you’re going on a “cut” to lose body-fat, keep your calorie deficit moderate. For most people, you don’t need a calorie deficit bigger than around 500 calories/day—that should already help you lose about a pound per week while preserving muscle (if you’re strength training, too).
5. Refusing to Manage Portion Size or Count Calories.
On the other extreme, there are many vegans who expect to get their dream body without being mindful of portion sizes or total calorie intake at all. Why is this?
The vegan propaganda goes like this: Whole plant foods are naturally healthy, so you don’t have to limit how much you eat. And it’s true to an extent. Vegans are more likely to naturally have a healthy body mass index (BMI) than meat-eaters. Many people do lose weight on a vegan diet. But there are limits to this.
For me personally, eating whole plant foods keeps me at a healthy weight, yes—but it doesn’t get me a 6-pack. It doesn’t get me down to the low levels of body fat most people actually want. It leaves me with some belly fat and love handles—that is, it leaves me skinny fat (a bit)!
Now, your experience may differ. But I found that in order to get down to six-pack abs, I had to start counting calories.
You may be able to find other hacks to burn off those “last 10 pounds,” but for me, I had to accept that it takes discipline about the amount of food I eat—not just the kind of food. Even eating strictly whole plant foods, I didn’t get as lean as I wanted until I started counting calories.
If You’re Skinny Fat, Should You Bulk or Cut?
One of the most common questions that “skinny fat” people have when getting in shape is whether to “bulk” or “cut” first. Neither really sound perfect to you: You need to bulk your muscles and cut your fat! You want to do both.
Fortunately, this is possible for people who are new to serious weight training. If you’re skinny fat, your body is still likely sensitive enough to muscle-building stimuli that you can build muscle while in a small caloric deficit.
So the answer is this: Cut first—or if you prefer the term, do a “body recomposition” (recomp). Eat a small caloric deficit of just a couple hundred calories, eat at least 0.8g of protein per pound of bodyweight, and do heavy weight lifting to stimulate muscle growth while losing fat.
In any case, if you’re skinny fat, I don’t recommend bulking first.
It’s not healthy to carry too much extra weight, and you won’t be able to appreciate the muscle as much when it’s under a layer of fat anyway. You’ll likely be happier with how your body looks and therefore you’ll stay more motivated if you do a cut (or recomp) first.
Sorry if it’s confusing how I’m referring to “cut” and “recomp” interchangeably. They’re generally understood to be different. But if you look into “how to do a recomp,” you’ll find it’s really just a gradual cut that’s done while your body’s still able to make “newbie gains” during the cut.
The main reason why many vegans are skinny fat is the same reason many non-vegans are skinny fat: Their diet and exercise are often focused on just burning fat, without sending enough signals to your body that it needs to keep the muscle.
Then, when you add the fact that most vegans get far less protein than the recommended daily 0.8+ grams per pound of bodyweight (for athletes), it’s even less likely you’re going to have as much lean muscle as you want.
The solution is to increase your protein intake and do strength training with heavy resistance (focusing on compound lifts in the 4-to-12 rep range). If you want to cut more body fat, limit your calorie deficit to 25% of your total intake and only do moderate amounts of cardio, so you can keep your muscle while dropping that fat!
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