Did you know that vegans naturally tend to eat ~600 calories less per day than meat-eaters? Yep. It’s no secret that a plant-based diet can help with healthy, sustainable weight-loss. But despite that fact, it doesn’t always take you all the way to your goals straight away.
Vegan weight loss plateaus often occur for the same reasons as plateaus on other diets. Typically, your metabolism has slowed down, your adherence to the diet has gotten sloppy, or both. In some cases, temporary water retention has simply given you a bad weight measurement.
Below, I’ll breakdown why and when your metabolism tends to slow down on a plant-based diet, and how to know if you’re just seeing temporary water retention. And I’ll end with 3 tips for how you can start losing weight again (one of them is a form of a “diet break”)!
So without further ado, here are the 3 reasons why you’re likely experiencing a vegan weight-loss plateau:
1. Your Metabolism Has Slowed
This is the main explanation for weight loss plateaus—but there are variations on what is happening. So let’s dig into it a bit.
First, recognize that your body is a survival machine. It’s not really concerned with looking a particular way. It’s just programmed to help you survive.
Next, recognize what’s happening when you’re on a diet: You’re eating fewer calories than your body is used to burning. This requires your body to burn glycogen (stored carbs) and then fat. Even if you’re not counting calories, that’s what’s happening.
But after a few months of this, your body will likely start burning fewer calories per day. Your metabolism will have “slowed.” As a result, the calorie deficit you had before has shrunk, and your weight loss slows down or stops.
Why does this happen—and how can you prevent it or get past it?
How Your Body Responds to a Prolonged Calorie Deficit
I’m going to start by just telling you the practical and common sense understanding of this. Basically, your body “gets used to” the lower amount of calories you’re eating.
If your body comes to expect that it’ll only get 1,400 calories per day, for example, it may go into a bit of a “conservation mode.” It’ll try to stop burning calories on unnecessary processes.
This effect is known to be stronger on crash diets compared to slow and steady diets (source). If you have a very large calorie deficit (~1,000 calories or more under maintenance), your body may really start taking these precautions, basically going into “starvation mode.”
But even with a moderate calorie deficit of 500 calories per day, your body may kind of “adjust” to the calorie deficit after a few months. In this case, it may be useful to take a two-week diet break (see below) to try to “reset” your metabolism a bit.
Why Metabolism Slows, Even on the Best Diet
Even if you follow all the best guidelines for how to diet sustainably and healthfully, your metabolism will gradually decrease as you lose weight. That’s because you have less body mass remaining that you need to “feed” with calories each day.
This is especially the case if you end up losing some lean muscle, too, which is common if you’re not strength training during your diet. (source)
Now that you lost some of your muscle, you don’t need to “feed” that muscle with calories anymore, so you’re now burning fewer calories per day.
In this case, you will need to keep lowering your calorie intake or else add exercise to keep losing weight from that point forward.
Trying to Reach Elite Levels of Leanness?
This is an extension of the “metabolism slowing down” issue… but if you’re trying to get very lean, like getting clearly defined 6-pack abs, the effect can even be much greater.
I know for myself, it’s much easier to get slightly visible abs than to get very defined abs. Even though it’s just like 10 or 15 pounds of fat loss between those two points… those last 10 or 15 pounds are just so much harder to lose.
And if you think of your body as a survival machine, this makes sense. As you have fewer and fewer fat stores remaining, they become more and more precious resources to ensure your survival in the case of a food shortage.
This effect may vary between individuals, though. If you’re an “ectomorph”—naturally skinny—then you may have no problem getting abs.
Meanwhile, if you’re an “endomorph“—naturally heavier—you may especially feel like your body has a “set point weight” that isn’t even very lean at all, and any time you drop below it, it’s an uphill battle!
But especially when you get down to levels that look like a model or bodybuilder physique… just honestly, don’t expect it to be easy to maintain. Most models don’t maintain their perfectly lean figure year round. They just dial it in before competitions or photoshoots.
So this is just a reminder to be realistic. Beauty standards today can be a far stretch from what will feel sustainable and doable for most people.
For most people, it won’t be easy to get or stay super chiseled. Our biology wasn’t really made for it, so if you do decide to pursue that kind of result, you’ll probably get quite hungry along the way.
[Related post: How to Get Six-Pack Abs With a Vegan Diet]
2. Your Diet Has Gotten Sloppy
This is much more common than most people may want to admit. Your diet may still be “mostly good,” but if you splurge big on the weekends or just get sloppy here and there… it can easily offset the work you’re doing the rest of the time.
This study suggested that early body weight plateaus (~6 months) are most often due to a lack of consistent dietary adherence.
If you’ve gotten more “lax” about alcohol, sweets, or portion sizes, be honest with yourself about that, and consider that it could be contributing to the plateau.
If so, it may be time to get “back to basics.” Make a commitment to start fresh on the best version of your diet again.
3. Water Retention From Sodium Intake
This is more of a temporary issue—but it can definitely account for a lot of “surprise” moments on the scale.
Depending on how much sodium you consumed yesterday, your weight might fluctuate by something like 2 or 3 pounds the next day.
Even though your calories were on point, it’ll suddenly look like you gained multiple pounds overnight.
Well, you did gain multiple pounds in that scenario—the scale isn’t “lying”—but it was actually just water weight, and it’s temporary. You didn’t gain fat.
You see, when you eat a lot of salty food—like a big vegan pizza, a whole bag of chips, or multiple cans of soup—you’ve suddenly got a lot of extra sodium in your body. While that sodium is in your system, your body holds onto extra water, too, to dilute it.
This is why it’s potentially better to track your average weight over 7 days of separate readings, rather than just weighing yourself once per week. The daily fluctuations can actually be quite high due to factors like water retention.
So, this issue does not account for stalled weight loss for months—but it can definitely explain a daily or weekly measurement that shows no progress (or even reverse progress).
[Related post: How Long Diet It Take to Lose Weight on a Vegan Diet?]
3 Tips to Get Past a Vegan Weight Loss Plateau
So, now that you’ve arrived at this weight loss plateau, what are the options for getting progress started in the right direction again?
Here are three tips. Choose one or a combination of them:
1. Cut a Few Hundred More Calories/Day
If your body has adjusted to a certain level of calories, you can potentially restart weight loss by simply cutting a few hundred more calories from your daily intake.
This can often be very simple, and you may not miss the calories at all. If you drink any calories, consider switching to water. Or go a bit smaller on portions. Or skip one of your snacks. Or replace a starchy carb with green veggies. Thee are many options!
Even just 200 calories can make a difference—so look at the small details of what you typically eat and how you could make it just a bit lower in calories.
Tracking your exact calorie intake is not for everyone, but it can help with ensuring that you’re actually adjusting your total calorie intake with changes like these. Personally I recommend the app Cronometer if tracking calories sounds useful to you.
2. Add a Bit of Physical Activity
If you’d rather not lower your calories any further, you can add some physical activity instead. Now personally, my favorite suggestion is to add 30-60 minutes of walking per day.
Walking is a surprisingly powerful weight loss hack. This is because it actually stimulates your appetite much less than other forms of exercise. So you get the calorie burn without getting an equal uptick in your hunger.
Some forms of exercise make you a lot hungrier after, so then you eat enough food that offsets the calorie burn, and it doesn’t really help with weight loss.
So I’d recommend adding 30-60 minutes (or more) of walking per day. It can be split up into multiple walks or one long walk. Listen to some audiobooks, podcasts, or music. Get some fresh air and experience nature. It’s a great habit all around, really.
3. Take a Two-Week Diet Break
This option may be risky if you don’t have a lot of self-control—so be honest with yourself about that. But you may want to give your body a “break” from dieting, allow your metabolism to raise back up a bit, and then start dieting again.
This is often recommended by bodybuilders who are pursuing an especially lean physique. For example, they might suggest “cutting” for 3 months, then taking two weeks to eat at maintenance, then go back into 3 more months of cutting if needed to achieve their goal weight.
Those two weeks at maintenance calories can help your body to relax a bit and raise its metabolism back up a bit again. Then you’ll be able to lose weight more quickly again once you resume the cut.
This can also be a nice psychological break for you. Dieting nonstop without breaks for half a year or more can be really draining.
The risk of taking a break, however, is that two weeks can easily turn into two months. And eating at maintenance can easily turn into just eating whatever you want… And you can potentially let everything go.
So know yourself, and question if this tactic is a smart move for you at this particular time or not!
[Related post: 18 Tips for Vegan Weight Loss Without Counting Calories]
Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey
1. This is the best vegan multivitamin I’ve found in 13 years of being vegan. It has vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3—and nothing else. Translation: It only has the nutrients vegans are actually low in. Read my full review of Future Kind’s multivitamin here (with 10% discount).
2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.