Veganism has grown in popularity over the last couple of decades as millions of people forgo all animal products for health and ethical reasons.
While the diet itself offers numerous health benefits, it also comes with one significant drawback:
There are many skinny fat vegans today. In this post, we’ll outline what that means, why it happens, and what you can do to be in a better position for muscle gain and fat loss.
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But First: What is ‘Skinny Fat’?
Skinny fat presents a paradox: how can someone be skinny and fat at the same time? It certainly sounds made up, like fat-burning workouts and that lifting weights makes you bulky.
Yet, despite its strange name, skinny fat is an actual condition, much more common than most people imagine. To be skinny fat, a person must have a high body fat percentage and low muscular development—the combination results in a thin frame with a layer of fat on top. Skinny fat people appear slim while wearing clothes but often have man boobs, love handles, and plenty of fat around the stomach, buttocks, and thighs.
Here is how a skinny fat guy looks:
And here is how a skinny fat girl looks:
I’m not writing any of this to shame you or make you feel bad. The skinny fat body type is quite common today, and I was once in that same position after a long weight loss phase:
4 Reasons Why You’re a Skinny Fat Vegan
As mentioned above, the skinny fat body type is quite common today, not just among vegans. So, many of the reasons we’ll be discussing below will also apply to non-vegans. Without further ado, here are the top causes of the skinny fat physique in vegans:
1. Eating Too Little Protein
A huge reason why vegans become skinny fat is their low protein intake. The vegan diet is based on plants, which can be problematic when a person has to consume 130-180 grams of protein daily (1).
The first issue is that most foods you can consume on a vegan diet are low in protein. For example:
- Quinoa - 13.1 grams per 100 grams
- Nuts - 20 to 24 grams per 100 grams
- Seeds - 15 to 25 grams per 100 grams
- Rice - 2.5 to 3 grams per 100 grams
Each is touted as a good protein source, but none of them can compare to meat, fish, eggs, and cottage cheese. For instance, nuts and seeds are good protein sources, but both are also full of fats and rich in calories. Eating 100 grams of peanuts will provide 24-26 grams of protein, but also 49-50 grams of fats and 560-600 calories.
The second issue relates to the protein quality on a vegan diet. Research suggests that plant-based protein doesn’t have the same anabolic properties as animal proteins (2). In other words, the protein vegans consume doesn’t stimulate muscle protein synthesis to the same degree, which can be problematic for muscle maintenance and post-exercise recovery.
2. Consuming Too Few Calories
Skinny fat vegans often consume too few calories, which leads to rapid weight loss. Many of the foods you can eat on a vegan diet are voluminous, highly satiating, and low on calories––good examples are fruits and vegetables. As a result, you feel fuller with fewer calories and are more likely to undereat.
Rapid weight loss might seem like a bonus benefit of vegan diets to the unsuspecting person. But, losing weight too quickly increases the risk of muscle loss (3). Sure, you drop scale weight quickly, but much of it is muscle, and you end up skinny fat. To make matters worse, you lose your athleticism, strength, and functionality, ending up a weaker and less capable version of yourself.
According to research, your weekly weight loss rate should be 0.5 to 1 percent of your body weight (3). For example, if you weigh 180 pounds, you should lose no more than 0.9 to 1.8 pounds per week.
3. Doing Too Much Cardio
Doing too much cardio isn’t a mistake every skinny fat vegan makes, but many people interested in weight loss hop on the treadmill and forget to step off. Plus, given that folks associate veganism with good health, they want to double down, and what better way to do so than with aerobic exercise?
Cardio can be beneficial because it offers some health benefits and burns calories, making it easier to establish a calorie deficit for weight loss (4, 5). The problem is that, as discussed in a previous point, vegans often eat fewer calories than they should, and doing cardio on top of that only increases the deficit, speeding up the weight (and muscle) loss.
Another issue with cardio is that it doesn’t cause a significant growth stimulus, which is necessary for maintaining and building muscle. As a result, muscle becomes expendable, and your body breaks it down for energy, especially if you’re eating fewer calories.
On top of that, too much cardiovascular training can impair your ability to build muscle even if you’re following a good strength program (6).
4. Not Lifting Any Weights
The fourth common cause of the skinny fat look in vegans is a lack of weight training. Often, vegans avoid lifting weights because they fall for the myth that any form of lifting would result in a bulky physique. Women fall for the trap often, but many men interested in a lean and athletic body also fear lifting weights.
The problem is that not training your muscles increases the risk of losing them. Coupled with a lower calorie intake and lack of protein, you’ve got your perfect recipe for losing muscle and becoming skinny fat.
Weight training provides the necessary stimulus for your muscles to stick around, allowing you to lose mostly fat and maintain lean tissue. Don’t worry; you won’t become big or bulky because that requires years of effort, strategic weight gain, and lots of hours in the gym. Nobody becomes bulky (read: muscular) by accident.
So, What Should You Do As a Skinny Fat Vegan?
Fixing the skinny fat look depends on two things:
- Building muscle
- Losing fat
Luckily, both objectives are within reach so long as you follow the right tactics and apply yourself consistently.
1. Bump Your Protein Intake
The first step to fixing the skinny fat vegan physique is to bump your protein intake to at least 0.7-0.8 grams per pound of body weight (1). For example, if you weigh 160 lbs, consume at least 112 grams of protein daily. You can go as high as one gram per pound of body weight to ensure optimal recovery from your training and muscle gain.
Good vegan protein sources include seitan, tofu, tempeh, beans, nuts, seeds, and soy milk. Buying a vegan protein powder and having a scoop or two daily also goes a long way in helping you get enough daily protein.
2. Start Tracking Your Calories
The second step to fixing the skinny fat vegan body is gaining control over your nutrition. Step one is about bumping your protein intake, but proper eating doesn’t end there. Aside from eating enough protein, you need to pay attention to your caloric intake and align it with your goal.
An issue skinny fat vegans face is not knowing what goal to focus on for the next few months, so you should examine your situation to determine the best course of action. Here are two cases represented by two hypothetical skinny fat vegans: John and Mary.
John has been on a vegan diet for the last five months. During that time, he’s focused on avoiding all animal products and doing some cardio each week for health benefits. As a result, he’s lost over 20 pounds and has ended up skinny fat.
Mary has been on a vegan diet for much longer and hasn’t lost or gained any weight in at least one year. She’s been following the vegan lifestyle and doing physical activity each week, mainly aerobic exercise. Despite not losing weight recently, Mary is also skinny fat.
At first glance, both individuals seem to be in the same position: they are vegan and skinny fat. But, upon closer inspection, you realize that John and Mary need unique approaches to fix their situations.
John has gone through a weight loss phase recently, and dieting more wouldn’t be good for him now. First, he is likely starting to feel hungry and deprived from dieting. Second, his metabolic rate has downregulated, and he would have to eat too few calories to continue losing fat (7). He would be better off increasing his calorie intake for a while to start feeling well again, stop obsessing over food, and raise his caloric expenditure. Once that period finishes, he can resume dieting.
In contrast, Mary is better positioned to diet for fat loss because she hasn’t been dieting recently. Her metabolic rate hasn’t taken a hit, and she doesn’t feel deprived like John does. But, in both cases, tracking calories to set up a good meal plan for fixing the skinny fat look is necessary.
3. Cut Back On The Cardio
As discussed above, cardio can be beneficial but doing too much and relying on it alone is not a good tactic. Too much cardio only magnifies the calorie deficit you’ve created with your nutrition and puts you at a higher risk of muscle loss.
So, the best course of action is to limit your cardio to no more than two sessions of 20 to 30 minutes each. You can still practice the activity if you enjoy it and reap its benefits without overtraining yourself.
4. Introduce Some Weight Training
Beyond taking control of your nutrition and cutting back on cardio, you should introduce some weight training. Doing so is essential for causing the growth stimulus your muscle need to develop.
Your training plan doesn’t have to be anything intense or too demanding. As little as three training sessions of 40 to 60 minutes per week are enough for beginners to see fantastic muscle and strength gain. Focus on the compound lifts, aim for steady improvements, and prioritize proper technique. Be consistent, and you will grow. For further guidance, check out this simple beginner gym routine.
1. Stokes T, Hector AJ, Morton RW, McGlory C, Phillips SM. Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients. 2018;10(2):180. Published 2018 Feb 7. doi:10.3390/nu10020180
2. Berrazaga, Insaf et al. “The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review.” Nutrients vol. 11,8 1825. 7 Aug. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11081825
3. Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2011 Apr;21(2):97-104. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.21.2.97. PMID: 21558571.
4. Falcone PH, Tai CY, Carson LR, Joy JM, Mosman MM, McCann TR, Crona KP, Kim MP, Moon JR. Caloric expenditure of aerobic, resistance, or combined high-intensity interval training using a hydraulic resistance system in healthy men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Mar;29(3):779-85. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000661. PMID: 25162652.
5. Strasser B, Spreitzer A, Haber P. Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Ann Nutr Metab. 2007;51(5):428-32. doi: 10.1159/000111162. Epub 2007 Nov 20. PMID: 18025815.
6. Wilson JM, Marin PJ, Rhea MR, Wilson SM, Loenneke JP, Anderson JC. Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2293-307. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823a3e2d. PMID: 22002517.
7. Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11(1):7. Published 2014 Feb 27. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-7