Aesthetic-driven fitness in the vegan community: balancing health, body, & fitness goals
[Listen to the podcast episode version of this article here.]
One of my best friends, Holly Burton, is also a long-term vegan. We’ve known each other since we were 13; for well over 2 decades. She sent me an email in the extreme early morning a while back with an idea for a podcast episode I could do—she got up to use the bathroom and sent me this before heading back to bed—totally the type of thing she’d do. So here’s what she wrote: "Do a podcast on body image and aesthetic-driven workouts in the vegan community".
(By the way, Holly is a leadership coach for women in male-dominated industries. She was a mining engineer for a decade and now she’s built a successful coaching business and she runs an almost 4000-member career and networking group for women in male-dominated industries in Vancouver. You can check out her website at hollyburton.ca.)
"Talk about the unspoken thing about veganism", continued Holly. "It's a healthier diet in terms of your long-term probability to die, but it's also something (I assert!) that many people come to adopt partially because they think it'll make them thin by naturally cutting down the ease with which you can buy cakes, cookies, things covered in cheese -- all of which are very high calorie. Talk about how you don't do physique type coaching and why. Talk about how you and clients manage the thin line between health, fun weight lifting/fitness hobby, and aesthetics."
It was such an awesome idea for an episode, I explored the topic in The No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast Episode 82, and now we are addressing it further in this article. I’ll tell you right upfront that I’m not discussing any specific medical conditions, and I’m not discussing clinical disordered eating patterns. It’s outside my scope of practice as a fitness coach to address these issues, but if you’re a reader who is qualified, please get in touch with me because I’d love to explore these topics within veganism further.
Veganism and weight loss
I have mixed feelings about using weight loss as a lure to get people interested in veganism. And I really do mean lure - like PETA’s many campaigns blatantly pointing out that veganism leads to weight loss, and using weight loss as the main attraction of veganism.
(These campaigns are extremely problematic in many ways, including fat-shaming and not being evidence-based, and I go into detail in episode 70 of The No-Bullsh!t Vegan).
Yes, of course veganism has many health benefits, which I won’t detail here. And of course these benefits come from mostly whole foods vegan diets, not just any vegan diet. But as Holly mentioned, some folks come to veganism because “they think it’ll make them thin by naturally cutting down the ease with which you can buy cakes, cookies, things covered in cheese” (high calorie items). I think many people also come to veganism because they believe there’s something inherent about the vegan diet itself that aids weight loss. Of course both of these views are mistaken.
As we all know, delicious, calorie-dense vegan options abound! Some of my personal favourite treat foods are Oreos, Skittles, cinnamon rolls, and 70% dark chocolate. For people who want to lose weight, eating a large amount of foods like this is probably not in line with losing weight. It’s a numbers game with fat loss: calories. One of my coach colleagues has a great saying: "You don’t have to count calories to lose weight. But calories count when you want to lose weight".
Now, let’s talk about the concept of veganism inherently/automatically leading to weight loss. Without some additional context, we can’t say this about veganism. A PETA campaign that simply states, “Go vegan and lose weight!” is not accurate. However, there are some situations in which veganism may help someone with a weight loss goal. But it’s not veganism making the difference. It’s a calorie deficit. (Which, by the way, is the case for any diet that results in weight loss.)
Let’s say a hypothetical dude named Steve goes from eating the typical “Standard American Diet” to a whole foods vegan diet, and his goal is to lose about 40 pounds. In this case, if Steve eats a similar overall volume of food as he did before (the amount of food on his plate), his vegan diet may be less calorie dense than his previous diet, and may thus lead to weight loss. You could eat a burger or a monstrous salad the size of your torso for the exact same number of calories.
Now let’s say we have Sarah, who’s an athlete. She needs a high volume of food to sustain her training. She goes from a whole foods diet that contains some animal products to a whole foods diet that doesn’t contain animal products. Is she automatically going to lose weight? It’s difficult to say. Some athletes find they unintentionally lose weight after switching to a vegan diet, because the whole, plant-based foods they’re eating now aren’t as calorically dense as the animal-based foods they were eating before. So they have to adjust the overall volume of food they’re eating to match their calorie needs.
Even if veganism did lead to weight loss across the board (which it doesn’t), I’d still have mixed feelings about using that angle. On the one hand, I think any reason or any motivator for people to consider veganism is fantastic. Of course, like all other vegans on the planet, I want more people to go vegan! On the other hand, using a very aesthetic-focused outcome like weight loss as the main reason to go vegan is misguided, first of all, but also may result in disappointment, and I believe is less likely to result in long-term veganism than having ethical reasons, for example, as the main motivators.
So can veganism help with weight loss goals? Yeah, in certain circumstances. But should it be used as a catch-all weight loss strategy? Definitely not.
Fitness, aesthetics, and motivators for training
Let’s get into the really interesting intersections among health, fitness, and aesthetic goals. We all want to look awesome--that’s perfectly normal--but I think there are more and less effective (or healthy) ways of using aesthetics as an ingredient in what motivates you to create and sustain a fitness routine.
I think there’s a parallel between reasons for going vegan and motivators for maintaining a consistent fitness routine, when it comes to maintaining either over the long term. In my 18 years of being vegan and my 10 years of working with clients, I’ve seen that people who stay vegan long-term are the ones who have incorporated ethical concerns about the treatment of animals. They may not have started being vegan for ethical reasons, but over time they’ve incorporated ethical reasons. I’ve also seen that people who maintain a long-term fitness routine are the ones who have emotional motivators like being energetic and strong for their children or modelling healthy behaviour to their kids, rather than purely aesthetic-based goals. Like people who come to veganism for reasons other than ethics but then incorporated ethical motivations over time, they may not have started a consistent fitness routine for deeper emotional reasons, but they’ve incorporated them over time.
I realize that people whose #1 priority is changing the look of their bodies also have other reasons they want to increase their fitness, like keeping up with their kids, increasing their strength, being able to hike mountain trails well into their 80’s, or moonlighting as a superhero. Making these other, more meaningful motivations your top reasons for being healthy and fit will help to make fitness a positive aspect of your life, rather than something you dread. I know it sounds super cliché: You want fitness to be something you get to do, not something you have to do. And that, most likely, means you’ll stick with it long-term.
Very often, clients start training with me because they’re unhappy with how they look. Their sole motivation with their workouts and nutrition is to change their physiques. And that’s OK: we all want to look great and we all have a right to want to change our bodies. Once clients start training regularly and realize what their bodies can do, they continue training not because they hate how they look, but because they’re amazed at what they can do and they want to keep doing more and more amazing things. Training for non-aesthetic goals will most likely have an effect on your physique, anyway! How’s that for a win-win?
In episode 45 of The No-Bullsh!t Vegan, coach Ren Jones explains his “4 gates of health” that people pass through, ideally in order. This is when someone is completely new to fitness, or they’ve been away from it for a really long time, and they are getting back into it.
The first gate that people pass through is self-esteem and awareness. This is where you become aware of yourself through exercise. You start to feel better about your decisions, you feel accomplished when you perform self care actions like doing a workout, or doing your food prep on Sunday.
The second gate is when you start seeing health benefits. This would be seeing better numbers from your medical professionals: your blood sugar looks better, your cholesterol has decreased, you have a lower resting heart rate, and better blood pressure readings. (You can’t really get those benefits, of course, unless you’ve been some level of consistent.)
The third gate that people pass through is ability. This is where you’re noticing that you might have better balance. You might not be as out of breath going up the stairs. You can carry more groceries. You’ve improved your form, and increased the weight on your strength exercises. After a certain point of being consistent, you’re going to notice your ability improves.
The last gate, the fourth one, is aesthetics. Ren says you can only get here by passing through the other gates. A quote from him: “Conflict comes when people try to go through gate number four first”. Of course, this is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but these steps generally happen with the clients that we work with. Aesthetics are the last of the four steps.
I feel similarly about money as I do about training and aesthetics. My #1 mission with my work is to help people improve the quality of their lives, while spreading the good word of veganism and showing the world what plant-based athleticism is all about. It’s a really nice bonus to be compensated well for this work. If money were the main motivator behind my work, I would be in a completely different field! But I’m not going to lie and say I don’t like earning decent money. With my fitness, I train for many big reasons including mental health, managing chronic back pain, being able to do badass things like weighted pull-ups, walking the talk as a fitness coach, lifting heavy shit… and the bonus benefit is looking like I lift heavy shit. Which I like! Actually I love! But if my physique were the main reason I trained, my entire training regimen would look completely different, and my relationship to fitness, I think, would be completely different.
In an article titled “Ripped and Miserable”, Neghar Fonooni – an internationally recognized fitness professional and kettlebell instructor – describes her endeavour to get as lean and shredded as possible. Sporting a sixpack and 12% body fat, she certainly got there. But she was far from happy.
Neghar writes, “Inevitably, I fell apart, because what I was pursuing wasn't fulfilling. I didn't love who I was, and no amount of leanness would change that. What I would eventually discover is that true contentment comes from a place of self-love and compassion. Lifting and eating nutritiously are only sustainable if you do it because you love your body, not because you hate it. When you know, with the utmost certainty, that you are enough right now - not 10 pounds from now - only then can you begin your journey to the highest expression of you. Only then will fitness enrich your life, as opposed to detract from it.”
Girls Gone Strong recently put out an article on women’s unrealistic expectations regarding their fitness results, and how coaches can address these expectations. The article touches on why so many women have unrealistic expectations about their physiques, and presents a simple experiment you can do right now: Do a Google image search of the term “fit woman”. What do you see? In the words of this Girls Gone Strong article:
Likely a lot of:
Bodies with no visible disabilities
Six-pack abs and light muscle (but not “too much”)
Trendy workout clothing like crop tops and short shorts
In the same vein, the social media fitness accounts that have the most followers, including in the vegan world, are generally the ones where the posts (usually of women) show bodies with exactly the criteria the Girls Gone Strong article listed: lean, young, no visible disabilities, sexy poses, and usually white.
These are exactly the types of bodies we’re presented with over and over and over. It’s basically the one visual of “fitness” that’s burned into our brains. We don’t tend to see 200-pound female shot-putters or hammer throwers, or paralympians, or very many ethnicities other than white, represented in mainstream media or on social media. Even with the “strong is new skinny” slogan that became popular a few years ago, the images accompanying it are almost always of lean, six-packed women striking sexualized poses. It’s not really about being “strong”—it’s about having a particular look. (And fitness, or strength, doesn’t have just one look.) Not to mention this “strong is the new skinny” thing is still dictating what women should do or how they should feel or how they should look. Same ol’ bullshit we’ve been presented with our entire lives. Same shit, different pile.
No wonder people—women especially—have not only unrealistic expectations of themselves, but also very aesthetic-focused expectations.
Speaking of unrealistic expectations:
Why I don’t train clients for physique competitions
You already know that I’m not into the aesthetics-first approach to fitness. A client who recently signed up to work with me mentioned that she gravitated toward my website because I “didn’t lead with vanity metrics”.
Physique competitions have been around for a long time, and in the years preceding the COVID pandemic, they seemed to be getting more and more popular.
The outcome—what you’re judged on—is 100% aesthetic. Physique changes are what I consider an “output”. They’re not something you have direct control over. What you do have control over are inputs, like the work you put into your training, or what you eat for breakfast. (Tobias Sjösten discusses this concept of inputs versus outputs in episode 38 of The No-Bullsh!t Vegan.) Another example of an output is your weight on the scale. You can’t directly influence the number on the scale on any given day. But you can focus on your inputs, like going for a daily walk or making your high-calorie smoothie or whatever the case may be.
The “stage-ready” look for competitions also happens to be the one we see in the media of so-called fit people (who look like that for only a few weeks of the year, by the way), which sends a completely unrealistic message to the other 99.9% of us.
Physique competitions perpetuate the rampant over-sexualization and over-objectification of women in fitness. They don’t celebrate body diversity. Judges look for a very specific type of physique, which not everyone has the genetics for. So folks who do well in these competitions represent a very, very small slice of the human body shape spectrum.
Women already have enough body-related bullshit to deal with, bombarding us from every media source. We don’t need yet another arena for idealizing a very specific body type, judging us based on our aesthetics, sexualizing fitness, and encouraging potentially damaging workout and nutrition behaviour. Yes, we all want to look awesome – and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it’s much more productive (and empowering) to turn those aesthetic goals into performance goals or habit goals or input goals. You’ll get aesthetic results by default anyway, if you’re consistent!
"People who are detached from fitting into a size 4 dress are more likely to lose weight, because they won’t be overly discouraged by a lack of progress and can take pleasure in their eating habits." (From "Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want NOW!" by Stephen M. Shapiro.)
Interestingly, even if you do have physique changes among your goals, being detached from the outcome ironically may make you more likely to achieve them. (And also more likely to enjoy the process.)
Where do we go from here?
The connections between fitness, nutrition, veganism, physique, and body image are obviously very complex and we’ve really only scratched the surface here. Of course having physique-based goals is perfectly reasonable, but I think it needs to be done carefully, and balanced with other non-physique-based goals.
Here are some suggestions I have for you. First, three things you can do for yourself:
1. Train because you love your body, not because you hate it
Remember that you can love your body while it’s changing – you don’t need to wait until you achieve a specific goal. If you think you’ll be happy with your body once you lose 2 inches around your waist, or once you gain muscle definition in your triceps, or whatever else, you’re probably wrong. You’ll most likely find the next thing to nitpick about. We need to learn to love our bodies right now. Tell yourself, “I’m happy with my body now, while I work on improving what it can do and changing how it looks.” Or “I’m content with my body now, but I’m open to change.”
Amber Rogers, one of the most important voices of reason in the fitness industry today, says, “We all have flaws. They do not define you. Trying to get rid of them takes mental energy away from the far more important task of being awesome. None of us will ever be perfectly flawless, so focus your mental energy on what makes you awesome.”
2. Detach your self-worth from your physical appearance and current fitness level
Your physique and current fitness level don’t define you as a person. Your mission is to detach your self-worth from your physical appearance and athletic ability. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s very important to staying healthy – both physically and mentally – and being able to stick to healthy living and fitness habits long-term.
You’re already awesome, right here and right now. Being upset with your current situation is fine, and happens to all of us. Being upset with who you are based on your looks or current fitness level is destructive and isn’t going to get you anywhere.
I could write an entire article on the pros and cons of CrossFit, but here’s an excellent quote from one of their CrossFit Games videos:
“There are people who spend their entire lives allowing the reflection in the mirror to determine their self-esteem, submitting to a cultural judgment established decades ago. But in CrossFit gyms all over the world, mirrors are conspicuous by their absence. Fitness is gauged in reps, in speed, power, virtuosity. And beauty is measured in joy. And in pride…”
3. Stop comparing yourself to others
Comparing yourself to others is not doing you any good. Everyone’s goals, training schedules, priorities, experiences, lifestyles, genetics, and resulting physiques are different. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard things like “I want her shoulders” or “I want her legs”. Well y’know what? You’re never going to have her shoulders or her legs. And she’s never going to have your shoulders or your legs.
Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Did you finish your first year of weight lifting, look at someone’s 10th, and think, “I’ll never be as strong as that”? Did you finish your first race, look at your age group winner’s 200th, and think, “I’ll never be as fast as that”? Constantly comparing yourself to others means you’ll never feel good enough, and you’ll always struggle to celebrate your achievements. Use others’ achievements to inspire your own.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
In closing, here are some further suggestions I have for you to navigate the connections between fitness, veganism, and body goals:
Try not to promote veganism as primarily a weight loss tool. It’s not accurate, and while it may get some people interested in or thinking about veganism, anyone who considers a diet purely for its weight loss purposes is likely not going to stick with it long term.
Seek out individuals on social media who are in the fitness and/or vegan realms but don’t use aesthetics as their main focus. Look for people who share educational content rather than purely glamour shots. Also seek out people who aren’t typically given voices as often in mainstream media, like athletes with body types that don’t fit the current societal mold of what “fit” looks like, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, neurodiverse folks…the list goes on.
I’d also love to hear from you! How do you navigate the sometimes-very-thin line between health, fitness, and aesthetic goals? If you’re a coach, how do you help your clients navigate this balance? I’d love to hear from you—get in touch at karinainkster.com/contact.
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