Here's the Skinny on Why Vegans Are Weak

There is a misconception that, on average, vegans are interminably underweight or weak. This misconception exists for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that the vegan diet is both fairly new to most people (though the term “vegan” was coined in the 40s) and is quickly gaining in popularity. This means that there's a widely popular trend toward the vegan diet, while at the same time basic knowledge on the subject is not so widely available.

The dietary restrictions for vegans have become common knowledge – no animal products – so most people can follow along in that area, but knowledge on balanced nutrition is less accessible. This all-or-nothing attitude for many new vegans leads to sudden and drastic restrictions in their diet before they’ve had time to figure out what they can eat and what meals they can prepare – as you might imagine, this approach often falls short in the nutrition department.

Newbies Doing Newbie Things

There are new vegans so hyper-focused on not consuming any animal products that they lose sight of consuming enough calories each day, let alone meeting their macronutrient needs. You can hardly blame them – completely changing your diet overnight gives you a lot to juggle all at once. Keeping that in mind, the vegan diet and poor nutrition are two separate issues. It is my view (after decades of being vegan) that the vegan diet is sufficient to sustain a long and healthy life. Of course, that is making the assumption you pay attention to eating a balanced diet – something which should be of some concern across all dietary choices, not just veganism.

Right now, people who have transitioned to veganism in the last few months and years far outnumber those that have been vegan for several years or more. It’s no surprise there's a misconception that the vegan diet is nutritionally inadequate, given the majority of vegans today have the least experience in eating a healthy, balanced vegan diet. I've said it before, and I'll say it a hundred times: take your B12.

This is why I would suggest a slower transition to plant-based eating, so that you have enough breathing room to develop strategies and vegan meals to meet your caloric and nutritional needs. This is without even mentioning that a slower approach makes it more likely for someone to stick with their new diet in the long term. By ensuring that you continue to eat enough food to feel healthy and energized, the transition will feel much less discouraging and much more worthwhile.

What's the second reason vegans are believed to be skinny and weak? Vegans still make up a minute slice of the population. Think of it this way: You see people who consume an omnivorous diet every day. Some of them slimmer, some heavier, and some in phenomenally good shape. Within a large population of people eating an omnivorous diet, you’d expect to see a diversity of body compositions. You don’t give it a second thought, and you certainly don't judge the omnivorous diet to be nutritionally inadequate based off seeing skinny, weak omnivores. It's understood that, while the dietary restrictions are relatively the same among omnivores, the eating habits and nutrition can vary considerably from one person to the next

Omnivores Aren't as Big and Strong as They Think They Are

So why is it different when you meet a vegan? This diet is often somewhat foreign to people, so the intuitive idea of variation within a population is liable to slip their mind; upon first impression of meeting a vegan, an instant subconscious judgement is made about the vegan diet in general. They have a very narrow reference from which to draw, so they judge whether the vegan diet is nutritionally adequate based on the vegan standing in front of them – do they look strong and healthy?

Since very few vegans are likely to be introduced to this hypothetical omnivorous fellow (due to such a small population), the first impression is not so likely to be revised by examples of meeting vegans in the future. And so the misconception of skinny, weak vegans remains. The truth is, most people are not in impressively good shape, vegan or not. If you only meet one or two vegans, the odds of them being in great shape are not good. Similarly, if you were to randomly pick out two omnivores, the odds are equally bad.

People who consume an omnivorous diet make up the majority of the population, and even though most of them are not in impressively good shape, the vastness of their population ensures that you will meet a few omnivores who look great – this simple distinction shifts the mind from judging the diet itself as the deciding factor for good health, to considering the lifestyle and eating habits of unique individuals.

There is enough evidence, through occasional sightings of very fit people, that the omnivorous diet can be “adequate.”  Now consider, scarce in the population as they are, the rarity of meeting a vegan that is in impressively good shape. There is so little evidence of these very fit vegans, not because the vegan diet is inadequate, but because the vegan population is such a small fraction of the whole. The rareness of spotting a fit vegan is amplified by the fact that it's less common to be in great shape, vegan or not. And so, with such rare evidence, the perception stands. It's math, folks.

What Can Be Done?

The first of these two issues (poor nutrition) can be addressed on an individual level. It’s up to anyone who is completely changing their diet to make sure they are still meeting their nutritional needs. Talk to your physician if you have to, or a nutritionist if you have the resources to do so. Heck, you could find oodles of free, comprehensive information on the internet – Shout-out to Jack Norris and Ginny Messina.

The second issue can only be resolved with time. As more and more vegans spring up, the likelihood of spotting vegans that are maintaining a long, healthy lifestyle will increase. If you are vegan and you want to get in shape, the equation remains the same: Eat enough nutritious food, exercise, drink plenty of water, and get sufficient sleep. Vegans do not face some insurmountable challenge when trying to bulk up or slim down – as I’ve mentioned in depth, that’s just the perception. Protein is protein.

You can get all of the essential amino acids that you need as long as you make sure you’re eating legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Just like any other diet, you need to pay attention to getting the nutrition you need to meet your goals. Omnivorous or vegan, getting in shape is the same goal. You do not need to approach your exercise or nutrition differently just because you’ve chosen one diet or another; you are more-or-less physiologically the same, and so your body will respond the same given that you’re meeting your nutritional needs and exercising properly.

The vegan diet may receive greater scrutiny due to its novelty, but it is just as sufficient in terms of consuming proteins, fats, carbohydrates and micronutrients. The building blocks of food are relatively similar from one diet to the next, but the perception is vastly different. That’s society for you: resistant to change to the point of delusion. Or, to put it nicely, ignorance.

Please keep in mind that this is an opinion piece based on personal experience and acquired knowledge. If you have your own opinion to share, please do in the comments below. If you’re concerned for one of your skinny vegan friends, feel free to share this with them.


  1. I think this article does not sufficiently address the issue in question. Stereotypes usually exist for a reason. They serve as a heuristic device for recognizing patterns and processing information. There is generally a grain of truth to them. There are caveats of course, "not all _____ are like that", etc. but stereotypes are usually based on valid statistical differences in averages between groups.

    Saying that the stereotype is not representative of an actual group difference because of different population sizes, or small sample sizes is a non-sequitir. The sample size of vegans continues to grow and the stereotype of them being weak and scrawny persists.

    It is quite possible that vegans, on average, are skinny and weak. The existence of physically fit vegans does not disprove this. Nor does it necessarily mean that vegans are skinny and weak because of the vegan diet. Veganism as an ideology could appeal disproportionally to men with low testosterone levels for example. Then the perception of vegan men being weak on average would be factually accurate, even if it was not the veganism or the vegan diet that was causing it.

    In fact I think the above hypothetical situation is exactly true.

    1. I would argue your hypothetical is not exactly true: vegan men have equal free testosterone levels to other diet groups (and slightly higher overall testosterone than vegetarians and meat-eaters) []. I've seen more than one study to come to this conclusion.

      I think the stereotype that vegans are any more weak than non-vegans is misleading, because it assumes that most non-vegans are stronger than average. My point in the article is simply that most average Joe's are not particularly strong or fit, so of course most vegans are not particularly strong or fit. There are a handful of examples of vegan athletes, and at this point I wouldn't expect there to be more than a handful, because it remains a very small group. Likewise, among non-vegans, athletes make up a small portion of the whole.

      Put another way: if you see a football roster (53 players) and only one of the players is vegan, you might think, "vegans must have a harder time making the cut because their diets have poor nutrition." However, if one player on the roster is vegan, that's almost 2% of the team. Vegans are still 0.5% of the U.S. population, so 2% is an over-representation. Not bad! If you look at it that way, vegans have better odds of making it onto a football team than meat-eaters!

      I will say that the average vegan carries lower body fat than the average non-vegan. This could be partially due to excluding dairy from the diet. Dairy is high in the growth hormone IGF-1, and the study I linked above noted that vegans tend to be 9% lower in IGF-1. However, this isn't detrimental to health, as far as I know: too much IGF-1 could actually be unhealthy.

      If you've heard of the term "skinny-fat," you could say that an average non-vegan tends to be skinny-fat, while an average vegan tends to just be skinny. They could have an equal amount of muscle tone, but the vegan looks smaller, so it's easy to mistake them for being weaker.


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