The word “diet” has a lot of meanings attached to it. When most people hear it, they immediately think of food restrictions to lose weight. They might imagine having to cut out their favorite foods, eat cabbage soup for weeks, or go low- or no-carb. Really, all the word “diet” means is one’s method of eating. You can have a varied, healthy diet that has nothing to do with weight loss at all.

This is part of the reason why people automatically assume that specialized diets, like a plant-based diet, will lead to weight loss. After all, it’s plant-based — so that means it’s healthy, right? In reality, the truth isn’t quite so cut and dry.

What is a plant-based diet?

When people refer to eating “plant-based,” they generally mean a diet without animal products. That means lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and no dairy, meat, fish, poultry, or, in the majority of cases, honey.

Are plant-based diets healthy?

A plant-based diet isn’t innately healthier than a conventional one. Like anything else, you can only get out what you’re willing to put in.

For example, due to the rise in popularity of animal-free diets, manufacturers have come out with plenty of plant-based equivalents to conventional junk food. You can get a meat-free, dairy-free cheeseburger, fries, and soy- or oat-based milkshake from a takeout place, and follow them with chocolate chip cookies for dessert.

Let’s compare sources of dietary fat. A tablespoon of butter contains 102 calories, and over a third of the recommended daily limit for saturated fat. The same amount of coconut oil contains 117 calories and about 60% of the daily limit for saturated fat. Nutrition experts argue that coconut oil’s fats are healthier than butter’s, but that can’t automatically be extrapolated to plant-based diets as a whole. Hydrogenated oils, which are sources of dangerous trans fat, contain no animal products. Food can be labeled as “plant-based” and still contain plenty of dubious ingredients.

For people who are willing to cook at home, expand their menu, and try dabbling in different sources of protein and unsaturated fat, plant-based diets can be very healthy.

Will eating plant-based trigger weight loss?

This is a much tougher question to answer. The fact is, there’s nothing special about a diet free from animal products when it comes to weight loss. Following the junk food example above, a person could eat nothing but French fries and popcorn all day long, and still technically be eating “plant-based.” That doesn’t mean it’ll be very good for their waistline or endocrine system, though.

That said, there are situations where going plant-based will result in weight loss. For people who have specific animal-based “trigger foods,” eliminating them from their diet may curb their desire to overindulge. Psychologically, saying “I choose not to eat that” is also often easier to follow through with and less limiting than “I can’t eat that.” For some people, the decision to go plant-based can turn “I can’t” into “I choose not to.”

People who abandon their fast-food favorites for plant-based alternatives can lose weight, too — the trick is to prepare them at home. Restaurant food is cooked for flavor, not nutrition, so it’s full of hidden sources of fat, sugar, and sodium. Adopting a plant-based diet and learning to prepare animal-free versions of old favorites can lead to weight loss because you’ll be much less likely to add extra sources of calories.

Eating Plant-Based for Weight Loss

In order to make an animal-free diet help with weight loss, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t assume that plant-based equivalents of conventional foods are healthier or lower in calories.
  • Read nutrition labels on packaged foods, even if they don’t contain animal products.
  • Eat a variety of legumes and vegetables as a protein source. Animal proteins are considered “complete,” meaning that they contain all of the amino acids necessary for life. Vegetable proteins generally aren’t, so a variety of protein sources are needed to get all of the necessary amino acids. Legumes and vegetables are high in fiber, so they can help with satiety.
  • Cook most of your meals at home. You’ll have more control over what goes into them, and are less likely to add extra fat or sugar than a restaurant is.
  • Remember that you’ll still need to use more calories than you take in in order to lose weight, no matter where those calories come from.

People follow plant-based diets for many reasons, ranging from health to ethics, to religion. While it might seem like these diets are perfect for weight loss, this isn’t always the case. There is no shortcut to losing weight — even a plant-based diet involves understanding the impact that food has on our bodies. With the tips above, you can this way of eating to help you get to or maintain a healthy weight.