Vegetarian Diets for Weight Loss – Can they Help?
There have never been more vegetarians in the world than there are today. The number of people no longer eating meat has rocketed in recent years, with figures suggesting than more than 8% of British people now follow a plant-based diet.1
What was once a marginal viewpoint is now very much in the mainstream. What is the impact of a vegetarian diet for weight loss, though? Does cutting out meats and the fats associated with them mean an easy route to losing weight? Or is vegetarian weight loss a little more complicated than that?
Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, pescetarian, flexitarian or just vege-curious, join us as we explore how a herbivorous diet can affect your weight…
First things first – what exactly is a vegetarian diet?
Put simply, being vegetarian doesn’t just means avoiding eating meat, poultry and fish/seafood any more..
Instead, the emphasis is on fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, pulses and seeds. You’ll find some more ‘traditional’ followers of the diet that prepare very healthy and nutritious meals using foodstuffs grown from the earth. While other vegetarians tend to focus on modern meat replacements, such as the ‘fake’ burgers and chicken that are made from soy and mycoprotein. With plenty of people enjoying both approaches.
There are varying levels of dedication to vegetarianism, from the full-on most dedicated to the more relaxed ‘veggies’. Here’s a general guide:
- Lacto-vegetarian – No meat, fish, poultry or eggs. Dairy products like milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter are allowed
- Ovo-vegetarian – No meat, poultry, seafood or dairy products such as milk, but eggs are permitted
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian – No meat, fish or poultry, but all dairy products such as milk and eggs are enjoyed (this is the most common approach)
- Pescatarian – No meat, poultry, dairy, but fish and dairy are fine
- Vegan – Strictly no meat, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy products at all
- Flexitarian – ‘Flexible vegetarians’ generally do not eat meat, poultry or fish, but do eat dairy. They will sometimes eat animal products
What science says about vegetarian weight loss and a plant-based diet
Research from the scientific community tends to suggest that – on the whole – vegetarianism is healthy. It also appears to indicate that vegetarian weight loss for those on plant-based diets tends to compare favourably with their meat-eating peers.
Studies from Harvard and the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) show that people who exclusively eat plant-based foods tend to live longer and healthier lives. And do so while controlling their weight2.
Of course, correlation isn’t causation. So it’s important to say that none of the science is firmly stating ‘vegetarianism is innately healthier than carnivorous eating’. It appears it could be, but there’s also a good chance that the vegetarians involved in the research were also just living healthier lifestyles in general.
How the vegetarian diet for weight loss can be tricky
There are a few ways in which switching to a vegetarian diet for weight loss can be problematic eating a no-meat diet can make losing weight can be problematic. These include:
- The temptation to carb load – With some thought, preparation and effort, it’s perfectly possible to have a very healthy vegetarian weight loss diet that’s in line with your goals. However, go out to a friends or eat at a certain type of restaurant and you may be forced to opt for the limited vegetarian options available. These can often be refined, carb-heavy choices involving a lot of bread, potatoes and pastas.
- Making up for a potential deficit in protein – Meat is a very good source of protein. While there are lots of sources of protein open to vegetarians, it can be easy to miss them and the hormones that they contain which regulate appetite.3 Skip these and you could end up overeating in order to achieve that ‘full’ feeling.
- Eating too many overly-processed foods – ‘Plant-based’ sounds healthy, doesn’t it? And it often is. But rely on a diet of frozen veggie burgers and similar foods that may be a little too processed and the sodium, preservatives and sugar could take their toll on your weight.4
Relying on high-calorie foodstuffs – We’re not necessarily talking about chips, crisps or biscuits here. Many veggie staples such as nuts and avocados are extremely calorific. You may think you’re being healthy eating them, but they should only really be eaten in moderation.
Vegetarian weight loss – Foods to eat when on a diet
To aid weight loss, it’s important to concentrate on plant-based food that is not processed. Try to make up the bulk of your diet with these foods:
- Lean proteins – Beans, legumes, seed, eggs, yoghurt and tofu
- Healthy fats – Seeds, cheese, avocado, olive oil and coconuts
- Nuts and seeds – Pistachios, walnuts, cashews, almonds and sunflower seeds
- Whole grains – Brown rice, pearl barley, bulgur wheat and quinoa
- Fruits – Apples, oranges, berries, bananas, grapes, citrus fruits, mango and kiwis
- Beans and legumes – Black beans, lentils, and kidney beans
- Starchy vegetables – Potatoes, squash and peas
- Non-starchy vegetables – broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, courgettes, aubergines, carrots, cucumber and celery
Vegetarian weight loss – foods to avoid when on a diet
We’ve seen what needs to find its way into your trolley each week as a vegetarian on a weight loss journey. Now let’s look at some of the major meat-free items to try and avoid with any real regularity:
- Highly processed foods – Veggie burgers, other meat replacements, frozen meals, frozen desserts, ice creams/imitation dairy products
- Refined carbs – White bread, bagels, croissants, white pasta, bagels, pizzas
- Sugary foods and beverages – Sweets, biscuits, pastries, fizzy drinks, fruit juices, energy drinks, chocolate
A vegetarian diet for weight loss can’t, in and of itself, help you shed the kilos. Nor will it necessarily lead to any kind of weight gain. But eat the right fruit, vegetables, proteins, grains, nuts and pulses – in correct portion sizes – and it will help.
What matters is how you approach a meat-free, plant-based diet. It’s about what you eat, not what you don’t eat.