Will Going Vegetarian Help You Lose Weight?
Rumor has it that Adele has slimmed down by following a strict vegetarian diet. Whether that’s truth or fiction many people have been asking me, “is going veggie a good way to lose weight?” The answer is a resounding yes—but only if you do it right.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 65 percent of American adults age 20 and up are overweight or obese, but the prevalence of obesity among vegetarians and vegans is below 10 percent. On average, the body weights of both male and female vegetarians are three percent to 20 percent lower than omnivores. Research has also found that switching to a healthy vegan diet leads to weight loss, even without changes to exercise or limits on portion size, calories, or carbohydrates. And, studies have found an increase in calorie burn after vegan meals, meaning plant-based foods may be used more efficiently as fuel for the body, as opposed to being stored as fat—pretty powerful support for a plant-based diet. But in my years of private practice I’ve also seen people gain weight by going vegetarian, when they don’t get the right balance. Here are some veggie dos and don’t’s:
DO aim for quality
In order to help you slim down and optimize your health, vegetarian or vegan meals should contain plenty of vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and healthy plant-based fats like avocado. I’ve met tons of “junk food vegetarians and vegans” who don’t eat the minimum recommended servings of produce and live on highly processed foods like faux pepperoni pizza, veggie hot dogs, vegan cookies, candy, and ice cream. It’s not just about getting the animal-based ingredients out; it’s also about eating whole, nutrient-rich foods.
DON’T overdose on cheese
Ounce for ounce, cheddar packs four times the calories and nine times the fat of skinless chicken breast, which is why I’ve seen new vegetarians gain weight when they trade turkey sandwiches for grilled cheese sandwiches, or rely on pizza and mac and cheese as staples. If you decide to keep dairy in your diet, limit yourself to one cheesy meal per day with a max of one ounce of real, natural, or organic cheese. And stick with 0 percent organic milk or yogurt and plant-based proteins like beans and organic tofu at other meals.
DON’T forgo protein
Protein is a key factor in weight control because it boosts satiety, preserves muscle and revs up metabolism. If you go vegan be sure to pay attention to your protein intake. Quinoa provides eight grams per cup cooked, lentils pack 17 grams per cup cooked, one serving of extra firm organic tofu contains 9 to 11 grams, and almonds provide 6 grams per ounce.
DON’T drink your produce
Health conscious vegetarians are often fans of drinks that combine green veggies and fruit, but a 16 ounce glass can pack over 250 calories and not feel as filling as eating that produce whole. For example, for less than 250 calories you could eat:
1 cup raw broccoli – 20 calories
1 cup raw carrots - 50 calories
1 cup raw kale – 35 calories
1 medium apple – 80 calories
1 cup whole strawberries – 50 calories
I recommend juicing and fresh veggie/fruit drinks to clients who are professional athlete who have a hard time eating the amount of produce they need for fuel and recovery. But for my clients who exercise an hour a day or less, who are trying to lose weight, whole fruits and veggies are a much better way to meet their bodies needs and feel full after meals and snacks.
For more info about how to go veggie, even part time, and build a balanced plate, check my article on how to eat more plant based meals. And if you’re becoming vegan and want to be sure you’re getting enough nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium, I highly recommend a book written by two of my colleagues Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.