How You Might Lose Weight On a Vegetarian Diet
To the average omnivore, a vegetarian diet seems like it requires steamed, unimaginative veggies 24/7, makes your stomach constantly growl for something more substantial, and has few pay-offs, save for the lack of animal cruelty.
But in reality, the eating style allows you to get innovative with your cooking — from the techniques to the ingredients used — keeps your tummy full and satisfied, and offers numerous health benefits. And if you’re trying to lose weight, a vegetarian diet makes reaching your health goals pretty darn easy.
“One of the benefits of eating a plant-predominant diet is that those foods are naturally lower in calories,” says Alex Caspero, M.A., R.D., a registered dietitian and plant-based chef. “They’re naturally higher in fiber, which is going to help with satiation, and they're water-containing, which is going to help fill you up. You don’t have to struggle as much in figuring out weight management or weight loss.”
Need proof? Just look at this six-step guide to vegetarian diets for weight loss, which features expert-approved strategies to achieve your health goals without having to cut out your favorite foods. Here's how to get started.
Consider consulting an R.D.
Before you start making any changes — big or small — to your eating habits, Caspero recommends chatting over your plans with a registered dietitian. “Weight loss and health can sometimes be at odds with one another,” she explains. “What people do to lose weight might not always be the healthiest, and just because you’re losing weight doesn’t mean the things you're doing are healthy choices.”
Cutting out entire meals or attempting to suppress your appetite, for example, might cause you to lose weight, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be healthier by doing so, says Caspero. By meeting with a R.D., you’ll learn health-promoting behaviors that may *also* lead to weight loss or weight management, she adds.
Aim for whole, nutrient-dense plant foods.
Yes, cereal, pasta, and pizza are ~technically~ vegetarian, but they’re also made from refined grains that lack much of the satiating fiber and protein found in whole plant foods, such as unrefined, whole grains (think: oats, farro, barley), beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and fruits and veggies. And these nutrients are key in a vegetarian diet for weight loss.
Just think about eating a bowl of cooked farro with roasted veggies. The chewy whole grains and the tough veggies will both require some time to munch on, so you can’t scarf down the meal like you would with a bowl of pasta. Since these ingredients are packed with protein and fiber, you’ll end up feeling satisfied sooner, and “by the time you’re full, you’re likely to have taken in fewer calories than you would if you were going to eat a refined product or a meat- or dairy-based meal, simply because those foods tend to have more calories per bite,” says Caspero. The result: Your belly feels full and content — even though you consumed fewer calories overall. (ICYDK, here's a reminder of why fiber is oh-so important to include in your diet.)
Focus on the types of foods you eat, not the calories or carbs.
It may seem intuitive to start counting out your calories and carbs if you’re striving to lose weight, but Caspero would rather you direct your attention to the kinds of foods on your plate. “We’re learning that the types of food you eat matter a lot more than overall caloric amount,” she explains. “It’s why someone can eat a really processed food diet and consume fewer calories and potentially end up gaining weight, but someone who eats a really rich plant-food diet with higher calories or carbs may have a lower weight.” (Related: The #1 Reason to Stop Counting Calories)
Just look at a serving of cereal versus one of oatmeal, for example. A half cup of Frosted Flakes contains 70 calories and 17g of carbs, and while a half cup of rolled oats boasts 200 calories and 34g of carbs, it also provides a whopping 5g of fiber and 7g of protein — nutrients the cereal provides less than one gram of. Translation: Calories and carbs don’t show the full picture, so try to keep your focus on those filling, nutrient-packed foods that won’t leave you hangry an hour later.
Think about adding foods rather than getting rid of them.
You know that telling yourself to stop noshing on dessert every night or quit texting your ex once a month doesn’t lead to lasting change, so why should your vegetarian diet for weight loss be similarly restrictive? “Taking away feels like a very short-term, gimmicky behavior,” says Caspero. “I think if we’re focused on long-term, sustainable health, focusing on addictive behaviors is really the key.”
Think about the meals and snacks where you can add in a hearty salad, a side of colorful roasted veggies, or a few pieces of fresh fruit. “Adding foods will feel like you're focused on doing something positive,” she says. “And those foods naturally contain a lot of water, are very low in calories compared to other options, and rich in fiber — all things that we know contribute to weight loss or weight management, depending on the person.”
You can also swap out some of your favorite foods with their more nutritious cousins, rather than cutting them out from your diet completely. If you love spaghetti with marinara sauce, try subbing the regular white pasta with a whole grain version, or even fill your bowl with both varieties. Since the whole grain one has more of that filling fiber and protein, you’ll likely eat less of it, says Caspero. (P.S., read this before you stock up on those lentil pastas.)
Re-balance your plate.
If you’re adjusting portion sizes as part of a vegetarian diet for weight loss, Caspero stresses that you should always feel satisfied when you leave the table. To ensure your tummy isn’t growling post-dinner but you’re still on a path to achieving your health goal, try reducing the portion size for the calorically dense foods and increasing the amount of low-cal, fiber-rich foods. For example, if your meal is roasted butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, and lentil shepherd’s pie (which contains more calories than the veggies), cut yourself a slightly smaller piece of the pie than you normally would, then add more squash and sprouts to your plate, says Caspero. “You won’t feel like you're being restricted, but you’ll still be filling up on the foods that fork-for-fork don’t contain as much caloric density,” she adds. (Related: Is Fiber the Secret Ingredient to Weight Loss?)
Swap fats with other flavor boosters.
Butter, cheese, and oil are usually the go-to ingredients for making dishes rich and flavorful, but they tend to be calorically dense and high in fats, says Caspero. But again, rather than prohibiting yourself from enjoying butter on your whole wheat pancakes or cheese on your potatoes, consider reducing those ingredients, and also incorporating flavor boosters that are lower in calories, says Caspero.
Instead of smothering your flapjacks in a few tablespoons of butter, try using just a teaspoon and adding a small drizzle of honey or dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg. Rather than cooking your sweet potatoes in a quarter cup of oil and covering them in cheese, cut that oil in half, then sprinkle on fresh herbs, such as thyme and parsley, or powerful spices, such as turmeric and paprika. “Adding to those things is not only going to make your dish delicious, but it will also compensate for the things we’re decreasing, like the oil and butter,” she says.
What happens when you reach your goal?
Once you're ready to give up your vegetarian diet for weight loss, you can start to enter a maintenance phase, says Caspero. Your body will settle into a weight that it prefers to be at, and it will be easy to manage it just by eating a version of that nutrient-rich, fiber- and protein-packed diet you've been sticking to all along, she explains. "But instead of being concerned at all about a portion size, now you’re not," adds Caspero. "You’re just eating more intuitively, and you might say, 'I’m going to allow myself to eat a few cookies tonight because I want them,' while in a weight-loss mindset, you might not do that."