A new study has found that the vegetarian diet is just as effective for weight loss as the popular Mediterranean diet. And the vegetarian diet was actually more efficient at lowering LDL cholesterol, the "bad" cholesterol. We know—there are so many ways, diets, and methods to get healthy out there—it can get a bit exhausting. But going vegetarian is increasingly becoming an approach to consider for its host of energy, fitness, and nutritional benefits.
For those who are still skeptical: the vegetarian diet and being "veggie" is more straightforward than ever these days. For a start, there are more plant-based meat alternatives than in years past thanks to growing awareness of this diet in the U.S., and there are some amazing recipes—not to mention restaurants—that cater to vegetarians, vegans, and their needs. Want to know how it can help you lose weight and the best tips to follow? Here's a super-quick download on the vegetarian diet, according to the experts.
Meet the Expert
What Is a Vegetarian Diet?
The vegetarian diet isn't as restrictive as other plant-based diets, and many vegetarians still eat eggs and dairy products even though meat consumption is off the table. Typically, health, religious, environmental, or cultural factors influence the decision to adopt this method of food intake. However, it's important to consider the health impacts and consult a professional before making any big changes to your food intake.
According to Lon Ben-Asher, the most common type of vegetarianism is called "Lacto-Ovo," an approach that requires avoiding animal meat but allows for dairy and eggs. The nutritionist also cites "Ovo," which permits eggs, and veganism, which prohibits consuming all meat and animal by-products, as other popular versions of the vegetarian diet. Ahead, we'll focus on the most prevalent type of vegetarianism, which allows for eggs, dairy, and other animal by-products while avoiding meat.
Tips to Lose Weight on the Vegetarian Diet
Food Effect author and nutritionist Michelle Braude, MD, confirmed that the vegetarian diet is useful for weight loss: "[One study of obese individuals found] that most men and women lose weight when they switch to eating plant-based protein instead of red meat and animal protein." She also cited research that showed the more animal protein and saturated fats people ate, the more at risk they were of becoming overweight or obese.
That being said, the key to weight loss is creating a calorie deficit, explains Ben-Asher. His advice? Focus on calorie density. "Choose foods that are low calorie-dense, meaning they have a lot of water and high dietary fiber content, which creates volume in your stomach and keeps you feeling full for a long period of time." These include minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. However, remember that your calorie deficit shouldn't be too high. Long-term health and weight loss require an individualized and sustainable approach without any severe restrictions.
Choose foods that are low-calorie-dense—like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes—to help with satiety and keep you full for longer.
It's also worth noting that if you're dairy intolerant or can't eat eggs or nuts, it's not as easy to get your protein, which you will need for a balanced diet. However, it can be done. Braude again offered some sage advice about how to get enough protein in your diet when becoming vegetarian.
"If you're wondering how you will get enough protein and iron if you don't eat animal protein, just consider that the world's strongest primate, the gorilla, consumes enough of these nutrients by just eating fruit and vegetables and leaves," she says. Unlike the gorilla, she continued, "a human's vegetarian diet is likely to be a lot more varied, with plenty of plant-based sources of protein (nuts, nut butter, beans, legumes and so on), so you definitely have nothing to worry about."
What Vegetarian Foods Boost Weight Loss?
In short, vegetarians should focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and unrefined carbohydrates—such as oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, farro, millet, potatoes, yams, beans/lentils, and other legumes, says Ben-Asher. Braude also recommends ensuring your protein intake is sufficient after cutting out the meat in your diet. If you are worried about getting enough protein (the recommended consumption for the average woman is 46 grams per day), the author and nutritionist created a useful table you can use to work it out by eating meat alternatives:
Make sure you're getting plenty of plant-based sources of protein when you switch to the vegetarian diet.
- 75g cooked lentils (18g protein)
- 75g cooked split peas (16g protein)
- 2 eggs (12g protein)
- 250g 0% Greek yogurt (23g protein)
- 100g uncooked oats (7g protein)
- 1 sweet potato (4g protein)
- 40g chia seeds (12g protein)
- 25g protein powder (20–25g protein)
- 4 tbsp sunflower seeds (8g protein)
What Vegetarian Foods to Avoid for Weight Loss
Although cutting down on your meat intake has a slew of benefits, not all vegetarian foods are created equal. "Packaged and highly-processed foods such as potato chips, pretzels, dried cereals, bread, and crackers" will not leave you feeling full and satiated, so they are best to be avoided in large quantities, says Ben-Asher. It's better (and easier) to focus on adding whole foods to your diet rather than avoiding any particular food group or type.
With a vegetarian diet, some of the calorie-counting work is already done for you. Braude explains that animal protein, especially meat, is high in saturated fat, "so by cutting this out of your diet, you save a lot of calories." She even said that despite chicken's "healthy" label, "certain cuts of poultry, such as dark chicken with the skin on, are extremely high in fat and, therefore, calories."
The Final Takeaway
With all drastic changes to your diet, consulting a nutritionist or doctor is important to cutting down on your meat intake safely. Vegetarianism is a viable option for some people, but there is no one-size-fits-all for nutrition, so make sure to check in with yourself regularly to affirm that going "veggie" works for you.
As you cut down on animal meat and certain by-products, make sure you're consuming plenty of whole foods (vegetables, whole grains, and fruits), as well as keeping your protein intake up through a variety of plant-based alternatives. And if weight loss is your ultimate goal, it's important to keep in mind that a number on the scale is not necessarily the best indicator of health. Vegetarianism has plenty of health benefits and positive outcomes that have nothing to do with losing, maintaining, or gaining weight.
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Richter M, Baerlocher K, Bauer JM, Elmadfa I, Heseker H, Leschik-Bonnet E, Stangl G, Volkert D, Stehle P; on behalf of the German Nutrition Society (DGE). Revised Reference Values for the Intake of Protein. Ann Nutr Metab. 2019;74(3):242-250. doi: 10.1159/000499374