Nutrition Articles

Lose Weight the Right Way As a Vegetarian or Vegan

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When SparkPeople member HOLLYSTORMCLOUD became a vegetarian nearly 10 years ago, she simply replaced meat with processed meat substitutes and made no other changes, continuing to consume vast quantities of cheese, butter and pasta. Then, she says, "When I finally decided to do vegetarianism correctly and stop eating so much garbage, I began to slowly lose some weight."
 
Over the next 10 years she lost about 10 pounds, but it wasn't until she made the decision to clean up her diet even more that she saw significant weight changes.

While it may come as a surprise to those who equate vegetarians or vegans with a thin yogi body, those who elect to eliminate meat from their diet share the same struggles of losing weight. In the end, it is all about the amount and the types of foods you eat, as well as how much you exercise, that ultimately leads to an all-over healthy lifestyle. "Eliminating one or more food groups isn't going to cut it. SparkPeople member APPLERM sums it up best, recalling how she became a vegetarian about 17 years ago, and did drop a few pounds initially. Then, she says, "I realized Doritos do not have meat in them."
 
When losing weight as a vegetarian or vegan, it's not so much about what you give up but about what foods you include in your diet that makes you successful.   
 

What to Include When You Want to Lose

 
"A vegan or vegetarian diet does not automatically mean a healthy diet," Megan Roosevelt, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Healthy Grocery Girl, says. "Technically a vegan diet is one that avoids animal foods. However, there a plenty of vegan foods that are not healthy, such as desserts or processed snack foods. A plant-based vegan diet is ideal for an individual with weight-loss goals. This type of diet is based in real, whole foods that are nutrient dense while also avoiding animal foods."

"The amount of protein, carbs and calories each person needs per day will vary based on many factors including height, weight, activity level, health status and health goals or needs. The average sedentary female needs about 46 grams of protein per day, while a sedentary male typically needs 56 grams of protein. While it may seem difficult to consume adequate protein solely from a plant-based diet, it is actually easily attainable!" Roosevelt explains. "For weight-loss goals it's important to consume a diet that you find enjoyable, satisfying and nutrient dense. When wanting to lose weight, I recommend focusing on quality of foods first, versus quantity."

To safely and effectively lose weight on a vegetarian or vegan diet, registered dietitian Stephanie Dunne recommends making sure to include the following steps:            

1. Drink plenty of water. Proper hydration helps our bodies clean out toxins and waste effectively.
2. Eat plenty of fiber. It is essential for feeding our good gut bugs (our microbiota) and to enable daily bowel movements which are essential for carrying toxins and waste out of the body. The best sources of fiber are whole vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes.

3. Consume plenty of protein. For vegetarians and vegans, consuming beans, legumes, nuts and seeds provides lots of protein. Many vegetables have some protein in them, as well. It may be necessary to include an appropriate, plant-based protein powder to get enough protein in one day if you are coming up short or engaging in high-intensity activities.

SparkPeople member JLEFAE struggles with getting enough protein without the fat. She became a vegetarian 30 years ago due to health issues, only to discover giving up meat wasn't enough. "Although my general health initially improved, I actually gained a lot of weight the first couple of years because I didn't know how to do it right. Since then my weight has gone up and down. The biggest challenge for me seems to be eating enough protein without adding a lot of fat, and getting plenty of exercise," she says. 

4. Eating enough healthy fat. Good fats ensure proper absorption and utilization of fat-soluble vitamins. Ideal sources of healthy fats include avocado, olives or olive oil, nuts and seeds.

5. Remove foods that cause you any sensitivity. Some foods cause inflammation and can contribute to weight gain. Common food sensitivities include gluten, dairy, corn, eggs and soy.

6. Taking supplements. You may need a B12 supplement, as this vitamin is only found naturally in animal-based foods. Getting enough B12 is essential to convert the food we eat into energy. It's also needed to create healthy blood cells and to protect our nerves.

Health and wellness coach Nathane Jackson also notes that, "It is wise to monitor other nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium and the omega-3s DHA and EPA, as these can become deficient if you're not careful."


Choose Foods Wisely


To make sure you are eating the right amounts of foods and getting the proper nutrients you need to feel energized and healthy throughout the day, vegetarians and vegans need to learn to be aware of what they eat instead of meat.  

"After identifying where their calories come from, vegetarians trying to lose weight need to identify how to change their calories. This will be different for everyone; it's not appropriate to say 'one approach fits all.' In order for weight loss to last, it has to be a change that can be sustained," Paula Wesson, a registered dietitian and nutritionist says.
 
Avoid making these four mistakes when watching your weight.

1. High-calorie traps. Watch out for high-calorie meat substitutes, and leaning too heavily on cheese for your protein. "There are some high-calorie traps that many vegetarians fall into. Those who are lacto–ovo vegetarians, for example, might rely too heavily on cheese to meet protein and calcium needs. An ounce of cheddar cheese gives you about seven grams of protein (about the amount in an ounce meat, fish or poultry, or a single egg), but it will cost about 120 calories," Susan Bowerman, registered dietitian and director of nutrition training at Herbalife, says.

Meat substitutes rely heavily on processed ingredients, sodium and other fillers to give you that "meat-like" taste and texture—which can also mean additional calories. Be sure to check the ingredients on meat substitutes, before purchasing. For vegetarians that eat dairy, choose lower fat and calorie options, such as string cheese or low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese.

2. Lay of the refined carbs. Carbohydrates found in white bread, pasta and processed snack foods like pretzels and crackers should be kept to a minimum. "Cereals can be a problem, too: Healthy-sounding granolas can pack as much as 400 calories a cup, but don't offer up much protein. Keep [your] focus on beans and whole grains like brown rice, millet, quinoa or oats. These foods offer up more nutrition than refined grains and, because of their fiber content, they're more filling, too," Bowerman says.

3. Don't forego the fiber. Fiber helps you stay full and may help you lose weight, too. When you consume healthy carbs, you should make sure those you eat have a higher fiber content. The recommended daily intake of fiber is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men "Fiber's heath benefits include assistance [with] bowel movements, improving gut health, lowering cholesterol, maintaining proper blood sugar levels and promoting satiety. It also slows the absorption of sugar and helps with lowering blood cholesterol levels," holistic nutritionist Jennifer Nourafshan says.

Good sources of fiber include Brussels sprouts, avocados, beans, flaxseeds, apples, berries and broccoli.

4. Watch the nut products. Much like meat substitutes and high-calorie dairy, many vegetarians and vegans use nuts and nut butters as go-to protein sources, but their high fat content also makes them caloric. Keep these products to a minimum or try the low-fat versions.

Although the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle may come with a few more weight-loss hurdles than a typical diet, as long as you are mindful of proper nutrition and food choices, you should be able to clear them.

If you are worried about staying accountable for what you eat, try a nutrition tracker. "[SparkPeople's] nutrition tracker is especially helpful and has allowed me to see where my imbalances are," JLEFAE says. "I am really working at getting enough protein and cutting down on the fat. That can be easily achieved by sticking to a mostly plant-based diet. Remember, vegetarian starts with 'VEG.'"

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About The Author

Elizabeth Lowry Elizabeth Lowry
I'm a member of SparkPeople's editorial team and I write, edit and manage the content you read. I am passionate about living a healthy lifestyle and enjoy cooking for my family and friends, running, strength training, teaching weekly spin classes and playing outside with my kids. I also love a good challenge and recently found that in Barre class. That's not to say I don't enjoy a good indulgence once in a while--wine and chocolate are two of my favorite things. I am grateful to be here, helping our members reach their own healthy living goals.