It is a common misconception that a vegetarian diet is ‘healthier’ and therefore better for weight loss than a diet containing meat products.
Although a vegetarian diet is likely to be higher in vegetables, beans and legumes than a more carnivorous eating style, this does not necessarily mean it is lower in fat and calories.
To lose weight, the total calories that we eat need to be less than those which we burn. Adopting a vegetarian diet may help you to achieve this negative balance, but it is important to be aware of vegetarian foods that can contribute just as many calories to your diet, if not more, than meat products.
Whether you have chosen a vegetarian diet for weight loss, or for other health or ethical reasons, it is still essential to be well informed about the types of food you are eating and the way they can impact on your health.
Benefits of a vegetarian diet for weight loss
A well planned vegetarian diet can provide many health benefits to the follower. Vegetarians often replace meat products with legumes, such as lentils and chickpeas. These are high in fibre and contain many key nutrients, as well as being lower in fat than most meat products.
Vegetarians also normally eat more or a greater variety of vegetables than meat eaters too, meaning their diet is likely to be richer in vitamins. Processed meats and high fat cuts of meat contribute large amounts of unhealthy saturated fat and calories to the diet, so by eliminating these products, calorie intake may be reduced.
However, eliminating meat alone is not usually enough for significant weight loss. To achieve healthy weight loss on a vegetarian diet you can try to follow these tips.
1# Choose low fat dairy products
Many vegetarians use dairy products as a substitute protein source to replace meat in their diets. This does have the benefits of providing a complete protein source, with essential minerals such as calcium, but can also be a high saturated fat and calorie alternative.
It is important to choose low fat versions of products such as milk and yoghurt; these will still have the same amount of protein and calcium, but less weight loss hindering calories and fat.
Cheese is another popular vegetarian choice. Low fat hard cheeses can have a bland taste and still be relatively high in fat, so you may find it better to substitute with a naturally low fat fresh cheese such as cottage or ricotta, or simply limit your hard cheese intake to only a few times a week in small serves. Using a more strongly flavoured cheese such as parmesan in cooking means you need less to appreciate the taste.
2# Use low fat cooking methods
Vegetables, legumes and beans are all low fat and calorie, high fibre, nutrient packed foods, as long as you cook them the right way. Frying foods in oil, coating salads in oil dressings, or spreading butter on wholegrain bread are all easy ways to add a lot of calories to your diet and slow weight loss.
Try frying in a non-stick pan with a tiny amount of unsaturated olive oil, or use a method that requires no fat such as grilling or baking. Sprinkle vegetables with fresh or dried herbs and spices and drizzle with lemon juice for added flavour without the calories.
Try to avoid using butter and mayo in sandwiches and on bread. Opt instead for low fat spreads such as mustard.
3# Avoid processed foods high in sugar, fat or refined grains
By choosing to eat vegetarian foods, you do eliminate a number of unhealthy food choices from your diet. However, there is still a huge number of processed, high calorie and fat foods that contain no meat products and will stop you from losing weight. Biscuits, cakes, donuts and pastries (sweet and savoury) can all ruin a diet.
Be especially aware of vegetarian options such as pasties, quiches and pies. Although they may contain more vegetables than the meat version, the pastry and fillings and still be high in fat and refined grains. See also: What are empty calories food.
4# Beware ‘fake meat’ products
Meat substitutes come in just about every shape and form. These are usually made from gluten or soy proteins and flavoured to resemble popular meat foods such as bacon, burgers and hot dogs.
Whilst in general, these are lower in saturated fat than meat, as they are made with vegetable proteins, it must be remembered that they are also processed foods, and it is not always clear exactly what is in them. It is important when choosing products that you check the calorie and fat content of the product as many contain hydrogenated fats and fillers that bump up the calories.
Also bear in mind that if you use unhealthy cooking methods such as frying, or add unhealthy condiments to a meat substitute, the calorie and fat content will also be increased. A burger made with vegetarian bacon and burger, but still slathered in mayonnaise, fried onions, and cheese, all on a sugary refined white bun isn’t going to help you lose weight.
5#Choose healthy restaurant and takeaway meals
Vegetarian meals are becoming more and more readily available in restaurants and take away joints. This means that there are usually a lot more choices on a menu than in the past when a vegetarian diner may have been met with one or two options, or even just a salad.
Unfortunately, not all chefs are well versed in vegetarian cooking, meaning that a lot of vegetarian dishes are bland or rely heavily on ingredients such as cheese, cream and fat for flavour.
It is important to make informed choices when eating out if you are trying to lose weight, for example always choose a tomato based pasta sauce rather than a creamy or cheesy one and ask for less cheese on pizza toppings. Ask for your salad dressing on the side and opt for oil and vinegar versions rather than creamy one such as Caesar.
Try to choose dishes that have been cooked in a healthy manner such as grilling, boiling or steaming rather than frying. If you are unsure of how something is cooked or what is in it, ask! This can be particularly important in Asian restaurants, which generally have a lot of vegetarian options, but are often deep fried. See also 10 Dining out tips for losing weight.
6# Watch your portion sizes
Even if you are eating the healthiest foods, if you eat too much you will put on weight. For vegetarians, it is important to watch the size of the carbohydrate portion of your meal.
As you are not eating meat, more of your plate may be made up of carbohydrates such as pasta, potatoes or rice. These are all easy to overeat and may not keep you as full for as long as a protein based food. Try to fill the majority of your plate with vegetables and include a protein source at each meal to avoid over eating carbohydrates.
If necessary, buy smaller plates as these give the illusion that you are eating more.