Lose Weight Vegetarian Style
By Dietitian Juliette Kellow BSc RD
Turning vegetarian is often promoted as being a ‘healthier’ way to lose weight and stay in shape. But cutting meat out of your diet will not automatically make you slimmer.
In fact there are some risk factors you need to be aware of as processed vegetarian foods can still be packed with calories and nutritional nasties such as fat, saturates, added sugars and salt – and may lack important vitamins and minerals.
So just how can you guarantee that a meat-free diet will be healthier and help you shift those pounds? WLR comes to the rescue and answers some of your burning questions…
Will being vegetarian help me lose weight?
Some studies have shown that being vegetarian, or vegan, can have a positive effect on weight loss.
One recent study1, which looked at various diet plans followed by over 1100 people, found that following a vegetarian plan lead to up to 4lbs more weight loss, with vegans losing a further pound on top.
Researchers put the favourable results down to high intakes of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which are low in calories and rich in fibre.
The fact remains that whether or not you eat meat, to lose weight you need to take in fewer calories than you use up. This means your body is forced to use its fat stores to provide it with the energy it needs.
The best way to achieve this calorie deficit is to reduce your overall calorie intake and increase the amount of calories you burn by doing more exercise.
To lose a pound a week you need to eat 500 calories less each day than your body needs, or burn 500 calories a day in exercise (a very tough call!). In reality, most people lose weight successfully with a combination of cutting calories and increasing exercise.
You can find out how many calories you need to lose weight with the WLR tools, you can try them free.
Surely for a vegetarian calorie intake is lower because the diet contains more vegetables?
Most vegetables are low in fat and calories, providing they don’t have oil, butter, mayo or oily salad dressings added to them. And eating more veg can certainly help to fill you up for fewer calories, thanks to them containing plenty of fibre.
But many people who follow a veggie diet replace the meat and fish in their diets with large amounts of high-calorie foods such as cheese, nuts, seeds and ready-made vegetarian meals that contain high-cal ingredients, including pastry and rich sauces.
This means fat and calorie intakes can end up being just as high, or even higher, than a diet that includes lean red meat and fish.
Meanwhile, booze and many fatty and sugary foods such as biscuits, crisps, chocolate, puddings, cakes, confectionery, chips and soft drinks are still often included as part of vegetarian diet – and these are usually high in calories.
So whilst you might eat more low-calorie vegetables as part of a vegetarian diet, you still need to make sure that you stick to your daily calorie allowance overall – and this will mean making sure you don’t eat too many fatty and sugary foods or calorie-laden veggie dishes.
Do not assume vegetarian calorie consumption is automatically going to be lower than a meat based diet. Vegetarian fat intake should also be watched.
As a guideline, always check the packaging of ready-made vegetarian dishes or use a calorie counter to work out the calorie and fat content in a typical serving. For best results, keep a food diary – studies have shown it can double your chances of losing weight successfully.
So what foods do I typically need to watch out for?
Some foods typically included as part of a vegetarian diet may be high in calories. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid them – just remember to count the calories:
- Nuts, seeds and dishes made with these eg nut roast, nutty cereals, cereal bars, flapjacks and biscuits
- Cheese and dishes that include cheese eg cheese sandwiches, cheese on toast
- Vegetarian ready meals, especially those that include cheese eg veggie lasagne, veggie moussaka, macaroni cheese, vegetable bake
- Pastry products eg vegetarian sausage rolls, cheese and onion pasties, vegetable pies, spring rolls, vegetable samosas
- Vegetable pizzas, quiches and flans
- Hummus and soured cream or mayo-based dips
- Cream and creamy sauces and soups
- Takeaways such as vegetable curry, vegetable biryiani, pilau rice, egg fried rice, pancake rolls
- Meat-free sausages, burgers and patés.
Wouldn’t it just be better to avoid nuts and seeds when you’re trying to lose weight?
There’s no need to ban any one food from a diet when you’re trying to lose weight, and that includes nuts and seeds – especially for vegetarians, more so for vegans.
Yes, they are quite high in calories, but they are also a rich source of protein and fibre and are packed with important vitamins and minerals that are often found in meat and fish.
In particular, most nuts and seeds are rich in iron, zinc and selenium – all nutrients that are found in good amounts in meat and fish. See my companion article on good nutrition for vegetarians for more on how to make sure your diet is healthy.
Nuts and seeds are also a good source of calcium, making them particularly important for people who follow a vegan diet that avoids dairy products, which tend to be the main sources of this nutrient in most people’s diets. And whilst they are high in fat, most of this fat is heart-healthy unsaturated fat.
Vegetarians should eat these foods, the key is to monitor the amount you eat and remember to include the calories as part of your daily allowance.
Can cheese be included in a low calorie vegetarian diet?
Cheese is an important source of many different nutrients, including protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A, D and some B group vitamins and so can make an important contribution to vegetarian diets.
However, it’s not unusual for vegetarian diets to include large amounts of cheese and this can make it harder to lose weight, because it’s generally high in calories and fat. The key is to always count the calories. Look for reduced-fat varieties of cheese, too – they usually contain a similar amount of vitamins and minerals, but without as many calories or as much fat.
I always look for foods that are labelled as being ‘suitable for vegetarians’. Will this mean my diet is healthy?
Not automatically! There’s no legal definition for the term ‘vegetarian’ for food labelling purposes. The Food Standards Agency suggests that “the term ‘vegetarian’ should not be applied to foods that are, or are made from or with the aid of products derived from animals that have died, have been slaughtered, or animals that die as a result of being eaten”.
This has absolutely no bearing on the nutritional content of a food product though. Even if a product is labelled as being ‘suitable for vegetarians’, you should still check out the calorie and fat content to make sure that it will fit into your daily allowance.
So what should I eat on a vegetarian weight loss diet?
As I said before there’s no need to ban any foods, but as with any other diet for weight loss you should focus on whole foods rather than processed foods which are often very high in fat and sugar.
Here’s some ideas:
- Beans, lentils, legumes
- Low fat dairy products such as yoghurt and semi skimmed milk
- Soya and soya products such as tofu and Quorn
- Wholegrain bread, rice, pasta and cereals
- Any and all vegetables and fruit
- Cheese, nuts, seeds and things like hummus are all good to include – just watch your portion sizes and count the calories.
My Vegetarian Diet Meal Plan, gives lots of choices for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks you can mix and match.
If you want to make sure your veggie diet is healthy and includes all the nutrients you need take a look at vegetarian nutrients.
For those who are thinking about going vegetarian in order to lose weight, take a look at the health benefits of a vegetarian diet.
You can use the WLR food diary and database to monitor and balance your vegetarian diet. You'll also see how many calories and other nutrients you need and consume. Start a free trial here.