Can Going Vegetarian Help You Lose Weight?

Alexis Joseph, MS, RD, LD
by Alexis Joseph, MS, RD, LD
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Can Going Vegetarian Help You Lose Weight?

When it comes to losing weightnot all calories are created equal. That’s why registered dietitians and health experts recommend prioritizing whole foods — which come loaded with fiber and other important nutrients — and cutting back on processed foods. And now, there’s more evidence that cutting back on meat may help as well.

Beyond weight, there are also findings that a vegetarian lifestyle can lower the risk for heart disease, cancer, blood pressure and even death (not to mention the staggering environmental benefits). Not surprisingly, vegetarian diets are gaining in popularity. It also helps that there’s evidence to say vegetarians and vegans weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts. Let’s dive into the details and see how reducing meat consumption may be helpful for shedding those stubborn pounds.

One caveat: Weight loss is tough and highly personalized. What works for your neighbor may not work well for you.

FINDINGS FOR WEIGHT AND GOING VEGETARIAN

A large 2010 study examined the diets of 373,803 men and women in 10 European countries over the course of 8 years found eating meat was positively linked to weight gain. The researchers found that after adjusting for calories, eating 250 grams of meat (about one steak) per day would lead to a 4.4 pound (2kg) weight gain after 5 years. Naturally, the researchers concluded eating less meat would help with weight management.

Generally speaking, vegetarians weigh less than omnivores. A 2015 analysis of 15 studies by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that adopting a vegetarian diet leads to weight loss, without calorie counting or exercise. Going all-out vegan may reign supreme in the weight-loss department.

Harvard researchers also looked at how vegetarian diets affected weight loss. They combed through 12 studies with a total of 1,151 participants. Note that all 12 studies were randomized controlled trials meaning they assigned participants to either a vegetarian or non-vegetarian group (e.g., control group). Each study lasted about 18 weeks or 4.5 months. Their findings: Vegetarians lost 4.4 pounds more than non-vegetarians, and vegans lost 5.5 pounds more than non-vegetarians.

HOW GOING VEGETARIAN CAN HELP YOUR METABOLISM

recent study showed people who adopted a vegetarian diet lost almost two times more weight than carnivores — even when both groups followed low-calorie meal plans. The research found following a vegetarian diet also reduced subfascial and intramuscular fat, supporting an active metabolism.

“Our cardiometabolic health is greatly impacted by fat distribution. The visceral fat and the fat inside the muscle and liver cells seem to be the most metabolically dangerous,” explains study co-author Hana Kahleova, PhD, director of clinical research at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

THE BENEFITS OF CUTTING BACK ON PROCESSED MEAT

It makes sense that eating less meat can be helpful for weight loss. While it’s a good source of protein, meat is higher in saturated fat, cholesterol and usually calories than plants, not to mention the fact it’s void of filling fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants. Therefore, eating too much meat (or too much of anything) isn’t be good for you.

Moreover, the latest research suggests eating animal and dairy products like eggs, cheese, cow’s milk, yogurt and butter and avoiding meat — a classic vegetarian diet — is associated with a lower BMI. The researchers suggest a plant-based diet contains fewer highly processed foods and less saturated fat and sugar than diets containing a lot of meat. “It’s likely meat eaters may be getting a higher proportion of their calories from processed meats like sausages, hot dogs and cold cuts, which are higher in calories but less filling, and could lead to weight gain,” explains Kahleova.


READ MORE > YOUR MIX-AND-MATCH MEATLESS MONDAY MEAL PREP PLAN


HOW TO GO VEGETARIAN HEALTHFULLY

Remember being vegetarian doesn’t automatically mean being healthier. After all, cookies, pie and cheese pizza are all meatless. The key to losing weight on a vegetarian diet is fueling yourself with nutrient-dense whole foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds.

Going vegetarian automatically means eating more carbohydrates since meat is the only food group without this nutrient. Be mindful that the quality of carbs matters, and aim for higher-fiber, less-processed options. For example, pick roasted sweet potatoes or spicy black beans rather than white bread.

It’s also a myth that ditching meat means you can’t get enough protein. Incorporate plant-based, protein-rich foods like beans, whole grains, eggstofu, nuts and seeds into every meal and snack to ensure you’re meeting your daily needs and staying full.

While reducing consumption of meat may seem daunting, it’s not as hard as you’d think. More and more restaurants are offering vegetarian options, and not just cheesy pasta, either. Don’t be surprised when you see quinoa patties and bean “meatballs” popping up on menus everywhere — fast-food included. The good news is this trend isn’t going anywhere and the world is only going to become more accepting of meatless preferences.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Even if you don’t adopt a fully vegetarian diet, you can still reap the health benefits of eating more plant-based foods. “Focus on nutrient-rich fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds,” recommends Nancy Z. Farrell Allen, RD. Cutting back on processed meats high in saturated fat and incorporating healthy fats from eggs and dairy can also help with weight loss. If you do choose to consume meat, “limit processed meats and red meat to no more than 2 ounces per day and fewer than three servings — about 18 ounces of cooked red meat — per week,” advises Amy Gorin, RD. These meats, which are high in saturated fat, can contribute to weight gain. Instead, opt for leaner picks like skinless chicken breast, ground turkey and shrimp.

Originally published October 2016, updated with additional reporting by Jodi Helmer

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About the Author

Alexis Joseph, MS, RD, LD
Alexis Joseph, MS, RD, LD

Alexis is a nationally recognized nutritionist and media personality specializing in nutrition communications and intuitive eating. She founded Hummusapien, a multi-faceted food, wellness, and lifestyle website in 2011 and co-founded Alchemy Juice Bar + Cafe in Columbus, OH in 2014. Alexis also works as a writer, speaker, and nutrition consultant for food brands and commodity boards.

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20 responses to “Can Going Vegetarian Help You Lose Weight?”

  1. Avatar Hillary says:

    THIS IS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! I am vegan and this is probably the first positive article about being vegetarian/vegan that is straight to the point and not stuck on the “But protein” argument. This is great

  2. Avatar Ami says:

    Where is the recipe for this yummy looking chick pea dish that’s pictured for this article?! I want some!

  3. Avatar Nicole says:

    Woulda been nice except for all the typos…. Sorta discredits it, imo. -And that’s coming from a vegan.

  4. Avatar Ami says:

    I should’ve also posted my experiences with this. I don’t consider myself vegetarian however I eat that way at home, as well as being low-sodium and low carbohydrate. When I say low carbohydrate I mean what she said in the article like picking my grains with higher fiber and I do actually still lay off of them a little bit. I did Atkins for many years and that worked for me for a while but at some point you hit a plateau because you’re still eating too many calories and like mentioned in the article one size does not fit all. Not to mention all the detrimental things that can happen to your body when you eat meat three or four times a day.
    Great article!

    • Avatar Mimy says:

      I’m with Amy in regards of Atkins diet and not being smart enough to count on calories. The day came when I was not loosing any weight and didn’t know why? Well, I was eating too many calories and my body was not burning them as fast as it used to. Now I am counting on calories AND carbohidrates, and I’m loosing weight.

  5. Avatar A. P. Thorsen says:

    I’ve been vegetarian for 42 years. I got fat that way – overweight, then obese, and stayed obese for decades. Then I lost weight until I was at a low-ish but healthy BMI, still vegetarian. Yes, eating plant foods is a Good Thing, but there’s no weight loss magic. The population studies benefit from the fact that it’s often health-oriented people who become vegetarian.

    • Avatar Lee says:

      I agree! I was a vegan for 11 years, and not only did I gain weight but I became severely anemic too… even with daily intake of beans and tofu. Europeans tend not only to be thinner than we are, but they control portions much more effectively than Americans… and I know it from personal experience living in Italy, France, and Spain. So my sense is there’s more to this story than we are hearing in this article.

    • Avatar Goodenrachel says:

      Exactly. Me and my sis gained weight on this shit . Especially if u not vegan or doing it for pure strict dietary reasons

  6. Avatar Keny says:

    I’ve been an oval lacto vegetarian for 31 years…For most of my life, I’ve been in the mid range of my bmi. As I’ve gotten older, I noticed that I was getting to the high end of my bmi, guessing it was metabolism. Mostly it was because of food choices and options. Back in college I was limited to what was available, and thus gained weight. Now, I track my intake and excercize and finally am at the low end of my bmi. I eat what I want, when I want, I just track it now and up my exercise when needed. Options are more readily available, yes, but for a picky eater as I am, sometimes it’s still hard. I eat at home more than I eat out. Being a vegetarian, I am more conscious of what I eat. I think a vegan would have to be even more conscious. Good luck to your food lifestyle.

  7. Avatar Goodenrachel says:

    one word: Misnomer

  8. Avatar Am says:

    Well all I have to say is that I went vegan 1 year and 3 months an I’m not nearly close to my BMI, but ALL of my labs are perfect! Obviously going vegan is affecting something!!! Just because you are thin doesn’t mean you’re healthy!

  9. Avatar Vince Millett says:

    Vegetarianism DOESN’T reduce the risk of death…That remains at 100%.

  10. Avatar tpy2012 says:

    This past May, my wife and I started Joel Fuhrman’s, “Eat to Live” program. It is highly Vegan to begin with. We cut out animal protein, dairy, breads, pasta and diet soda. We don’t drink alcohol, so that was not a problem. I am down 75 pounds and my wife is down 28 (to our wedding weight!). Fuhrman says to begin to add animal protein after 6 or 12 weeks, but as an condiment, not and entree. We may have fish, 4 oz, 1-2 times a week. Loving the diet. It takes much longer to eat. Great macro nutrient dense vegetables and 4-5 fruit servings a day. I still want to to lose some more weight, and I expect this manner of eating will help me get there. I have always been active and so my exercise has not changed. I did get off of 70 units of insulin a day and other oral meds for diabetes. I stopped my insulin after 1 week on the plan.

  11. Avatar Lisa Marie Ciccarone says:

    My vegetarian life~style began 12.26.15 (therefore soon approaching my one year “vegetarian anniversary”). My partner of three years had just abruptly left me, ending our relationship; and I quickly recognized I needed to find strength and focus on something that would take commitment, drive, and determination. That along with my immense love for animals ~I decided to become vegetarian. The journey has been amazing, rewarding and self~fulfilling; I’ve lost 66lbs, I feel and look healthier & younger, and I’m back into running and consistent daily exercise. In the beginning, I felt becoming a vegetarian would be a battle/sacrifice; but it ultimately resulted in being a gift/blessing

  12. Avatar Lisa Marie Ciccarone says:

    Precisely Nicole.

  13. Avatar Meghan says:

    I was vegan for a few years, then added eggs to my diet about a year ago, and then more recently goat cheese and yogurt. My digestive system has been terrible because of all the fiber, but I did lose some weight. However, my B-12 is super low, even with supplements, and I’m almost prediabetic at 120 lbs! So people should be very very careful. Humans weren’t really meant to eat this way, and any sort of restrictive diet has drawbacks. I have now added eco friendly fish to my diet as per doctor’s orders (sardines and dover sole). We’ll see how it goes, but already my digestive system is glad I’m no longer eating beans, haha!

  14. Avatar Mariela Nunez says:

    A few years ago I became vegetarian to control my acne but not only did it help with my skin but also with my weight. I am concious of the need of proteins in my diet but not from meat but from beans and my fav:Tofu! I’ve realized that am not as bloated as I used to. And even though I never thought Id give up meat I dont crave it at all. Whole grains with lots of fiber are my best friends for breakfast. They help me feel full longer. I really love my way of life right now! I have to be honest and say that maybe once a year I take a bite out of a barbecued rib or steak but Is never as satisfying as my eggplants or chickpeas. 🙂

  15. Avatar Mars007 says:

    Being a lifetime vegetarian didn’t prevent the drop in my metabolism when I turned 18, nor did it make it easier to lose the weight. I don’t recommend doing it solely for weight loss. Those people never last, nor do the trendy ones. Some vegetarians also eat nothing but bread and pasta and rice.

  16. Avatar Tan says:

    I’ve recently started eating a meatless diet to lose weight. I’ve lost around 9lbs in about 2.5 weeks. I think it’s great for weightloss so long as you don’t eat crap veggie food. You can still eat poorly on a vegan diet, you have to be careful eating cheese, yoghurt and ice cream of any kind, dairy or otherwise! But lots of veggies and beans are great. I love making veggie mince and eating it in lettuce wraps with Mexican ingredients. Yum!

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