Plant-based diets are on the rise. An estimated three to five percent of US adults do not eat meat, fish or poultry according to a poll conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group. (1) People become vegetarians for many reasons including religious ones, concern for animal welfare, affordability and health. Whether you follow a vegetarian diet or embrace a more plant-based way of eating, it has the potential to help you stay fit and lose weight when done right.
What is the vegetarian diet?
There are several types of vegetarian diets. One commonality is that they embrace a more plant-based way of eating incorporating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Dairy and eggs are included under certain vegetarian diets while meat, poultry and fish are universally excluded.
The types of vegetarian diets
Ovo vegetarian: This diet limits meat, fish, poultry and dairy. It includes egg products.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: This diet is the most popular type of vegetarianism. It limits meat, poultry and fish but includes dairy and egg products.
Vegan: This is the most constrictive type of vegetarianism. It limits any animal products or byproducts including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy. Vegans also exclude ingredients like honey and gelatin.
Four benefits of a vegetarian diet
1. May help with weight management:
A vegetarian diet may help with weight loss. Fruits and vegetable are low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals and filling fiber, meaning they take up room in your stomach and can help prevent over-eating. Plant-based diets have been linked to lower body mass index (BMI) and lower incidents of obesity. (2)
2. Heart health support:
Since saturated fat is found mostly in animal protein like red meat, a vegetarian diet could potentially lower its consumption. Saturated fat intake is linked to elevated cardiovascular risk. It is important to note that eggs and dairy also contain saturated fat in addition to a slew of important vitamins and minerals. Therefore, if you choose to include them, choose low-fat dairy when possible and moderate both egg and dairy consumption.
3. Can help keep you fit by aiding post workout recovery:
A vegetarian diet also has the potential to aid post-workout recovery. Produce is naturally rich in free-radical fighting antioxidants, which may help reduce inflammation. They are also rich in electrolytes like potassium and magnesium that are important for post-workout replenishment.
4. Environmentally friendly:
Diets that limit the amount of meat, fish and animal products consumed are more environmentally friendly. Production of animal foods requires a higher amount of water, land, fossil fuels and energy than production of plant foods. Therefore, plant-based foods have a lower carbon footprint and hence are a more sustainable way of eating. (3)
Four nutritional shortfalls of a vegetarian diet (and some workarounds)
Incorporating more plant-based foods has the potential to aid weight loss, support heart health and help with post-workout recovery. However, there are some potential downsides to following a completely plant-based diet.
1. Vitamin B12:
Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient for the body. It helps keep blood cells healthy and your nervous system working property. B12 deficiency symptoms include fatigue and weakness. It is recommended that vegetarians take a vitamin B12 supplement to keep levels in check or work with a registered dietitian to ensure they are meeting their needs. Fortified cereals, grains and nutritional yeast are some plant-based sources of B12.
Iron from plant foods is inferior to animal foods because it is in a form called non-heme that is harder for the body to absorb and utilize. In other words, if a vegetarian is eating a decent amount of iron, the body is not able to process it as well to maintain normal iron stores.
Iron is important for transporting oxygen throughout the body. One way to increase iron absorption from plant-based foods is to pair it with a good source of vitamin C like citrus. You can also seek out iron-enriched breads and cereals.
Iron deficiency can manifest as low energy. If you suspect you are deficient, it is important to get tested and talk to your dietitian about taking supplements or modifying your diet accordingly.
3. Protein deficiency:
Protein from plant-based foods can be inferior to animal proteins since they tend to lack essential amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein that help build and repair muscles and tissues.
4. Low energy:
Low energy can result from low B12 and iron levels along with lower protein intake. As a vegetarian, opt for routinely incorporating a good variety of foods.
4 foods to incorporate in a vegetarian diet
Following a vegetarian diet mindfully can help you stay fit and lose weight. Weight loss is dependent on calories consumed versus energy expended. Focusing on certain foods in the vegetarian diet is key.
1. Vegetables and fruit:
Vegetables are low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals and filling fiber. The dietary guidelines recommend at least five servings per day. Another study published in Nutrients showed that higher consumption of fruits and vegetables was linked to lower body mass index (BMI). (5)
2. Plant protein:
It is important, especially for weight loss and workout recovery, to consume enough protein while following a vegetarian diet. Since most plant proteins lack a complete spectrum of amino acids, or protein building blocks, it is important to consume a variety of proteins (plant-based or otherwise). Foods like dairy, eggs, legumes, seitan, tofu, tempeh are all good sources.
3. Whole grains:
Consuming sufficient whole grains on a vegetarian diet is important for keeping energy levels in check. Whole grains are a good source of fiber and certain B vitamins. B vitamins are important for energy production and metabolism. Opt for fortified grains to help meet your iron and B12 needs. Examples of whole grain foods are oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa.
Good fats are essential to a healthy diet, but it is important not to overdo them when trying to lose weight since fat is the most energy dense macronutrient. Keep oil serving sizes to a few teaspoons and nuts and seeds to one ounce each.
Sample day of healthy vegetarian eating
- 1/2 cup fortified rolled oats cooked in 8 ounces skim milk
- 1 cup berries
- 1 hardboiled egg
- 8 ounces vanilla Greek yogurt
- 1 apple
- 1/4 cup walnuts
- 2 cups stir-fry vegetables
- 1 cup cooked fortified brown rice
- 4 oz. tofu or tempeh
- 1 tbsp avocado oil
- 1 cup raw vegetables
- 1 cup whole grain crackers
- 1/4 cup hummus
- 2 ounces cooked fortified whole grain pasta
- 1/2 cup marinara sauce
- 2 tbsp parmesan cheese
You can get all the nutrition you need, lose weight and stay fit while following a vegetarian diet. However, it is important to educate yourself and ensure that you are satisfying your nutritional needs while excluding meat, poultry and fish. Working with a registered dietitian can also help you meet your goals.
Read more from our “Eat Well Series”:
- HOW MANY ADULTS IN THE U.S ARE VEGETARIAN AND VEGAN? (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2018, from https://www.vrg.org/nutshell/Polls/2016_adults_veg.htm
- Turner-McGrievy, G., Mandes, T., Crimarco, A. (2017). A plant-based diet for overweight and obesity prevention and treatment. J. Geriatr Cardiol., 14(5), pp. 369-374.
- Carbon Footprint Factsheet. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2018, from http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet
- Woo, KM, Kwok, TCY, Celermajer, DS. (2014). Vegan Diet, Subnormal Vitamin B-12 Status and Cardiovascular Health. . Nutrients, 6(8), pp. 3259-3273.
- Charlton, K., Kowal, P., Soriano, MM., et. al. (2017). Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Body Mass Index in a Large Sample of Middle-Aged Australian Men and Women. Nutrients, 6(6), pp. 2305-2319.