Numerous studies have shown that a vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of many chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer. Mounting evidence has found this healthy way of eating can also help us slim down.
Vegans and vegetarians consume diets that are higher in fibre and lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol compared to people eating a nonvegetarian diet–factors that reduce disease risk and help facilitate weight loss. In fact, a scientific review of 87 studies published in April 2006 in Nutrition Reviews concluded that a vegetarian diet is highly effective for weight loss, independent of exercise.
Vegetarians Use Fuel More Efficiently
Study authors Drs. Susan Berkow and Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine found that the body weight of both male and female vegetarians is, on average, 3 to 20 percent lower than that of meat eaters. The researchers also found that a low-fat vegan diet led to weight loss of about one pound per week during the study period, even without additional exercise or limits on portion sizes, calories, or carbohydrates.
According to the authors, “There is evidence that a [vegetarian] diet causes an increase in calories burned after meals, meaning plant-based foods are being used more efficiently as fuel for the body as opposed to being stored as fat.”
The reviewers also reported that insulin sensitivity increased for vegetarians, easing the absorption of nutrients into cells.
A Word of Caution About Carbohydrates
When going vegetarian, be careful to focus on eating fruits and veggies, which are high-fibre, nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates, and not on starchy comfort foods such as bread, pasta, and rice. The carbohydrates in fruits and veggies are absorbed slowly into the body to maintain blood sugar, mood, and energy levels.
In contrast, white bread, pasta, and rice are broken down quickly and cause rapid increases in blood sugar and insulin levels, which are associated with weight gain as well as increased hunger and appetite. Continually eating a diet based on high-glycemic (quick-release) carbs can increase the risk of diabetes.
Although fruits naturally contain sugar, they are also high in fibre and thus are broken down into sugar more slowly as compared to refined starches and sweets such as cookies, candy, and soft drinks.
The bottom line is that carbs provide us with good nutritional value (vitamins, minerals, and fibre) and they can play an important role in a healthy diet. As a vegetarian or vegan, opt for whole grains over refined products and fill two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, beans, and legumes, and the other one-third with starches.
A vegetarian diet is a sensible and proven way to reduce weight and improve many other aspects of health. For further advice about becoming vegetarian, consult with a dietician or nutritionist.
Vegan Versus Vegetarian: What’s the Difference?
You can decide to go vegetarian or you can decide to go vegan. Vegetarians eat a plant-based diet and do not eat meat, but may eat dairy and eggs. Vegans do not eat animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs, gelatin, or honey.
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
If you are thinking of going vegetarian, here are some tips on how to make the diet work with a busy lifestyle:
- For breakfast, protein shakes made with whey protein, berries or other fruits, and yogourt will take only a few minutes to prepare. Oatmeal and whole grain toast with poached eggs or almond butter are other great breakfast ideas.
- Pack your lunch the night before so that you aren’t stuck resorting to a fast-food lunch. Salads made with grilled vegetables, chickpeas or beans, and nuts are healthy and satisfying. Leftover soups and stews make great lunches. Or try sandwiches made with sprouted wheat bread or pita wraps and grilled veggies.
- Use a slow cooker. Tons of great recipes for soups and stews are available and you can prepare the ingredients the night before, put them in the pot when you leave for work, and have dinner ready when you come home.
- Other quick, healthy dinner ideas include stir-fried vegetables, lentils, and tofu with steamed brown rice. Or bake vegetarian lasagne, which can be prepared the night before. There are plenty of great cookbooks for vegetarian meals in minutes.
- Bring along some healthy snacks to work such as veggie sticks, nuts, fresh or dried fruit, yogourt, or energy bars.
More Weight Loss Tips
Don’t skip breakfast. It really is the most important meal of the day and studies have shown that those who do skip breakfast are at a greater risk of becoming obese and/or diabetic.
Eat small, frequent meals to keep energy levels high and blood sugar levels balanced. Aim for three meals and two snacks between meals so that you are eating something every three hours. This frequency will also keep your metabolism revved and prevent hunger cravings.
Try not to eat too late in the evening as our metabolism is slower toward the end of the day, and calories can be stored as fat rather than burned as energy.
Drink plenty of water (at least eight to 10 glasses every day). Water works with fibre to fill you up and help cleanse the body. A lack of water (dehydration) can be mistaken for hunger.
The Vegetarian Pantry
- Stock your cupboards with an assortment of dried and canned beans, nuts, and seeds such as almonds, cashews, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds.
- Have brown rice, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, couscous, hemp hearts, and barley handy.
- Shop locally for leafy greens and try to walk regularly to your neighbourhood produce store so that you always have fresh salad ingredients on hand. If your schedule is tight, though, consider ordering a bin of organic fruits and vegetables to be delivered to your home each week.