Why Some Vegetarians Have An Easier Time Losing Weight Than Others
Vegetarianism isn’t a dietary lifestyle people usually adopt with weight loss as their primary goal. It’s more about caring for the lives of animals, our planet, costs, and the length and quality of their lives. But sometimes, a slim figure is just an added bonus. Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index than those who eat meat (and vegans rank even lower). But that isn’t always the case, especially for novice vegetarians navigating their new lifestyle of choice.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition suggests that a vegetarian diet can be twice as effective as an anti-diabetic one when it comes to weight loss, but the researchers didn’t really dig into why that might be the case. So we spoke with Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, and founder and director of Real Nutrition in New York City, to better understand the association between vegetarianism and weight loss success.
Surprisingly, this study’s result isn’t the most common use case unless you’re looking at educated, very conscious vegetarians. “A lot of times what I see in my office is people coming to me to lose weight because they are vegan or vegetarian, but they’re putting on weight,” said Shapiro. “The sources of food that they go for or what’s available to them is usually very high carb, and if you’re vegetarian, your protein typically becomes cheese. So, a lot of the time, it ends up being a high-fat, high-carb diet. Pizza is technically vegetarian. Pasta in a restaurant is typically vegetarian… This is what I see until I educate them and we start turning things around.”
The ideal vegetarian diet, on the other hand, can often result in both healthy weight loss and maintenance. And that’s what the aforementioned study implemented: they cut out almost all saturated fats because the diet didn’t include cheese, eggs or dairy with the exception of yogurt (it was almost a vegan diet). “They took out a huge insult of what a lot of vegetarians use as the crutch for their protein source,” said Shapiro. So when they compared this perfect picture of vegetarianism to an anti-diabetic diet, which reduces sugar and simple carbohydrates, but doesn’t stress animal products due to their lack of effect on blood sugar levels, there really was no contest. One had saturated fat, and one didn’t.
Now, saturated fats aren’t all bad. We just need to consume them in moderation. Shapiro (and the American Health Association) recommend that 6-10 percent of your overall daily calorie consumption come from saturated fat. This is a crucial number for vegetarians to remember as they strike a balance with their nutrition (and avoid feeling hungry 24/7). And if they’re consuming yogurt and cheese and coconut oil all in the same day alongside the rest of their food, it’s incredibly easy to overdo it on the fats and end up with a pretty high-calorie diet. And too high calorie means not so much weight loss (and likely even weight gain).
The moral of the story: if you choose a diet with restrictions and don’t properly research it or commit, it can really backfire on you. Vegetarians who pay attention to their saturated fat intake, go for complex carbs and avoid simple ones and sugars will be far more successful in weight loss and ultimately live a much healthier life. You just have to do it right.