Get The Facts About Vegetarian Diets

What you need to know before you go veggie

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Is it true that switching to a vegetarian diet will automatically result in weight loss?

Well, not necessarily. On the whole, vegetarian diets tend to be lower in calories and higher in fiber, making you feel full on fewer calories. They can definitely help you shed unwanted pounds when done correctly.

But vegetarian foods can be high in calories and fat. For example, if you cut out meat but replace it with lots of cheese and nuts, you could end up consuming the same number of calories (or even more). On the other hand, eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, soy, and moderate amounts of nuts can help you lose weight -- as long as you monitor your calorie intake.

Many cultures around the world center their diets on vegetarian foods. The Greeks have spanokopita, Italians love their eggplant parmigiana and cheese-filled manicotti, and how about the Thai curries and vegetable stir frys?

Even if you're not a vegetarian, you probably include some of these favorites in your diet:

  • Chili
  • Bean burritos or fajitas
  • Falafel
  • Pasta with marinara sauce
  • Veggie sushi
  • Vegetable, bean, or lentil soup
  • Veggie pizza
  • Stir-fried tofu
  • Veggie burgers
  • Bean salads
  • Hummus
  • Macaroni and cheese

One Size Doesn't Fit All

The term 'vegetarian' means different things to different people. Some people who simply do not eat red meat call themselves vegetarians. Others consume huge quantities of fruit and consider themselves fruitarians.

The most common types of vegetarian diets are vegan, lacto, ovo, and lacto-ovo. The vegan, the strictest type of vegetarian, does not eat any animal products. Vegan diets are based on grains, seeds, nuts, legumes, soy, fruits, vegetables, and oils. A lacto-vegetarian eats dairy products in addition to the vegan diet. An ovo-vegetarian eats eggs along with the vegan diet. And a lacto-ovo vegetarian consumes both dairy products and eggs as well as the standard vegan foods.

Don't Be Deficient

Diets that include animal products are generally nutritionally complete. Vegans, on the other hand, often fall short of meeting requirements for vitamin B-12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and iron. The good news is that many of these nutrients are added to food products. Read the labels to find veggie products that have been fortified with added nutrients.

Taking a daily vitamin mineral supplement that provides complete amounts of the above nutrients is another way to ensure adequate nutrition. And getting plenty of sunshine is one way to satisfy the body's requirement for vitamin D.

If you adopt a vegan diet, you also need to understand the concept of complementary proteins. Animal protein is complete, meaning it contains all the amino acids essential to a healthy diet. Plant foods contain plenty of protein, but their amino acids are incomplete. So to make sure you're getting complete protein, eat different plant foods in combination -- for example, by having beans along with your rice. Vegans need to pay close attention to their diets to make sure they are nutritionally adequate.

The plan outlined in the Dean Ornish, MD, lifestyle diet book, Eat More, Weigh Less, is a vegetarian diet designed to help you reverse heart disease and lose weight. Ornish has published several scientific studies to document the effectiveness of his diet, which is high in fiber, fruits, and vegetables and very low in fat. This low-fat, vegetarian approach can be difficult to adhere to for a long periods of time. But if you can stick with it, the benefits are outstanding.

"A vegetarian diet may be just as effective as statin drugs in lowering blood cholesterol."

Why Be a Vegetarian?

Most people who convert to vegetarianism now do so for health reasons. Others are vegetarians because of religious, moral, environmental, and/or ethical motivations.

Vegetarian lifestyles are associated with a reduced risk of many chronic illnesses, including heart disease, many types of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Not only do most vegetarians eat more healthfully than meat eaters, they tend to avoid alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco and to exercise regularly. Clearly, a lifestyle that includes these good habits is one that will help you control your weight.

A study reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated the effectiveness of a vegetarian diet in lowering blood cholesterol levels. This diet was low in fat and included soy, nuts, margarines containing plant sterols (such as Benecol), high-fiber grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

The results suggest that a vegetarian diet may be just as effective as statin drugs in lowering blood cholesterol -- a finding that has far-reaching implications for many people.

Tips for Non-Vegetarians

Even if you're not interested in joining the 6 to 8 million Americans who call themselves vegetarians, it's a good idea to eat a meatless meal at least once a week. (A bonus: meatless meals often allow you to eat larger portions for the same number of calories.) Try ordering meatless dishes when you eat out to get familiar with a variety of delicious vegetarian foods. And when you do eat meat, move it off the center of the plate and treat it more like a side dish. Just reduce the portion size and fill the gap with vegetables, salads, legumes, and whole grains -- all naturally low in fat and high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

This little change in mindset can help you win the battle of the bulge!

Published July 30, 2003

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