Vegetarianism has long been considered an effective way to lose weight, and for good reason. In a nutshell, vegetables have fewer calories, less fat, and more nutrients compared to processed meats. Celebrities who went vegetarian showed dramatic weight loss, and those who tried it for even a few days felt generally healthier.
But as with any weight loss plan, a vegetarian weight loss diet has its risks and benefits. Before trading that steak for a salad, it's important to know the pros and cons. Here's a quick guide to help you out.
Weight loss benefits
Several studies have shown that vegetarians are far less likely to become obese than meat eaters. In Western countries, vegetarians have lower blood cholesterol and body mass index (BMI). But people on a vegetarian weight loss diet enjoy several other health benefits. They have a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other conditions linked to excess weight. A study of Seventh Day Adventists, a religious group that practices vegetarianism, shows that members had half as much risk of high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, and various cancers.
How it works
So why are vegetables so effective for weight loss? It's mostly because meat and animal products contain fewer preservatives, calories and saturated fats--the primary causes of unhealthy weight gain. On the other hand, fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, which eliminate the free radicals that cause cell death and lead to disease. They are also rich in fiber and juice, which makes them more filling. A vegetarian weight loss diet doesn't require you to starve yourself--you can eat normal servings and still get fewer calories than you would from a meat-based meal.
Of course, vegetables can't provide you with everything you need. One of the main concerns about the vegetarian weight loss diet is that there aren't enough sources of protein. Most vegetarians get their protein from beans, tofu and legumes. But while these are excellent food sources, their protein content is not as easily absorbed by the body as those that come from meat. If you're combining your vegetarian weight loss diet with an exercise regimen (which you should), consider taking protein supplements or consuming more vegetable proteins.
Types of vegetarianism
You don't have to give up all animal foods to enjoy the benefits of a vegetarian weight loss diet. In fact, if you have certain health problems, your doctor may recommend some modifications. Vegetarianism is divided into several subtypes depending on which foods are restricted. Some of the most common are the following:
Semi-vegetarian: A semi-vegetarian weight loss diet rules out all red meat such as beef, pork, and lamb, but allows fish and poultry. Dairy products are also included.
Pesco-vegetarian: This diet prohibits all animal products, except fish and seafood. Some also allow eggs and dairy, although it's more often a personal choice.
Lacto-vegetarian: Meat, poultry and eggs are prohibited; the only animal products allowed are milk and dairy.
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: This is the most common type of vegetarian weight loss diet. It only prohibits animal meats, but allows by-products such as animal oils, milk, eggs, and dairy.
Vegan: Described as "pure" vegetarianism, vegan diets prohibit all animal products. Vegans are not so much health buffs as they are animal rights advocates. As such, they also stay away from non-food products such as leather and fur.
Just because you're a vegetarian doesn't mean you're consuming less fat. The way you prepare your vegetables greatly affects their nutritional value. What good is a low-fat vegetable salad if you slather it with a creamy dressing? To get the most out of your vegetarian diet, you still need to read the labels and watch your fat intake.
Watch your iron
Plant-based iron is different from animal iron. The former is less easily absorbed by the body, so vegetarians are usually prone to anemia. To increase iron absorption, combine iron-rich foods such as nuts, beans and legumes with vitamin C-rich ones like oranges, strawberries and tomatoes. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for iron is 12 to 15 mg daily. The same goes for calcium: you can compensate for the lack of dairy-based calcium by eating fortified cereals, eggs, milk, and cheese.