Medical research demonstrates the positive results of a vegetarian diet over a low-calorie (“hypocaloric”) diet. In addition to weight loss, studies show that vegetarian diets beat out hypocaloric diets in virtually every important health and fitness benchmark, including:
- maximal optimal consumption (VO² max)
- maximal performance output
- insulin sensitivity
- LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels
- cardiovascular disease risk
- diabetes risk
- obesity rates
This article will focus on the weight loss results observed in a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. In the study, researchers sought to measure the effects, if any, of a vegetarian and conventional diet on fat tissue distribution in subjects with type 2 diabetes (T2D). To conclude matters, we’ll discuss the types of foods used by the researchers and what food science has to say about their health benefits!
Benefits of a vegetarian diet
Vegetarian diets contain fewer calories and unsaturated fats. Eating a vegetarian diet increases your fiber, vitamin C, and potassium levels. Studies suggest that most vegetarians weigh less and have a lower death risk from heart disease or cancer. But researchers aren’t sure if it’s just the vegetarian diet that gives all these benefits. In general, in the United States, individuals who eat a vegetarian diet have a higher socioeconomic status, are more physically active, and have healthier habits.
Different types of vegetarian diets
There are different types of vegetarian diets. These are defined by what is allowed in your diet.
- Flexitarian-Eats dairy, eggs with small amounts of meat, seafood, poultry, or fish.
- Pescatarian-Eats dairy and eggs, plus seafood and fish, but no beef or chicken.
- Lacto-Ovo vegetarian-You can eat dairy and eggs but no seafood, fish, beef, or chicken.
- Vegan-Eats no animal products at all.
Here’s the research that proves how you can double your weight loss with a vegetarian diet:
“[This study] is important for people who are trying to lose weight, including those suffering from metabolic syndrome and/or type 2 diabetes. But it is also relevant to anyone who takes their weight management seriously and ways to stay lean and healthy.” – Hana Kahleova, M.D., Ph.D.
74 individuals with T2D were randomly assigned to one of two groups – an isocaloric anti-diabetic diet or a vegetarian diet. An isocaloric diet is when a person consumes the same amount of calories from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. An isocaloric diet is relatively low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fiber.
(Sidenote: In a 2014 study published in the Iran Journal of Medical Science, individuals placed on an isocaloric diet “significantly” reduced total body mass index (BMI) over comparison with a “balanced diet.”)
In the interest of not turning this reading into a scientific paper, we’ll cut to the chase.
The Weight Loss Diet
“We showed that a vegetarian diet reduced subfascial fat more and tended to also reduce intramuscular fat more than a conventional hypocaloric diabetic diet.” – Kahleova, H., et. al.
Now that we’ve established the weight loss benefits of a vegetarian diet let’s go over the kinds of foods most likely used (and presumably, recommended) by the study’s research team.
First, researchers define the vegetarian diet as 60% calories from carbohydrates, 25% from fat, and 15% from protein. Animal products were limited to an optional, single portion of low-fat yogurt. Otherwise, the diet was entirely made up of “vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, and nuts.”
Here are the findings as reported in this study (among many other previous studies) as they pertain to the advantages of a vegetarian over a conventional isocaloric, anti-diabetic diet:
- Lower oxidative stress (“an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants.”)
- Better normalization and maintenance of blood sugar levels.
- Lower fat density in the area(s) measured. In this study, the vegetarian group tested for a 27% greater total leg area reduction than the isocaloric group.
- A loss of fascia fat was exclusive to the vegetarian diet group. (Fascia is defined as “a band or sheet of connective tissue, primarily collagen.” Fascial fat accumulation is associated with the development of cellulite.)
- A 300% greater reduction in intramuscular fat in the vegetarian dieters over the isocaloric dieters.
- More fat loss in the subcutaneous regions of the body in the vegetarian group.
Researchers conclude that the “vegetarian diet was almost twice as effective in reducing body weight compared to the (anti-diabetic, isocaloric) diet.” The vegetarian group had an average weight loss of 13.7 pounds (~6.2 kg), compared to 7.1 pounds (~3.2 kg) is the isocaloric group. The research team attributes these findings to accelerated fat loss due to lower and more stable blood sugar levels and decreased insulin sensitivity.
Best vegetarian diet foods for weight loss
Eat a wide variety of foods to get the proper nutrition. Choose these foods for your vegetarian diet to guarantee you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals you need.
Your body needs protein to build your bones, muscles, skin, cartilage, and blood. Good sources of protein include nuts, seeds, eggs, whole grains, and beans. If you’re eating dairy products, they’re a good source of protein.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Your body doesn’t make fatty acids, so you need to get these from what you eat. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for good brain function. The production of healthy cells controls inflammation and helps your thyroid and adrenal glands. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and soybeans. If you eat fish or seafood, choose salmon, mackerel, tuna, or herring are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Iron is critical for the production of red blood cells. Red blood cells transport oxygen throughout your body. Iron also produces hormones and ensures the proper development and growth of your body. Good sources of iron include
- Chia seeds
- Fortified Cereals
- Dark leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale
- Clams, oysters, and mussels
Calcium is instrumental for healthy bone health. Foods like yogurt, cheese, and milk are great sources of calcium. Other calcium packed foods include
- Dark leafy green veggies like okra, spinach, and cabbage
- Soy milk
- Fortified cereals
- Fortified orange juice
You need B vitamins for energy, good brain function, and healthy cell development. Foods rich in B vitamins include
- Brown rice
- Beans and lentils
- Nuts and seeds
- Dark leafy greens like broccoli, spinach, or kale
- Fruits like citrus, avocados, bananas
Vitamin D is important for calcium absorption. It also helps build your bones’ growth and development. Lack of vitamin D can cause osteoporosis, making you susceptible to bone fractures—foods like soy milk products, egg yolks, and fortified orange juice. You also get vitamin D from the sun. If you live where it’s cold in the winter, you should take a vitamin D supplement, so you get enough Vitamin D.
Preparing healthy and delicious vegetarian meals isn’t that hard, but it does take some planning ahead. Use these tips to help expedite your veggies meals.
Master Using Your Slow Cooker:
Use your slow cooker to create healthy vegetarian meals with no hassle. Vegetarian soups, macaroni and cheese, veggie stews, and meatless chili are delicious meals you can cook in the crockpot.
Crockpot Spaghetti squash noodles recipe
- 1 spaghetti squash (5 pounds) * bigger if you want more noodles
- ½ cup of water
- Wash the spaghetti squash rind on the outside
- Place the spaghetti squash and the crockpot with the water
- Cook on high for one to two hours until tender.
- Remove and cool.
- Slice the spaghetti squash in two.
- Remove the seeds and stringy material.
- With a fork, scrape out the spaghetti squash noodles.
- Serve topped with fresh, diced tomatoes and grated parmesan cheese for a delicious meal.
Don’t forget those frozen veggies and fruits! In fact, frozen vegetables and frozen fruits have more nutritional value than fresh. Keep a supply of frozen fruits to snack on or make a smoothie for breakfast. Store frozen beans, corn, broccoli, kale, or spinach for quick meal prep for dinner. Just remember that frozen foods begin to lose their taste and nutrition after 3 months. So, it’s best to eat your frozen fruits and veggies within three to four weeks after buying them.
Prepare meals ahead of time.
When possible, prepare meals ahead and freeze them. Healthy frozen meals are great on the days when work is crazy, and you have to take the kids to their sports practice. Pull out the meal to thaw in the morning. Then when everyone is home in the evening, reheat your meal in the oven or microwave. Meals you can make ahead include
- Meatless chili
- Vegetable soup
- Pasta dishes
- Tikka Masala
- Spinach lasagna
- Veggie burgers (prepare sandwich and place individually in Ziploc bags and freeze)
Buy organic when possible.
If you can, purchase organic fruits and vegetables to guarantee the food is pesticide-free and wasn’t raised with chemical fertilizers or growth hormones.
Farmer’s markets sell lots of organic fruits and veggies, plus more….
- Strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries
- Green onions
- Fresh spices
- Whole-grain bread
Why not try your hand at growing your own veggies and fruits? It’s a fun project for your whole family to participate in, and your food can’t get any fresher. Here’s an easy green salsa recipe you can make with your leftover green tomatoes at the end of the summer.
Green tomato salsa recipe
- Gather three or four green tomatoes
- One jalapeno washed and chopped.
- One bunch of cilantro washed and chopped.
- Kosher salt
- Wash them
- Slice and drizzle with olive oil.
- Sprinkle with kosher salt.
- Lay them on a baking sheet.
- Roast them in a 400-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until the edges are brownish in color.
- Remove the tomatoes. Allow to cool.
- Throw the chopped jalapeno, a bunch of cilantro, and the roasted green tomatoes into your blender. Blend until smooth.
Serve with chips, veggies, or pita bread chips.
Eat breakfast for dinner.
Vegetarian breakfasts make great evening dinners. Your kids will love these meals, and you’ll love how easy it is to prepare them. Whip up some blueberry walnut pancakes and eggs. Serve with honey or chopped up fruit on top.
Canned beans are packed with vitamins, protein, and minerals, but they can be high in sodium. So, if you have high blood pressure, steer clear of canned beans. You can use dried beans. They look intimidating, but they’re not too difficult to prepare. Typically, you need to soak the dried beans in a bowl of water all night. Put them into your fridge to soak. Then in the morning, you drain off the water. Put the beans in a pot and add some water or vegetable broth and cook on low heat until the beans are tender. Add salt, pepper, and other spices. Yummy!
Don’t eat too much of these foods.
Eating a vegetarian diet is a healthy choice, but it’s still possible to eat unhealthy foods while you’re on this diet. Avoid eating too much cheese. Dairy foods can pack on the pounds. If you’re craving protein instead, choose nuts or seeds, beans, or leafy greens to satisfy your protein cravings. Also, beware of meat substitutes. Some of these have an excess amount of sugar and salt. Read the labels before you buy them.
Avoid these foods to continue your weight loss journey.
You want to eat fresh, whole foods while you’re on a vegetarian diet. Avoid processed foods that are packed with calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. These include
- Frozen pizza
- Premade pasta dishes
- Microwave popcorn
- Granola bars
- Dried fruit
- Ramen noodles
These foods are easy to grab when you’re hungry, but they’re really not good for you. Try to have lots of fresh and frozen fruits and veggies in your fridge for quick snacks. Keep nuts and seeds in your pantry for extra protein, so when you’re hungry, you won’t be tempted to grab something processed.
Eating vegetarian can help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol, and improve your blood sugar levels. There are so many amazing veggie recipes available. Find the recipes you love and prepare them ahead of time, then freeze them. This way, they’ll be ready when you need a quick meal. Keep lots of healthy snacks in your fridge and pantry, so you’re not tempted to eat processed foods. Enjoy your new diet, and enjoy the new way you feel about your healthy vegetarian diet.