Vegetarianism has become increasingly popular in recent years.
This diet is associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases and may aid weight loss.
However, you may find it difficult to lose weight on a vegetarian diet — especially if you’re eating too many refined carbs or highly processed foods.
This article explains how to lose weight on a vegetarian diet.
What is a vegetarian diet?
Vegetarian diets exclude meat, fish, and poultry.
Some people may follow this diet for religious or ethical reasons, while others are drawn to its possible health benefits.
The main types of vegetarian diets are:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: allows eggs and dairy but excludes meat, fish, and poultry
- Lacto-vegetarian: allows dairy but excludes eggs, meat, fish, and poultry
- Ovo-vegetarian: allows eggs but excludes dairy, meat, fish, and poultry
- Vegan: excludes all animal products, including honey, dairy, and eggs
Other plant-based eating patterns include the flexitarian (which includes some animal foods but is mostly vegetarian) and pescatarian (which includes fish but not meat) diets.
Vegetarian diets typically focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These foods are rich in fiber, micronutrients, and beneficial plant compounds, and tend to be lower in calories, fat, and protein than animal foods.
Since this diet emphasizes nutrient-rich foods, it’s linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
What’s more, studies show that following a vegetarian diet can be an effective way to lose weight.
However, the benefits of vegetarianism largely depend on the types of foods you eat and your overall dietary habits.
Overeating or choosing too many highly processed foods will provide fewer benefits than a diet based on unrefined, whole plant foods — and may have several downsides.
Summary: A vegetarian diet excludes meat, fish, and poultry and mostly focuses on plant foods. It has been linked to weight loss and a reduced risk of chronic diseases, but these benefits depend on which foods you eat.
Barriers to losing weight on a vegetarian diet
While vegetarianism may seem like an effective way to shed excess weight, several factors may prevent this.
Eating large portions and not enough protein
Eating more calories than you need can result in weight gain.
Even if you’re filling up on nutritious foods on a vegetarian diet, you may be helping yourself to larger portions than necessary.
This is especially common if you skimp on protein intake.
Protein can increase fullness by decreasing levels of ghrelin, a hormone that regulates hunger, which may, in turn, lower your overall calorie intake and boost weight loss.
If you don’t eat enough protein, you might eat more food to feel full — hindering your weight loss efforts.
While your protein needs can be met easily on a vegetarian diet, you may encounter difficulties at first as you eliminate meat from your diet.
Eating too many refined carbs
Foods that are high in refined carbs, such as bread, pizza, and pasta, can be easy to overeat on a vegetarian diet.
They’re widely available and may sometimes be the only vegetarian option at restaurants or gatherings.
Foods rich in refined carbs tend to lack fiber and do not curb hunger as much as whole-grain, complex carbs. As a result, they can load you down with excess calories.
What’s more, some studies suggest that refined carbs trigger the release of extra insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar. This may also contribute to weight gain.
One study including around 500,000 adults detected a strong association between higher insulin levels after carb intake and greater body mass index (BMI).
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Overdoing calorie-rich foods
When transitioning to a vegetarian diet, you might substantially increase your intake of high-fat plant foods.
Vegetarian meals often incorporate nuts, seeds, nut butter, avocados, or coconut. While these foods are incredibly nutritious and filling, they also provide 9 calories per gram — compared with 4 calories per gram of proteins and carbs.
For example, 2 tablespoons (32 grams) of peanut butter packs a whopping 191 calories, 148 of which come from fat.
What’s more, many people eat more than the recommended serving size of nut butter and other healthy fats.
Focusing on highly processed vegetarian foods
If you’re relying on too many processed foods as part of a vegetarian diet, you may have a hard time losing weight.
Countless products are technically vegetarian but still harbor unnecessary additives and other unhealthy ingredients. Examples include veggie burgers, meat substitutes, freezer meals, baked goods, packaged desserts, and vegan cheese.
These foods are often packed not only with sodium, highly processed compounds, chemical preservatives, and coloring agents but also calories and added sugars.
As a result, they may contribute to weight gain when eaten in excess.
A review linked the intake of ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of obesity, as well as higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
Summary: Some barriers to losing weight on a vegetarian diet include not eating enough protein and relying too heavily on refined carbs, calorie-rich foods, and highly processed items.
Tips to lose weight on a vegetarian diet
Several strategies can help promote weight loss on a vegetarian diet, including:
- Filling half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables. Choosing high-fiber veggies, such as broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, leafy greens, and mushrooms, can help you stay full and decrease calorie intake.
- Incorporating protein at every meal and snack. High-protein vegetarian foods include beans, nuts, seeds, lentils, eggs, dairy products, and soy foods (such as tempeh, tofu, and edamame).
- Opting for complex carbs. These fullness-boosting foods include whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, and legumes.
- Watching your portions of high-calorie foods. Pair nuts, seeds, and healthy fats with lower-calorie foods so that you don’t overeat.
- Eating mostly whole foods. Unprocessed foods, such as whole fruits and vegetables, do not have any unnecessary ingredients.
- Limiting highly processed foods. Avoid meat alternatives, frozen meals, and other ultra-processed foods, as they likely host unhealthy additives, extra salt, and added sugar.
A balanced vegetarian diet that emphasizes whole plant foods and limits refined carbs and highly processed products may help you lose weight.
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Still, don’t forget about other significant contributors to weight loss, such as proper sleep, hydration, and exercise.
Summary: Including protein at all meals, eating plenty of whole foods, and eliminating highly processed items are just a few of the techniques you can use to lose weight on a vegetarian diet.
Vegetarian foods that aid weight loss
To bolster weight loss, choose a vegetarian diet that’s rich in whole, minimally processed plant foods.
Depending on your specific regimen, you may also incorporate dairy or eggs.
Vegetarian foods that may aid weight loss include:
- Non-starchy vegetables: broccoli, bell pepper, cauliflower, zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, eggplant, carrots, celery, and cucumber
- Starchy vegetables: peas, potatoes, corn, and winter squash
- Fruits: berries, oranges, apples, bananas, grapes, citrus, kiwi, and mango
- Whole grains: quinoa, brown rice, farro, millet, barley, and bulgur wheat
- Beans and legumes: lentils, black beans, pinto beans, and kidney beans
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and nut butter
- Lean proteins: beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, nut butter, eggs, Greek yogurt, milk, and soy products like tofu, tempeh, and edamame
- Healthy fats: avocado, olive oil, coconut, nuts, seeds, nut butter, and cheese
- Water and other healthy beverages: naturally flavored seltzer, fruit-infused water, and plain coffee or tea
Summary: Eating a variety of non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds may help you lose weight on a vegetarian diet.
Foods to avoid on a vegetarian diet for weight loss
While most plant foods are naturally healthy, highly processed vegetarian foods tend to be less so.
You should limit or avoid the following foods if you’re following a vegetarian diet for weight loss:
- Highly processed vegetarian foods: veggie burgers, meat replacements, freezer meals, frozen desserts, and imitation dairy products
- Refined carbs: white bread, white pasta, bagels, and crackers
- Sugary foods and beverages: candy, cookies, pastries, table sugar, sodas, fruit juices, energy drinks, and sweet tea
In addition, try to avoid extra-large portions of any food — especially those high in sugar and calories.
Summary: If you’re looking to lose weight on a vegetarian diet, you should steer clear of highly processed products, refined carbs, and sugary beverages.
Sample vegetarian meal plan for weight loss
This 5-day meal plan provides a few ideas for a vegetarian diet for weight loss.
- Breakfast: steel-cut oats with apples, peanut butter, and cinnamon
- Lunch: a salad with greens, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, tomatoes, and balsamic vinaigrette
- Dinner: black-bean soup with a dollop of Greek yogurt, whole-grain bread, and a side salad
- Snack: almonds and dark chocolate
- Breakfast: scrambled eggs with broccoli and cheddar, plus a side of berries
- Lunch: a burrito bowl with brown rice, pinto beans, tomato, onion, and avocado
- Dinner: zucchini noodles with marinara, sunflower seeds, and white beans
- Snack: string cheese or an orange
- Breakfast: plain Greek yogurt with pineapple, shredded coconut, and walnuts
- Lunch: lentil soup, chopped bell peppers, and guacamole
- Dinner: eggplant Parmesan served over whole-grain pasta and green beans
- Snack: a whole-grain granola bar or berries
- Breakfast: a smoothie bowl made from unsweetened almond milk, spinach, hemp seeds, frozen berries, and a banana
- Lunch: an egg salad on whole-grain bread with strawberries, carrots, and hummus
- Dinner: stir-fry with tofu, carrots, broccoli, brown rice, soy sauce, and honey
- Snack: dried mango and pistachios
- Breakfast: two eggs and one slice of whole-grain toast with avocado, plus a side of grapes
- Lunch: a salad with kale, pecans, dried cranberries, goat cheese, and edamame
- Dinner: homemade chickpea patties alongside sautéed mushrooms and a baked sweet potato
- Snack: plain Greek yogurt with cherries
Summary: These meal and snack ideas can help you start vegetarian eating for weight loss.
A vegetarian diet that focuses on nutritious plant foods may help you lose weight.
However, it’s important to eat enough protein while curbing your portion sizes and intake of calorie-rich foods, refined carbs, and highly processed items.
Keep in mind that not all vegetarian foods are healthy.