Vegetarian Diets and Weight Loss
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
I've met a lot of people who decide to go vegetarian, assuming it's the best way to lose weight. On the surface, it seems logical. After all, fruits and vegetables are some of the lowest calorie foods around, and, generally speaking, a plant-based diet is one of the healthiest ways to go. But it doesn't guarantee weight loss. There's a lot more to a vegetarian diet than simply fruits and veggies, and if you're not careful, the calories can add quickly. Here are some things to watch out for:
- Vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs may rely too heavily on cheese to help them meet their protein needs. An ounce of cheddar cheese gives you about seven grams of protein, but it will cost you about 115 calories. On the other hand, you could eat a half cup of cottage cheese and get the same amount of protein for only 50 calories. So choose low-fat cheese and dairy products whenever possible.
- Whole grains and beans are protein staples in a vegetarian diet, as they should be. But if you are eating more refined grain products like white bread, regular pasta, white rice, pretzels and starchy snack foods, your calories could get away from you. Cereals can be a problem, too. Some healthy-sounding granolas can pack as much as 400 calories a cup. Stick with whole-grain breads, rolled oats, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, brown rice cakes and whole-grain cereal flakes to keep your calories in check.
- Nuts and nut butters are other "go-to" foods for many vegetarians trying to up their protein intake. While nuts do provide protein, their fat content can drive the calorie count way up. Two tablespoons of peanut butter or almond butter will give you seven or eight grams of protein, but half of what you're eating is fat, so you're looking at close to 200 calories. Roasted soy nuts are a good alternative to regular nuts. Ounce for ounce they've got three times the protein. There are also reduced-fat nut butters available, as well as soy nut butters you can try.
- Remember, too, that if you're watching calories, you still need to pay attention to the same foods that everyone does – oils, dressings, sauces, fruit juices and desserts can add up fast. And don't be fooled into thinking that everything at the health food store is good for you. There are plenty of items on the shelves that are high in calories and fat, so be sure to read your labels carefully.