Vegetarian diet for weight loss: Your questions answered
- A vegetarian diet can promote weight loss, but how you eat plays a key role.
- Not getting enough protein and other nutrients can be a challenge when following a vegetarian diet for weight loss.
- Calorie deficits, food logging, and eating foods with low caloric density can all help with shedding pounds on a vegetarian diet.
You may be thinking about a vegetarian diet, not just because of its health benefits, but also to lose weight.
However, you may have a lot of questions, like: Does a vegetarian diet work for weight loss? What makes a vegetarian diet for weight loss challenging? And how do you even lose weight as a vegetarian?
Plant-based eating alone takes a bit of effort—like meal prepping and learning to cook new meatless dishes. Losing weight does, too. But there’s no need to stress.
Small and achievable lifestyle changes can lead to huge, sustainable progress toward your wellness goals.
Kendra Gutschow, a registered dietitian and Noom coach, met with us to answer some common questions about weight loss on a vegetarian diet. Here’s what to keep in mind as you get started.
Note: Consult with your health care provider before making dietary changes.
This is Chapter 2 of Noom's Guide to the Vegetarian Diet:
Does going vegetarian help you lose weight?
Yes, research suggests that plant-based diets are indeed effective for losing weight. But the way you eat plays a key role in how successful you’ll be.
“While eating more plant-based foods can be a helpful step to take for weight loss, simply switching to a vegetarian diet may or may not lead to this result,” Gutschow says.
Avoiding meat alone may not be enough without other changes. You have to also be mindful about calorie intake and the types of foods you’re eating in place of meat.
In order to get the most out of a vegetarian diet for weight loss, Gutschow recommends replacing animal products with nutrient-dense plant foods.
That means swapping red meats and dairy products for vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and legumes.
At the same time, she says, be mindful of replacing meat with calorie-dense vegetarian alternatives. For example, veggie burgers or vegan chocolate chip cookies.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t have some high-calorie treats from time to time. The key is balance. Satisfy your hunger with plant-based whole foods with low caloric density throughout the day. That way, you have room in your calorie budget for comfort foods and other treats you love.
What makes weight loss difficult on a vegetarian diet?
When you eat vegetarian to try to lose weight, Gutschow says there are two big hurdles: not getting enough nutrients and eating too many processed foods.
Not getting enough protein throughout the day
Your body requires an adequate amount of macronutrients (like protein, carbohydrates, and fats) to function well.
Protein is most commonly found in animal products, which offer what’s called complete protein. This protein is “complete” because it contains all the amino acids your body needs to function.
By contrast, most plant foods have incomplete protein, which means they lack one or more amino acids that your body needs. (Some vegetarian options like tofu have complete proteins.)
Plant-based foods also tend to have less protein, and a lack of protein in your diet can impact your health as well as weight loss.
Research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates that high-protein diets may help improve body weight management, appetite, and other health risk factors.
In order to eat the proper amount of protein as a vegetarian, you’ll have to get it from a variety of foods. Some vegetarian protein sources to consider are nuts, nut butters, beans, legumes, and (if you’re not vegan or ovo-vegetarian) dairy products.
Eating too many processed meat alternatives and grains
Another big challenge when eating vegetarian is eating too many processed foods.
You can find vegetarian chicken nuggets, vegan hotdogs, and veggie chips at just about every grocery store. Similarly, grain-based foods like pizza, pasta, and bread are considered vegetarian.
While these processed foods can offer some nutrients, if you only eat these options in place of meat, Gutschow says weight loss is a lot more difficult.
Some of the packaged, processed, or grain-based vegetarian options are just more calorie-dense.
So, it’s important to consider portion size and eat them in moderation—while enjoying fruits, veggies, and other whole foods throughout the day.
How do you lose weight as a vegetarian?
Going on a vegetarian diet for weight loss will not work the same for everyone. Gutschow explains that there are many other factors that come into play—like age, sex, hormones, activity level, lifestyle factors, health conditions, and medication.
But there are some steps you can take to help you achieve your goal weight:
1. Aim for a healthy calorie deficit
Any sort of weight loss approach—including a vegetarian diet—will only work if you’re burning more calories than you consume. In other words, you have to achieve a calorie deficit.
Consult with a doctor or dietician to help you figure out a calorie deficit that is sustainable for you.
You can also visit our calorie deficit calculator for an estimate of what might work for you, based on age, sex, height, weight, and activity level.
2. Eat foods that will satisfy your hunger longer
There are many vegetarian foods. But not all calories in these foods will fill you up in the same way. And that’s because of their calorie density (the number of calories in a serving size).
A 150-calorie serving of veggie chips will not satisfy your hunger the way 150 calories of carrots and celery will. And that’s because a little over half a cup of veggie chips has the same number of calories as about two cups of carrot and celery sticks.
“Meals that replace higher-calorie, low-fiber foods with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in a way that feels satisfying can go a long way toward helping an individual lower their overall caloric intake—leading to weight loss,” Gutschow says.
Your goal should be to eat plenty of foods with lower caloric density during the day—to leave room for cravings with higher calorie density in moderation.
3. Log meals to make mindful food choices
It’s easier to be mindful about what you eat when you keep track of your food intake. Food logging helps you do that—and research suggests that the practice is linked to weight loss, too.
By logging your food intake, you’ll be able to see:
- How many calories you’re actually eating.
- The types of foods you’re consuming.
- What proper portion sizes look like.
Then, you can plan out your meals accordingly and choose foods that will leave you feeling fuller for longer.
A food tracker app, like the one Noom Weight offers, makes logging easier.
And most food logging tools have searchable databases and built-in barcode scanners to enter foods for each day.
What is the best vegetarian diet for weight loss?
There’s not really a single best way to eat vegetarian. The best vegetarian diet for weight loss will depend on the person, Gutschow explains.
For some, choosing a vegetarian diet that allows for animal-based protein sources will work better.
For example, a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet allows dairy and eggs, and fish is okay on a pescatarian diet. These eating styles make it easier for you to get the protein your body needs.
But other plant-based options, like the vegan diet, can also be effective for weight loss with the proper balance of nutrients and food choices.
What is the best vegetarian food for weight loss?
Gutschow recommends whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes for weight loss.
“They are good sources of fiber and tend to be a good way to increase the volume of food for fewer calories,” Gutschow says.
There are lots of delicious vegetarian recipes that incorporate these foods. Take a look at this list of plant-based dishes to get ideas for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and even snacks.
There’s no need to cut out your favorite plant-based foods for weight loss. “All foods can be enjoyed in an overall healthy diet,” Gutschow says.
The important thing to keep in mind is eating foods with higher caloric density in moderate serving sizes. These foods include vegetarian diet staples like avocado, oils, nuts, and nut butters.
Use Noom alongside a vegetarian diet for weight loss success
A lot goes into following a vegetarian diet for weight loss. But you don’t have to do it on your own.