I have been a vegetarian for many years now. In the beginning, I lost a lot of weight (which was an added bonus to the change in lifestyle). Now, it seems I’ve gained it all back (and then some!). What do you suggest is the goal for caloric intake, fat & protein? Basically, I’ve been just trying to keep low calories, low fat and as much protein as possible, without sticking to a number. But I want to be healthier – Much, much healthier. I do not eat any fish or seafood of any kind, poultry, or red meats at all. I do incorporate dairy and eggs into my diet. But I definitely need some guidance! Thank you! -Jill
Hi Jill, thanks for the great question. Weight gain on a vegetarian diet may come as a surprise, but is actually quite a common tale.
Is it because of being vegetarian that you gained weight (or lost it initially)? No. However, common dietary changes that someone makes when they decide to eliminate meat, poultry and seafood from their diet can lead to changes in energy balance. Trying to get the same protein from cheese and peanut butter as you would have from a chicken breast is a recipe for weight gain, while cutting out bacon cheeseburgers in favor of grilled vegetables and edamame is likely to lead to weight loss. It’s all about food choice. As we all know, weight loss requires an energy deficit, or burning more calories than you take in. Conversely, weight gain comes from consuming more calories than you expend. It’s certainly true that the macronutrient composition of our diets (how much protein, fat, and carbohydrate we eat) and food group choices can influence whether our weight trends upward or downward. But long story short, being a vegetarian is neither a guaranteed ticket to a slimmer body nor a heavier one.
You mentioned that you try to limit calories and fats and consume as much protein as possible. None of these aims are “wrong” in any way, but I would recommend a change in viewpoint: switching from thinking macronutrients to thinking about foods. After all, we eat foods, not numbers.
What foods build up the base of your diet? Optimally, fresh vegetables and fruits would make up the bulk of the food you eat on a daily basis. But if you’re like most Americans, especially vegetarians, the bulk of foods you eat are grain foods. Bread, rice, pasta, granola bars, cereal and so on. This is one of the most important swaps I can recommend in terms of achieving a healthy body weight: make most of the food you eat whole, unprocessed vegetables and fruits. Rephrased: At least half of your plate at every meal and snack should look like it grew out of the ground. This will naturally limit calorie density, allowing you to eat until being full without taking in more calories than your body can handle.
As for grain foods, instead of making them major players in a meal, think of them as a side dish, and choose intact, whole grains as much as possible. By intact, whole grains I mean ones that still look like grains: quinoa, wheat berries, barley, brown rice, etc. These contain the most fiber, protein and micronutrients, while having the lowest calorie density. If you do want something made from processed grains like bread or crackers, choosing ones made from whole grain flour are still a better choice than ones made from refined white flour. Aim for about a quarter of your plate to be for grain foods, at most.
This is a big issue for many vegetarians, especially when dining out. Most vegetarian meals offer a plate full of starchy carbohydrates (pasta, rice, half a baguette housing a sandwich) and meager portions of proteins and vegetable. And you can only eat so many salads, especially in winter. I get it. I do. My tip: ask nicely for what you’d like (extra vegetables instead of rice or potato, some beans on the side), or simply cook at home.
I don’t know how many beans and legumes you eat, but I agree with Ryan Andrews’ recommendation of at least 1 cup of cooked beans per day for a vegetarian or vegan diet. Two wouldn’t hurt. While many vegetarians focus on cheese or processed vegetarian burgers for their protein sources, beans come packed with a lot more fiber and nutrients, in a more filling package. If digesting beans is an issue for you, start small, by incorporating just a bit at a time and gradually increasing. Your system will adjust. You can also experiment with different types of beans; many people find that smaller varieties of legumes like lentils or split peas are more easily tolerated.
As for other protein sources, since you do consume eggs and dairy, keep using those as other protein rich sources – just watch out for the full-fat cheese at it packs a lot of calories (and is so tasty many people, like me, could eat lots of it!) Fluid milk is not as rich in protein as cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, and being liquid it is not as filling, so I also generally recommend not relying regularly on drinking milk for protein.
Since you mentioned keeping fats low, I’d like to touch on that briefly. Fat can be an important ally in achieving healthy body weight and being part of an enjoyable meal plan. Many of my clients have come from schools of thought in which they always limited fat to the minimum possible, and dealt with resulting feelings of deprivation, very transient feelings of satisfaction after each meal, and just plain not losing weight. I don’t know how little fat you are consuming, but about 30% of total calories is a good starting place. For most women, that means at least 1-2 teaspoons of oil (or 5-10 grams of fat) per meal. Some protein foods will supply fats, so if you have whole eggs for breakfast, for example, you won’t need to add any additional oils. But if you’re making meals from plain steamed vegetables and beans, or yogurt and fruit, I highly suggest getting in the habit of adding some fats from olive oil, nuts, avocado, or ground flaxseed. Personally, I spent plenty-o-time in Land of No Fat, and breaking that habit (which was seriously a mental hurdle) led to feeling a thousand times better, enjoying meals more, and …. getting much leaner!
Lastly, you’ll notice the suggestions I made above call for mostly unprocessed foods. Whether out of convenience, habit, or advertising, it’s a rarity nowadays for people to eat mostly whole foods! It’s much more common to pour breakfast cereal out of a box, unwrap a granola or diet bar for a snack, or pop a meal from the freezer into the microwave. But it’s also the norm to be overweight and unhealthy, so I encourage you to try to cut back on the processed foods you eat. Start at the grocery store by filling your cart with produce, nuts, beans, whole grains and lowfat dairy products instead of packaged items. Take a few minutes to prepare a snack to take with you to work instead of grabbing a frozen meal or can of soup. The extra investment will save your health, and a ton of money.
- Think about which foods make up the meals you eat in a day. Try to adjust things so that at least 1/2 of the food volume you eat a day is fresh vegetables and fruit.
- Limit the amount of grain foods you choose to being side portions, no more than 1/4 of your meal or snack.
- Choose beans for nutrient and fiber rich proteins, as well as low fat dairy products and eggs.
- Lastly, challenge yourself to move away from some of the processed items in your diet.
- All of these changes will allow you to naturally regulate food intake: your body will be satisfied and well-nourished since it will be supplied with filling, less calorie-dense meals and you won’t have to be hungry or count calories. Just eat healthy foods when you are hungry, go slowly and honor your food, stop when you are satisfied.
Since you did ask about numbers, I will provide some, but again I caution against trying to count calories as an ongoing weight management strategy. But if you want to know how your diet stacks up, try logging all the food you eat in a day into a free website such as The Daily Plate. For weight loss, a calorie goal of 11-13 calories per pound will result in steady weight loss for most women. Aim for the bottom end of this range if you are older or do not exercise regularly, the upper end if you are younger or exercise at least a couple times a week. If you are very active (exercise daily) or satisfied with a more gradual change, you might choose 14 calories per pound.
As for macronutrients, there is a fair amount of flexibility in what is desirable or optimal. As a baseline for basic troubleshooting, I’d look for protein to be at least 20% of dietary calories, fat to be between 20-35% of dietary calories, and aim for at least 25 grams of fiber a day and 75 grams of protein. If you have difficulty meeting any of these, well, just go ahead and Ask Georgie again.
Good luck Jill, let me know how things are shaping up for you as you try to make these changes.
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