Vegetarian diet plans can provide many benefits for health and weight loss, but they can also lead to various deficiencies if they’re not carefully planned.
On the plus side, by adopting the vegetarian lifestyle you avoid all the potential pitfalls inherent in many animal food products. But on the downside, you also need to find suitable alternatives for the important, beneficial nutrients that animal products bring to your diet.
What Are Vegetarian Diet Plans?
First of all, it’s important to understand that vegetarian diet plans come in all shapes and sizes. There actually aren’t any hard and fast rules as to what makes a vegetarian, a vegetarian. In fact, there are a variety of different vegetarian diets that exist.
These are described as follows, in approximate order of increasing restriction:
Quasi-Vegetarian – Also referred to as Pseudo-Vegetarian, this diet usually excludes red meat but includes poultry, beef extracts and fats, fish, eggs and dairy products.
Lacto-Vegetarian – This diet excludes all animal foods but includes dairy products.
Ovo-Vegetarian – This diet excludes all animal foods but includes eggs.
Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian – This diet excludes all animal foods but includes dairy products, eggs and honey.
Vegan – This diet excludes all animal foods, dairy products and eggs. It may even exclude animal-derived products such as honey, gelatin and animal-derived food additives.
Raw Vegan – This diet includes only fresh and uncooked fruit, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. It only allows vegetables to be cooked up to a certain temperature.
Fruitarian – This diet generally includes only fruits, berries, nuts and seeds. Because some individuals use more tolerant definitions for fruit, it can also include beans and peas. Some interpretations allow honey, vegetable and olive oils, and even chocolate. Others only permit raw or dried fruits.
Macrobiotic – This diet includes only unprocessed, unrefined, natural and organic cereals, grains, beans and condiments such as miso and seaweed.
As you can see from this brief list, some vegetarian diet plans are more restrictive than others. Some are so restrictive in fact, that they’re unable to provide you with proper nutrition and aren’t effective as a long-term weight loss solution.
Pros of Vegetarian Diet Plans
Because vegetarian diet plans include little or no animal products, they’re normally substantially lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than the typical Western diet. They also generally provide higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals.
There have been a variety of studies done which show that vegetarians tend to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
Large-scale studies indicate that mortality from heart disease was 20% lower among vegetarian women than in non-vegetarians.
Many people have also reported success in losing weight as a result of using vegetarian diet plans. There are 2 main reasons why this occurs:
- The majority of high fat foods in the diet come from animal sources. By avoiding animal foods, vegetarians therefore tend to consume lower amounts of fat. Because fat is the most calorie dense of all the macronutrients (it contains 9 calories per gram, compared to just 4 calories per gram for protein and carbohydrates), that means they naturally tend to consume fewer calories on average.
- Because vegetarian diet plans are generally high in fiber, their meals actually tend to be bulkier without being high in calories. This means that vegetarian meals can be larger in terms of portion sizes and therefore quite satisfying, reducing the risk of overeating.
Vegetarian diet plans therefore, basically assist in weight loss by helping to reduce your calorie intake through these two simple mechanisms.
There’s also evidence to suggest that vegetarian diet plans increase your body’s insulin sensitivity. This is very beneficial for your health, since it helps to prevent Type II Diabetes and other related conditions. It’s also very good for weight loss, since it means that the nutrients from your food will enter your cells more easily, rather than being converted and stored as fat.
This increase in insulin sensitivity occurs for 3 reasons:
- Because of the weight loss created by the lower calorie intake.
- Because of the lower total fat intake.
- Because of the lower ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat.
Pitfalls of Vegetarian Diet Plans
Because of the lack or total absence of animal products in vegetarian diet products, there are a variety of dietary ingredients that can potentially be lacking, unless you take great care to ensure you get enough.
The major ones are detailed below:
As I mentioned earlier, vegetarian diet plans tend to be very high in fiber and bulk, and are therefore very satisfying without the associated calorie content of a normal diet of the same size. While this is generally a good thing on a weight loss program, it can also be detrimental if it’s taken too far.
By consuming too few calories on any diet, you’ll experience a starvation response. This is where your body senses an inadequate energy supply, and takes measures to protect you by slowing down your metabolism and shedding muscle tissue to conserve energy. This severely interferes with your weight loss progress.
To prevent this from occurring on a vegetarian diet, you should include some energy dense foods such as nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh and textured vegetable protein to help increase the energy density of your diet.
Lacto-vegetarians can include cheese and yogurt for extra energy, however this will also come at the expense of additional saturated fat in the case of cheese.
The biggest issue with many vegetarian diet plans is getting enough protein, since they most often provide less protein than normal diets, sometimes substantially so. This is particularly the case with diets that exclude eggs and dairy products.
Most plant source proteins are what are referred to as incomplete proteins because they lack one or more of the eight essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). The only exceptions to this are lupin, soy, hempseed, chia seed, amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa, which are complete proteins (as are animal source proteins).
When eating incomplete proteins on a vegetarian diet, you need to combine foods from different protein groups to ensure that you get all the essential amino acids. The three groups are:
- Nuts and Seeds
An additional problem is that plant proteins are less well digested than animal proteins, so when relying on complete or incomplete plant foods for protein it’s recommended that you consume approximately 10% more protein than you normally would.
The major vegetarian sources of Omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) are hempseed, chia seed, flaxseed, echium seed and purslane. Other vegetarian sources include soy, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, canola oil and kiwifruit. Purslane contains more Omega 3 than any other known leafy green.
The nutritionally important Omega 3 EFAs include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are all polyunsaturated fats.
Plant foods can provide ALA, but not EPA and DHA. These are long-chain Omega 3 EFAs which are only found in small amounts in eggs and dairy products. Fish and seafoods provide a plentiful supply of EPA and DHA for non-vegetarians.
People who rely on vegetarian diet plans, particularly vegans, unavoidably have lower levels of EPA and DHA than meat-eaters, although the health effects of low EPA and DHA levels aren’t really known. They also have a higher risk of inadequate Omega 3 EFA levels – something that even many non-vegetarians experience, and therefore need to take extra care to include enough sources in their diet.
Vegetarian diet plans typically contain similar or even higher levels of iron than non-vegetarian diets. The iron from plant foods isn’t absorbed as well as the iron in meat, however, so this needs to be considered when determining your iron intake.
Good vegetarian food sources of iron include green leafy vegetables, peas, whole grains, enriched cereals, black beans, cashews, hempseed, kidney beans, lentils, oatmeal, raisins, black-eyed peas, soybeans, sunflower seeds, chickpeas, tomato juice, tempeh, molasses, thyme, and whole-wheat bread.
Combining these foods with foods that are high in vitamin C and food acids, such as fruit and vegetables, will help your body absorb iron better.
Iron stores often tend to be lower in vegetarians than non-vegetarians, although the American Dietetic Association says that iron deficiency is no more common in vegetarians than non-vegetarians.
B12 is an important vitamin for the production of red blood cells. It also helps to maintain healthy nerves and a healthy brain.
Because your body preserves vitamin B12 and reuses it without destroying it, clinical evidence of B12 deficiency is actually quite uncommon. Your body can preserve stores of the vitamin for up to 30 years without needing it to be replenished.
For this reason, generally speaking only some long-term vegetarians are at risk of developing vitamin B12 deficiency, since plants aren’t generally significant sources of the vitamin. A common result of B12 deficiency is anemia.
If you’re a breastfeeding mother following a vegan diet however, the lack of vitamin B12 in your milk can potentially interfere with the normal brain development of your baby.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians can obtain vitamin B12 from dairy products and eggs. Vegans can obtain it from some cereals, some soy beverages, and some vegetarian sausages and burgers. If vegans don’t get enough vitamin B12 from foods such as these, it’s recommended they take B12 supplements.
The absorption of Vitamin B12 in your body becomes less efficient as you get older, so supplements may also be needed by older vegetarians.
Calcium is important for strong bones and teeth.
Good sources of calcium include dairy products, fortified cereals and fruits juices, fortified soymilk, tahini and some brands of tofu. Leafy dark green vegetables (especially Asian greens), legumes, almonds and Brazil nuts also contain calcium.
Calcium deficiency isn’t generally found in lacto-vegetarians because of their consumption of dairy products, but some impaired bone mineralization has been found among vegans who don’t consume enough leafy greens.
A major source of vitamin D for most Australians and Americans is sunlight. There’s very little vitamin D in most people’s diets unless they eat fatty fish, eggs, liver or vitamin D fortified foods.
Vitamin D levels don’t appear to be lower in for people following vegetarian diet plans, although studies have shown that much of the general population is deficient anyhow. Vitamin D deficiency can be avoided by vegans by consuming fortified soymilk and cereals. Lacto-vegetarians can also consume fortified low fat and skim milk, although the levels in these foods are quite low.
Because the sun is a major source of vitamin D, dietary intake is only important when exposure to UV light from the sun is inadequate. This can likely be a problem to people who are housebound or whose clothing covers almost all of their skin most of the time.
Nutrition Tips For Vegetarians
Following a vegetarian diet is simply an exercise in careful nutritional management. It could be argued however, that this is the case for all healthy eating plans.
Below is a list of useful tips for successfully implementing vegetarian diet plans for weight loss and/or general healthy eating.
- Take extra care to eat a variety of different foods at each meal, including protein-rich and carbohydrate-rich foods.
- A variety of meat substitutes are available today that are ideal for vegetarian diet plans. Some of these include textured vegetable (or soy) protein, ready-made nut, soy or wheat-derived meat analogs, and vegetarian styles of mince, sausages or luncheon meats.
- Remember to combine proteins from different vegetable protein groups when consuming incomplete protein foods.
- If after having recently converted to a vegetarian diet you find that you unintentionally lose weight, try to include compact, energy-dense vegetarian foods such as meat substitutes, textured vegetable protein, tempeh, tofu, nuts, and peanut or nut butter into your diet. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can use low-fat milk, reduced-fat cheese and other low-fat dairy products. Soy alternatives to these dairy products are available for vegans.
- If you drink soy milk rather than regular milk, choose a calcium fortified option – one that contains at least 100mg of calcium per 100ml of milk. Other suitable non-dairy calcium-rich alternatives include tofu, soy yoghurts and soy custards. Breakfast cereals and low oxalate green vegetables such as broccoli, and bok choy also provide calcium. Try to have at least 3 serves of calcium-rich foods each day.
- Dairy foods and eggs normally provide enough vitamin B12 for women on lacto-ovo vegetarian diet plans. Vitamin B12 deficiency can be a concern for strict vegans however, so you should include a good source of vitamin B12 such as fortified soy milks or vitamin B12 supplements in your diet.
- Dietary intake of riboflavin may be too limited for vegans, especially if you don’t consume soy milk and soy milk products. Good sources of riboflavin include fortified breakfast cereals, grains, textured vegetable protein, soy milks, soy yoghurts, soy custards, soy cheeses and yeast extract spreads such as Australian Vegemite.
- There are two types of iron in your diet – haem iron, which is found in animal foods such as red meat, chicken, liver and eggs; and non-haem iron, which is found in cereals, bread, legumes, textured vegetable protein, nuts and green leafy vegetables. Haem iron is well absorbed by your body (15-35%), but non-haem iron isn’t (only 2-8%). If you’re a strict vegan therefore, it’s important that you take this into consideration when choosing the types and amount of foods you use as your source of iron.
- The best sources of iron in for vegans are iron fortified cereals, bread, textured vegetable protein, legumes, dried beans, gluten-based vegetarian meat analogs, nuts, dried fruits and green leafy vegetables.
- Foods that are rich in vitamin C, such as orange juice or salad, enhance the absorption of non-haem iron by your body. Tea, coffee and unprocessed bran decrease the absorption of non-haem iron by your body.
Vegetarian Diet Plans For Weight Loss
As you can see then, there are numerous health benefits to following vegetarian diet plans, and even a few benefits for weight loss. Does this mean that becoming a vegetarian is a good idea if you want to lose weight?
Well, yes and no.
The first important point to bear in mind is that the results of studies done that illustrate the health benefits of vegetarian diet plans always use the average diet as a baseline. And, as you know, the average diet is pretty dismal.
You have other choices, apart from a vegetarian diet and an “average” Western diet. A healthy non-vegetarian diet, for example.
The one major factor of vegetarian diet plans that deliver the majority of health benefits is the avoidance of saturated fat. You should bear in mind however, that saturated fat can also easily be largely avoided, or at least minimized, on a non-vegetarian diet. You can do that by choosing lean protein sources such as chicken breast, turkey breast, fish, kangaroo steak, and lean cuts of red meat, and by largely avoiding the fattier dairy products – cheese in particular.
In my opinion, it’s far easier and safer to follow a healthy meat-eating diet, with lots of excellent protein sources, and consciously avoid too much saturated fat; than it is to manage a vegetarian diet so that you get enough good-quality protein, as well as all the necessary vitamins and minerals in your diet.
At the end of the day however, the choice is a personal one.