Vegetarian diet for weight loss

A vegetarian dinner at a Japanese Buddhist temple

A vegetarian dinner at a Japanese Buddhist temple (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eating a more plant-based diet can boost your health, whether you’re a vegetarian or not.

What is it about the vegetarian lifestyle that can protect your health? And are there risks to being vegetarian? NIH-funded researchers are looking for answers. They’re exploring the many ways that diet and other factors affect our health.

Vegetarian meals focus on fruits and vegetables, dried beans, whole grains, seeds and nuts. By some estimates, about 2% of the U.S. adult population follows this type of diet.

People have many reasons for becoming vegetarians. Some want to eat more healthy foods. Others have religious or economic reasons or are concerned about animal welfare. “Vegetarian diets are also more sustainable and environmentally sound than diets that rely heavily on meat, poultry and fish,” says NIH nutritionist Dr. Susan Krebs-Smith, who monitors trends in cancer risk factors.

Most people think of vegetarian diets as simply eating plant foods and not eating meat, poultry and fish. “But in fact, there are many different types of vegetarian diets,” Krebs-Smith explains. “Some are more restrictive than others.”

Strict vegetarians, or vegans, eat plant foods and reject all animal products—meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy and sometimes honey. Those who also eat dairy products are called lacto vegetarians. Vegetarians who eat both dairy and eggs are called lacto-ovo vegetarians.

Some vegetarians eat fish but not meat or poultry. They’re called pescatarians (pesce is Italian for fish).

“Then there are the so-called flexitarians, or semi-vegetarians. These are people who eat a mostly vegetarian diet, but they occasionally eat meat,” says Jody Engel, a nutritionist and registered dietitian at NIH. “They might say ‘I’m a vegetarian, but I need to eat my burgers every Sunday.’  People tend to follow their own rules, which is one reason why it’s hard for researchers to study vegetarians. There’s so much variance.”

Despite the different definitions, “there’s tremendous agreement among nutrition experts and health organizations that a more plant-based diet is beneficial, whether you’re a true vegetarian or not,” says Krebs-Smith. “Most Americans don’t eat enough fruit, vegetables, legumes or whole grains. There’s a huge consensus that eating more of these foods would be a good idea for everyone.” 

Vegetarian diets tend to have fewer calories, lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, and more fiber, potassium and vitamin C than other eating patterns. Vegetarians tend to weigh less than meat-eaters, and to have lower cancer rates. “Evidence also suggests that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from certain heart diseases, and that those who follow a vegetarian diet tend to have lower LDL [“bad”] cholesterol levels,” says Engel. 

In some cases, though, it’s unclear if certain health benefits come from plant-based eating or from the healthy lifestyle of most vegetarians. “Vegetarians are generally more physically active and have healthier habits than non-vegetarians. They also typically have a higher socioeconomic status, at least in the United States,” says Krebs-Smith.

Because vegetarians by definition don’t eat meat, some people jump to the conclusion that simply cutting meat from your diet will lead to health benefits. “But it’s actually more complicated than that,” says Fraser. “Differences in life expectancy and other health matters might be related to the extra fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes—including soy—that vegetarians tend to eat. You can’t necessarily conclude it’s based on the absence of meat,” he says.

Experts generally agree that vegetarians who eat a wide variety of foods can readily meet all their body’s needs for nutrients. “At any stage of life, you should be able to eat a healthy diet by consuming vegetarian foods. But it does take a little planning,” says Rachel Fisher, a registered dietitian involved in nutrition research at NIH.

Vegetarians need to be sure they take in enough iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12. Studies show that most vegetarians do get enough, in part because so many cereals, breads and other foods are fortified with these nutrients. “Vegans in particular need to be certain to get enough vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids,” says Fisher. Omega-3—found in fish, flax seed, walnuts and canola oil—is important for heart health and vision.

Some vegetarians take dietary supplements to make sure they’re getting everything they need. It’s a good idea to talk to a registered dietitian or other health professional if you’re a vegetarian or thinking of becoming one.

Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, Fisher says, you can benefit from the high fiber, low fat and rich nutrients of a vegetarian diet. “Vegetarian foods can be so delicious, and they’re so good for you,” she says.

Try using a variety of spices and herbs to make things interesting. And make sure not to overcook your vegetables, or they might lose some of their valuable nutrients. 

Adapted from: http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/issue/jul2012/feature1

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About Prab R. Tumpati, MD, Medical Director

Dr. Prab R. Tumpati, MD is a practicing Internal Medicine, Sleep and Obesity Medicine physician with offices in New York and Pennsylvania. Board certified in Sleep Medicine, Internal Medicine and board eligible in Obesity Medicine, Dr. Tumpati is experienced and well versed in the science and the arm of medicine. As the founder of W8MD Medical Weight Loss Centers of America, Dr. Tumpati brings his vision, and passion. Learn more at www.w8md.com

Posted on June 12, 2013, in Diet For Weight Loss and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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