When it comes to losing weight, not all calories are created equal. That’s why registered dietitians and health experts recommend prioritizing whole foods — which come loaded with fiber and other important nutrients — and cutting back on processed foods. And now, there’s more evidence that cutting back on meat may help as well.
Beyond weight, there are also findings that a vegetarian lifestyle can lower the risk for heart disease, cancer, blood pressure and even death (not to mention the staggering environmental benefits). Not surprisingly, vegetarian diets are gaining in popularity. It also helps that there’s evidence to say vegetarians and vegans weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts. Let’s dive into the details and see how reducing meat consumption may be helpful for shedding those stubborn pounds.
One caveat: Weight loss is tough and highly personalized. What works for your neighbor may not work well for you.
A large 2010 study examined the diets of 373,803 men and women in 10 European countries over the course of 8 years found eating meat was positively linked to weight gain. The researchers found that after adjusting for calories, eating 250 grams of meat (about one steak) per day would lead to a 4.4 pound (2kg) weight gain after 5 years. Naturally, the researchers concluded eating less meat would help with weight management.
Generally speaking, vegetarians weigh less than omnivores. A 2015 analysis of 15 studies by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that adopting a vegetarian diet leads to weight loss, without calorie counting or exercise. Going all-out vegan may reign supreme in the weight-loss department.
Harvard researchers also looked at how vegetarian diets affected weight loss. They combed through 12 studies with a total of 1,151 participants. Note that all 12 studies were randomized controlled trials meaning they assigned participants to either a vegetarian or non-vegetarian group (e.g., control group). Each study lasted about 18 weeks or 4.5 months. Their findings: Vegetarians lost 4.4 pounds more than non-vegetarians, and vegans lost 5.5 pounds more than non-vegetarians.
A recent study showed people who adopted a vegetarian diet lost almost two times more weight than carnivores — even when both groups followed low-calorie meal plans. The research found following a vegetarian diet also reduced subfascial and intramuscular fat, supporting an active metabolism.
“Our cardiometabolic health is greatly impacted by fat distribution. The visceral fat and the fat inside the muscle and liver cells seem to be the most metabolically dangerous,” explains study co-author Hana Kahleova, PhD, director of clinical research at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
It makes sense that eating less meat can be helpful for weight loss. While it’s a good source of protein, meat is higher in saturated fat, cholesterol and usually calories than plants, not to mention the fact it’s void of filling fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants. Therefore, eating too much meat (or too much of anything) isn’t be good for you.
Moreover, the latest research suggests eating animal and dairy products like eggs, cheese, cow’s milk, yogurt and butter and avoiding meat — a classic vegetarian diet — is associated with a lower BMI. The researchers suggest a plant-based diet contains fewer highly processed foods and less saturated fat and sugar than diets containing a lot of meat. “It’s likely meat eaters may be getting a higher proportion of their calories from processed meats like sausages, hot dogs and cold cuts, which are higher in calories but less filling, and could lead to weight gain,” explains Kahleova.
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Remember being vegetarian doesn’t automatically mean being healthier. After all, cookies, pie and cheese pizza are all meatless. The key to losing weight on a vegetarian diet is fueling yourself with nutrient-dense whole foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds.
Going vegetarian automatically means eating more carbohydrates since meat is the only food group without this nutrient. Be mindful that the quality of carbs matters, and aim for higher-fiber, less-processed options. For example, pick roasted sweet potatoes or spicy black beans rather than white bread.
It’s also a myth that ditching meat means you can’t get enough protein. Incorporate plant-based, protein-rich foods like beans, whole grains, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds into every meal and snack to ensure you’re meeting your daily needs and staying full.
While reducing consumption of meat may seem daunting, it’s not as hard as you’d think. More and more restaurants are offering vegetarian options, and not just cheesy pasta, either. Don’t be surprised when you see quinoa patties and bean “meatballs” popping up on menus everywhere — fast-food included. The good news is this trend isn’t going anywhere and the world is only going to become more accepting of meatless preferences.
Even if you don’t adopt a fully vegetarian diet, you can still reap the health benefits of eating more plant-based foods. “Focus on nutrient-rich fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds,” recommends Nancy Z. Farrell Allen, RD. Cutting back on processed meats high in saturated fat and incorporating healthy fats from eggs and dairy can also help with weight loss. If you do choose to consume meat, “limit processed meats and red meat to no more than 2 ounces per day and fewer than three servings — about 18 ounces of cooked red meat — per week,” advises Amy Gorin, RD. These meats, which are high in saturated fat, can contribute to weight gain. Instead, opt for leaner picks like skinless chicken breast, ground turkey and shrimp.
Originally published October 2016, updated with additional reporting by Jodi Helmer
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