If you’re trying to lose weight, there are tons of diets to choose from—and new research points to vegetarian diets as a promising option. For the study, which was published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 74 participants cut their normal daily calories by 500 for six months. Some went on a vegetarian diet, and some went on a diabetes-friendly diet (one that focuses on reducing sugars, refined carbs, cholesterol, and saturated fat). People on the vegetarian diet lost more subcutaneous fat (that’s the noticeable fat under your skin). They also lost more subfascial fat (the type that lines your muscles) and intramuscular fat (the type stored inside your muscles). That’s important, since the fat that’s stored inside your muscles and organs can mess with your metabolism, potentially leading to insulin resistance and even type 2 diabetes, says study author Hana Kahleova, M.D.
“Although both groups in our study consumed the same amount of calories, the study shows that calories are not created equal,” says Kahleova.
Other studies have shown that eating more plants can help you lose more weight, says Stefanie Mendez, R.D. There are lots of theories as to why this is the case. For one thing, you can eat a much larger volume of veggies than you can high-protein and fatty foods—for the same number of calories. “While a cheeseburger might set you back 500 calories, you’d have to eat a whole lot of beans, veggies, and tofu to get the same amount,” says Mendez. “It’s more filling because it takes up more space in your stomach.” What’s more, veggies and grains are the best sources of fiber, which helps prevent blood sugar spikes and drops—keeping you feeling more satisfied so you’re less tempted to munch between meals. Vegetarian diets are also lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, which may have an impact on weight loss, Mendez adds.
Ready to go veggie? While you can, of course, go full-on vegetarian, you don’t have to eat just greens all day, every day to benefit. “I tell clients you don’t have to put a label on your diet,” says Mendez. “Even starting with one day with more veggies is a success.” Going vegetarian just once or twice a week—i.e., flexitarian—“is really on-trend,” she says. Even just that slight shift has lots of other health benefits, including lowering your blood pressure, improving your gut health, and possibly even improving your mood, adds Vandana Sheth, R.D., a lifelong vegetarian, Los Angeles-based dietitian, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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If you’re looking to go vegetarian (even if it’s just part-time), make sure to get protein at every meal, says Mendez. “It’s really important to help your body to repair and to maintain lean muscle mass.” And be careful not to take in too many carbs. “The main pitfall with vegetarian diets is you overdo it on the carbs and eat a ton of starchy foods like bread, pizza, and pasta,” says Mendez. If your dinner is just pasta with tomato sauce, you’re missing the balance (i.e., fats and proteins) you need to stay full—and you end up overeating and/or snacking soon after you’re done eating.
Try this sample meal plan if you think a vegetarian diet could be right for you and your weight-loss goals:
Vegetarian Weight Loss | Women’s Health