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To lose weight, one has to become a vegetarian?

Written by: Ms. Sylvia Lam, Accredited Practicing Dietitian APD, Accredited Dietitian HKDA.

Many studies have found out that a balanced vegetarian diet can reduce the chance of developing chronic disease including obesity, heart disease, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, osteoporosis and some cancers. In recent years, some studies have shown that vegetarian diet can also help improve mental health. The main reason is that vegetarians consume less saturated fat, trans fats and animal protein, as well as more beneficial nutrients such as dietary fiber, unsaturated fats (mono, poly, and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids), vitamin. A, C and E, folic acid, potassium, magnesium antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Vegetarians also pay more attention to other health factors than non-vegetarians, such as less smoking, less alcohol, and more exercise. Therefore, vegetarians usually weigh lighter than those who eat meat, while vegans weigh the lightest.

There are many types of vegetarians, for example:

But in fact, as long as one can achieve a low-fat balanced diet, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian can make better health. On the contrary, if you eat unhealthily, despite being a vegetarian or not, it can also lead to malnutrition or over-nutrition (i.e. overweight and obesity). Some vegetarian foods can be very in high calories and fats. For example, potato chips, French fries, chocolate, soda, juice, coconut milk, candy, sweet buns, instant noodles, margarine, non-dairy creamer, coconut oil and palm oil, salad dressing or other vegetable oil. Excessive consumption of these foods will also lead to obesity. A study published in the American College of Cardiology in 2017 reported that if followed an unbalanced vegetarian diet, the risk of heart disease was increased by 32%.

On the other hand, Chinese-style vegetarian dishes often use fried, braised with heavy oil and covered with sauces which make vegetarian foods unhealthy. For example, a dish of stir-fry vegetarian egg-foo noodle already contains about 1,300 kcal and 14 teaspoons of oil; while a dish of Rohan with rice has about 900 kcal and 9 teaspoons of oil. Other soybean foods such as fried tofu pop, deep fried soy gluten, Chinese fake meat and deep-fried bamboo sheet are all very high in fat; therefore, vegetarians who are overweight or obese should eat less of these vegetarian foods.

Besides, may people think that consuming more fruits and fruit juice is harmless, but don’t forget that fruits and juices contain large amount of fructose and calories. Excessive consumption may affect blood sugar and triglyceride levels, and it is also unfavorable for weight control.

In addition to sugar and fat, some vegetarian foods may also contain high levels of trans fat. Excessive trans-fat can increase bad cholesterol in the blood, while lowering the level of good cholesterol resulting in increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The World Health Organization recommends that trans-fat intake should be kept as low as possible which is less than 1% of the total energy intake. For example, a vegetarian who consumes 2,000 kcal per day should have a daily intake of less than 2.2 grams of trans fat a day.

The cornerstone of a balanced vegetarian diet – whole grain food

White sugar, white bread and white rice are all refined carbohydrates, and most important nutrients such as vitamin B, minerals and dietary fiber are lost during processing. It is recommended that vegetarians should eat whole grains such as brown rice or red rice that have not been polished, wheat bread, whole wheat noodles and whole wheat spaghetti. Common wholegrains that are commonly found in the supermarket include brown rice, red rice, barley, wheat, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, oats, and rye.

Indispensable vegetable protein

Proteins can be divided into complete incomplete protein. Complete protein refers to foods that can provide all 20 essential amino acids which mainly come from animal foods such as meat, fish, eggs, seafood, milk and soybeans (such as tofu, soy milk, dried beans). Incomplete proteins are foods that do not provide all 20 essential amino acids and they are mainly from wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and other legumes (excluding soy beans). The amino acids that are lacking in certain plant food maybe abundant other plant foods, so they can be complemented. This is called “Complimentary Protein”.

Healthier plant protein mainly includes soy products such as hard tofu, soft tofu, soy bean, soybeans, bean curd, fresh bean curd sheet, Shanghainese bean curd sheet (“Pak Yip”) and high calcium and low sugar soy milk. Other vegetable-derived proteins include legumes such as red bean, black bean, chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, and various kinds of nuts and seeds, and even nut butter, such as peanut butter, almond butter sesame paste and cashew butter. If one is ovo-lacto vegetarians, they can get enough quality protein from eggs and milk products.

Fine selection of good fats

As vegetarians do not eat animal fat, their saturated fat intake is generally lower than that of meat eaters, but some plant-derived fats also contain a lot of saturated fats that are harmful to heart health. Vegetable oils that contain large amounts of saturated fat are palm oil and coconut oil. Trans fats are mainly derived from hydrogenated fats, vegetables shortening and margarine. Vegetarians should try to eat less of the above unhealthy vegetable oils. One should choose more unsaturated fats including poly- and monounsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids from plants, which can be found in seeds and their seed oils such as flaxseed/oil and chia seed; and nuts (such as walnut) and its nut oil.

The principle of weight loss is inseparable from reducing the calories from the amount of food eaten and exercise to burn extra body fat. It is recommended that vegetarians also follow a low fat, sugar, salt and high-fiber vegetarian diet in order to achieve weight loss. All people no matter vegetarians or not are suggested to perform regular cardio exercise such as walking, running, cycling, swimming, hiking etc., 3-5 times a week at about 30 minutes each time to achieve a healthy weight.