Is it possible? YES!
What to do if you’re following a vegetarian diet but aren’t getting the results you want
For years we’ve all been told that losing weight was all about arithmetic – “calories in versus calories out”. To put this into practice we were told it’s as simple as “eating less (calories) and moving more”.
More recently we’ve learnt that the eating side of the equation has much more impact on weight loss than the movement side. Because the human body has a self-regulating metabolism, if you move more, increases in appetite typically drives you to eat more.
It’s rare to find someone who successfully lost weight via exercise alone. Those few who say they do, typically adjust their diet at the same time.
And so, from a weight loss perspective, any diet that reduced calories should work, regardless of whether it was vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, Ovo-Lacto vegetarian, omnivore or carnivore!
However for weight loss, the carbohydrate composition of the diet may make a difference to the ease of following it and the outcome – both rate of weight loss and total weight loss. So far, studies are showing contradictory results. Some studies suggest that lower carb diets are more effective. Another study suggested there was little difference. In this study the mean weight loss at 12 months was just 5.3 kg for the low fat group and 6.0 kg for the low carb group, both around 0.5 kg per month.
Although positive, many people would be disenchanted with this slow rate of weight loss. At Healthy Inspirations, with high-frequency (weekly) face-to-face coaching we aim for 0.4 to 0.5 kg per week!
This is important to know. Too many people embark on a diet to lose weight, but give up because they either don’t get results, don’t get results at a satisfactory rate, they feel hungry or worse, they feel tired and unwell.
“But I thought an XXXX diet was the healthiest!”
Back to carbohydrate – What is it about low carbohydrate eating that makes weight loss so much easier, and relatively hunger-free?
To better understand what works with fat/weight loss, let’s start by looking at two different examples of things that trigger weight gain.
- Pregnancy! When a woman becomes pregnant she gains weight. This could be from a combination of stimulated appetite and slowing metabolism. Her body actually wants to gain weight, on top of the baby’s increasing weight.
- Insulin! It’s called an anabolic (growth-stimulating) hormone. If you elevate someone’s insulin levels they’ll put on weight. You could do this by insulin injections or a diet that triggers high insulin levels – a diet that is rich in carbohydrate – from any source – either unprocessed whole foods or highly processed foods. Of course, with food choices, if you had to eat one or the other, you’d always choose foods that have higher nutrient density – mainly unprocessed whole foods.
Many diabetics find that their weight increases when they increase their insulin doses. This is problematic as they are told to lose weight to better manage their diabetes.
For many people, a diet that is high in carbohydrate stimulates weight gain. This is despite the fact that they may have friends (including personal trainers, runners, yoga teachers and models) and family members who can eat carbohydrate-rich foods and stay lean.
Isn’t that unfair. What gives? How come they can eat a carb-rich diet and not gain weight?
The answer lies with the insulin-response scale. Some people are highly insulin-sensitive. Their bodies can happily metabolise 150 to 300 grams of carbohydrate per day, without triggering weight gain. A low-fat high carb diet suits them fine. It’s worth noting that there are some overweight people who do not have insulin resistance (link).
But, if you’re reading this, (vegetarian or not) you may be insulin-insensitive (also known as insulin resistant). This means that your body has a reduced carbohydrate tolerance – from any foods, processed or unprocessed. And if you exceed your body’s individual carbohydrate tolerance, you’ll struggle to lose weight. You may even be put on weight. A low fat, high carb diet just doesn’t work for your body.
One way to determine your likelihood of insulin resistance is to measure your waist and divide it by your height. Say your waist is 85 cm and your height is 170 cm, you have a ‘waist to height ratio’ of 50%. This is a solid predictor of insulin resistance = decreased carbohydrate tolerance. If your waist is anywhere near or over 50% of your height you may want to ask your doctor to get you tested for insulin resistance. Warning: It’s possible to have normal fasting blood sugar but still be insulin resistant.
There’s no drug to treat the cause of IR. The only effective treatment is to reduce your carbohydrate (from all and any sources) to under your body’s unique carb tolerance, and lose weight. Of course, you need a way to learn what your body’s individual carb tolerance is and what that represents in foods you like, vegetarian or other. (That’s exactly what the Healthy Inspirations ICT Reset program and coaching does.)
Resistance exercise can also help boost insulin sensitivity. Like brushing and flossing your teeth, resistance exercise is great health prevention and should be done for life.
Vegetarian and Vegan Diets for Weight Loss
These diets typically avoid animal foods: meat, fish, eggs, dairy etc. Of course, there are some in-between diets like the Ovo-Lacto vegetarian diet that permits dairy and fish.
It’s actually not uncommon to meet someone who is a strict vegan who seems to be underweight, not just low body fat, but low muscle as well. Then there’s some who don’t look underweight or overweight, but on close inspection they have quiet a lot of bodyfat (flabby arms, thighs and tummy). This is called being “skinny fat” or technically “sarcopenic obese”. Although their body size and total weight (BMI) seems to be normal, they have less lean muscle and more bodyfat. They need a program to lose bodyfat and increase muscle strength and tone.
And so, the question remains “Is it possible to follow a well-formulated low carb vegetarian diet?”
Answer: It is possible, but it comes with some challenges. The trick is to get adequate essential nutrients: essential amino acids (proteins), essential fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) and essential micronutrients (like B12 and iron), but to keep total carbohydrate under your body’s individual carbohydrate tolerance.
This is made far easier if you can have some fish, some dairy and/or some eggs in your meals, as these foods provide good quality, easily-assimilated protein. There’s lots of advantages to a pescatarian approach that cuts out refined grains but keeps seafood. This helps maintain protein status which helps maintain immune function and helps with appetite satiety.
It is possible to combine vegetarian foods to provide a complete protein profile, but it’s difficult (not impossible) if your want to keep your carbs low. It’s a good idea to have your doctor test your B12 and iron levels on a regular basis.
And so, if you choose to go totally vegan and low carb to lose weight, although very restrictive, it’s still possible but much more difficult. Signing up for a program that has weekly coaching (like Healthy Inspirations) is definitely recommended.
With any sustainable healthy weight loss program there’s three things you should measure at least monthly:
- Your weight. Your rate of weight loss will never be a straight line. It’s normal to have times of faster weight loss and no weight loss. Plateaus are a normal part of weight loss.
- Your waist. Reducing waist means reducing the internal visceral fat, which is associated with many health risks. Remember the waist-to-height ratio.
- Your strength. Maintaining your strength is a good sign that you are selectively losing bodyfat and not losing lean muscle tissue. Healthy muscles are vital to avoid muscular-skeletal injuries and maintain insulin sensitivity (reduced diabetes risk). Your Health Coach can measure your lower and upper body strength. They can also use body impedance to estimate your body’s total lean mass.
Don’t Ignore Your Bone Health
People seeking better health and weight loss often ignore their bone health. You do not want to stimulate osteoporosis by having a diet where you have poor protein status. Although calcium, weight-bearing exercise and sunshine (Vit D) are vital to maintaining good bone health, so is maintaining good protein status. “Protein provides the body with a source of essential amino acids necessary for health. Low protein intake is detrimental both for the building of peak bone mass during childhood and adolescence (affecting skeletal growth) and for the preservation of bone mass with ageing.” Source International Osteoporosis Foundation
Low Carb & Vegetarian
One of the biggest misunderstandings of low carb eating lifestyles is that people assume that “low carb means high protein”. This is not true. Regardless of your low carb choice (vegetarian or animal protein), your body’s need for protein is the same, to maintain optimal health. When you dial down the carbs, you dial up dietary fats which can be either animal fats and/or plant fats. Fats do not stimulate an insulin response. We recommend you avoid polyunsaturated seed “vegetable” oils and spreads.
Vegetarian low carbers will totally avoid or minimise: grains (wheat, corn, rice, cereals etc), legumes (lentils, black beans, peas etc), sugar (honey, agave, maple syrup etc), fruits (some low carb and salad fruits are OK in moderation), and tubers (potato, yam etc). Believe it or not, there’s plenty left to eat!
The three ultimate tests of any successful dietary change are:
- Am I achieving the change that I desire at a reasonable rate? (Goals must be realistic. Plan on losing around a kilo a fortnight.)
- Am I hunger free?
- Do I feel well, or even better?
This article has specifically avoided any discussion about vegetarian ideologies. That’s a personal matter. Regardless of your food ideology talk to your local Healthy Inspirations centre about your weight loss goals. We have two programs (ICT Reset and Great Shape) that can both be adapted for various vegetarian diets and supplemental dairy protein snacks if you include dairy.