Can Going Vegetarian Help with Weight Loss?

Question: Meat is high in protein, I know that is good for weight loss, but meat is also high in fat and cholesterol. If I stop eating meat and start eating only vegetarian, will it be easier for me to lose weight?



Great question!

The short answer is: “it depends”. The merits of eating strictly vegetarian versus eating animal products are highly disputed, and there is research supporting both sides.

What we eat, and how we eat it, is an inextricable part of who we are, how we live and the lifestyles we’ve chosen. This makes it difficult to study our diets outside of all of the many physical, emotional, psychological and cultural aspects of our lives, and often makes it difficult to draw definite conclusions about which diet is ideal for optimal health and weight loss.

One Way to Lose Weight?

One of the common troubles of studying real-life phenomenon – like eating — in controlled, simulated laboratories is that it can ignore several real-world influences that may affect the results in significant ways. On the other hand, simply observing real life situations in an uncontrolled fashion may cause too many influences to seep in, making it unclear which cause led to which effect, and sometimes leading scientists to oversimplify the patterns that they observe.

For example, a famous study called the China Study attempted to draw conclusions about diet and health from twenty years worth of statistics that were collected in 65 countries in China. Death rates from 48 different forms of cancer and other diseases were compiled and summarized. The researchers found that the countries with the highest consumption of animal-based foods were more likely to have higher BMIs, higher rates of obesity and higher death rates from causes such as coronary heart disease, leukemia, diabetes, and cancers of the esophagus, stomach, liver, colon, breast, brain and lungs. The researchers concluded that “the findings from the China Study indicate that the lower the percentage of animal-based foods that are consumed, the greater the health benefits – even when that percentage declines from 10% to 0%.”

While these statistics are shocking, what they don’t reflect is other factors that significantly affect one’s weight and health, such as – aside from animal foods – what else were the country’s residents eating on a daily basis? What kinds of animal foods were being eaten, and were they of high quality? How physically active were the animal eaters? How well did they attend to their healthcare, and what other environmental factors may have been at play in determining rates of body mass, health and disease? Other studies have shown that vegans tend to be more physically active and less likely to consume alcohol and to smoke than meat-eaters. So is it simply the act of eating meat that leads to negative health outcomes, or is it other lifestyle factors and choices as well? The answer is not yet clear.

On the other hand, controlling the environment too severely in a laboratory may exclude important real-world factors, and may not allow enough time to pass to make real-life conclusions. Dr. David Ludwig of Boston Children’s Hospital recently conducted a fascinating study that compared weight loss in obese individuals who were eating either a high protein-low carbohydrate diet that included lean animal foods or a low protein-high carbohydrate diet that included no animal foods. Three months later, Ludwig concluded that the subjects burned the most calories on the high protein-low carb diet.

However, after only 3 months of eating highly controlled foods in a laboratory, these findings don’t necessarily mirror real-life eating in real-life environments. They also can’t speak to what will happen to our weight or health when these types of diets are followed beyond 3 months.

Another study, published in the American College of Physicians’ Annals of Internal Medicine may offer us a middle ground view instead. The study not only looked at the effectiveness of vegan eating versus non-vegan eating for weight loss over two years, but it also provided all 307 of the dieters with regular behavioral treatments, lifestyle modification therapy and emotional support. While reductions in blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol varied between the two groups at different points in the study, weight loss, body fat composition and bone mineral density remained pretty much the same for both groups when measured at year 1 and at year 2. When coupled with social support and behavioral therapy, both animal eaters and non-animal eaters achieved about the same amount of weight loss – and they managed to keep it off successfully.

To Eat Meat? Or Not to Eat Meat?

What IS clear from all of the research is that both your health and weight improve from eating more high-quality unprocessed plant foods on a daily basis. Over-consumption of highly processed, low-quality animal foods have shown disastrous effects on health and weight loss, while consumption of highly processed, low-quality plant foods also increases your weight and worsens your health.

So when it comes to weight loss, my answer to you is that there isn’t just one way to lose weight. If you are already consuming animal foods and enjoy eating them, you don’t have to remove them from your meal plan in order to lose weight. Instead, make sure to improve your animal food quality as much as possible by looking for animal foods that are unprocessed, contain no additives, chemicals, hormones or preservatives, and that come from animals that have been raised in a healthy way on a natural diet. It’s also important to balance your consumption of animal foods with a higher percentage of fresh and unprocessed plant foods.

On the other hand, if you are actively seeking to lessen your intake of animal foods for health reasons or moral reasons, than you should definitely go ahead and do so with confidence. Vegetarian-type diets have repeatedly shown to offer broad and significant health-benefits, including weight loss and lowered rates of certain diseases, while being more sustainable. Many cultures around the world practice vegetarianism and demonstrate lower BMIs and disease rates.

However, simply swapping animal foods for low-quality plant foods, or just eating more plant foods without a thought-out diet strategy, is not going to improve your chances of successful weight loss. Low-quality plant foods like heavily processed and refined grain products (like white bread, white pasta, baked goods, etc.) or reconstituted fruit juices aren’t going to provide you with the nutrient support your body needs, and are more likely to slow down your metabolism and stimulate more fat storage.

Vegetarian and vegan dieters must still remain conscientious of portion control, as some plant foods are naturally higher in calories and natural sugars than animal foods. For example, one cup of brown rice contains 37% more calories than one 4 ounce piece of salmon, while one cup of chickpeas contains 71% more. Certain nutrient needs that are less available in the plant world must also be attended to, like vitamin B12.

Finding the Right Weight Loss Diet for YOU

No matter which type of diet you choose – one that includes animal foods or one that cuts them out – you can be successful at losing weight and keeping it off if you focus on eating a balanced diet of high-quality and unprocessed foods, on making sure that you are getting the appropriate amount of macronutrients (protein, healthy fat and carbohydrates) and micronutrients necessary for good health and weight management, and that you are eating the right number of calories to fit your lifestyle.


Yours in good health,



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