Need to Know
  1. Vegan, vegetarian & Paleo diets don't guarantee weight loss
  2. Focus on unprocessed food if dropping pounds is your goal
  3. Beware some common eating traps

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Going vegan or vegetarian has never been more popular. According to a Harris Interactive study in 2012, roughly five percent of the US population is vegetarian — approximately 16 million people — and half of those vegetarians identify as vegans. While five percent might not seem like much, that number has more than doubled since the last poll in 2009. The Paleo diet was a mere blip on the radar five years ago, but now has become one of the most Googled diet phrases of the past two years.

While there are many reasons people are interested in these diets — their own health, concerns over the treatment of commercially-raised animals — weight loss is often the biggest driver. With countless celebs — including Queen B herself — talking about how going vegan or Paleo or gluten free is the key to their red carpet-ready look, it’s not surprising that people assume a diet switch will automatically equal pounds lost. But in reality, no diet guarantees the scale’s going to budge downwards. In fact, the opposite is often true. Oreos, Fritos, Cap N’ Crunch cereal, and Sour Patch Kids all happen to be vegan, but you don’t have to be a dietitian to know those aren’t foods you should be filling up on daily. While Paleo purists tend to shun all processed foods, the calories can also add up when a diet consists primarily of meat, avocados and nuts.

Is it impossible to be a vegan or a vegetarian or a Paleoite and lose weight? Of course not! Here’s how to eat well and manage weight at the same time.

If you’re following a vegan diet…

A strict vegan diet eschews all animal products, including the obvious — meat — as well as less obvious byproducts like honey and gelatin. Staples of a vegan diet include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils; all foods that most of us, vegan or not, should incorporate more frequently into our diet. As a whole, vegans tend to have the lowest BMI of any group, according to research unveiled at the 6th International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition.  Therefore, weight gain with vegan diets tends to come in the form of eating too many food substitutes — like calorie-dense mock-meats (e.g. Soyrizo) — oils, refined grains, vegan junk food, and processed foods. To reap the benefits of a vegan diet without unwanted weight gain, enjoy more nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruits, and legumes, and save things like vegan mac ‘n cheese, tofu cheesecake, and coconut milk ice cream for special occasions.

If you’re following a vegetarian diet…

Like vegans, vegetarians tend to benefit from lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and lower risk of hypertension and diabetes than their non-vegetarian counterparts. There are many theories as to why this difference exists, but anyone who is consuming at least four to five servings of fruits and vegetables per day is likely going to see a lower risk of most chronic diseases. However, just because you give up meat doesn’t mean your health — or waistline — will automatically improve. An excessive consumption of cheese is the number one reason I see weight gain among new vegetarians, most of whom choose the lacto-ovo route, which includes cheese and other dairy products. Cheese is delicious, but it’s also calorie-dense: a tiny, one-ounce serving contains around 110 calories, nine grams of fat and seven grams of protein. In comparison, a whole chicken breast  (about four ounces) contains 280 calories, six grams of fat and a whopping 54 grams of protein. Finding other sources of plant-based protein is key. Tofu, tempeh, lentils, and beans are all high in protein, making them good meat or poultry replacements. Lastly, consider how much of your diet revolves around refined grains. While pasta is an easy vegetarian swap, it can be calorically dense depending on the sauce and portion size. Stick with a higher ratio of fruits, vegetables, and leaner proteins to round out any heavy carb-loaded meals.

If you’re following a Paleo diet…

As a dietitian, I love that Paleo has brought a huge focus on the amount of sugar in our daily diet, particularly the amount of sugar in foods we normally wouldn’t think of as sweet, like bread, soups, and condiments. I believe that the more we focus on where our food comes from, the better off we are as consumers. The Paleo trend has also turned a critical eye to processed foods, forcing manufacturers to come up with (mostly) healthier alternatives that benefit everyone. Of course, weight gain on Paleo is also common. The biggest mistake I see is thinking that a list of “allowable” foods means you can eat anything on the list in unlimited quantities. Yes, avocados are a good source of unsaturated fats, but a medium fruit contains 250 calories. That can quickly add up if you’re adding avocado to your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s true for macronutrients as well. It is important to get enough protein — especially for the Paleo enthusiasts who also fall into the CrossFit camp — but even with lean meats you can have too much of a good thing. Protein deficiency isn’t a problem for most Americans, so no need to go crazy with protein shakes, Paleo protein bars, or giant pieces of steak.


Bottom line…

You can lose weight (or maintain your weight) following any of these three eating styles, all of which are very healthy ways to fuel your body. The trick is just to make sure you aren’t overdoing it on any one food or food group. Balance your meals and snacks and focus on fresh produce, and you’ll achieve your goal.