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Vegetarians and Weight Gain?

I am not a vegetarian myself but I am curious; is there anyone on CH who found that when they switched to a vegetarian diet that they gained weight? I'm asking this because I have a friend who turned vegetarian (not vegan) about a year ago and has gained some considerable poundage. While he does love french fries and pizza I know that is not what he eats on a daily basis. I've seen him eat a variety of food; leafy vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, tofu, nuts, etc. My guess is that he's simply eating too much calorie dense food. I can tell he's frustrated because he wants to stick to it but he needs to lose weight... and by being on a vegetarian diet he's already limited in what he can eat.

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  1. I also know someone who went vegetarian & gained a large amount of weight. In his case, it seemed to be due to a lot of pasta and cheese. Eliminating meat doesn't necessarily mean the person is eating lighter, or healthier. He has lost some of the weight, with a commitment to exercise. Becoming a healthy vegetarian takes some research and planning to meet all your nutritional needs, as well as to feel satisfied and not constantly hungry.

    1. I have a friend who always considered himself vegetarian, but from the kind folk here on CH, I was corrected and told he was actually a Pescatarian......whatever he is, he was always the fattest one of either I knew, even while working out a couple of hours each morning in the gym and playing golf 5 times a week.... I know he always had cheese and yogurt as part of his regular diet.....and eats canned tuna and fresh salmon .......I suspect his weight issues stemmed from his love of cookies, cake and ice cream.

      1. It's those hidden calories in spinach.

        2 Replies
        1. re: beevod

          Nothing grosser than a person with a spinach gut.

          1. re: beevod

            I knew it! :} That explains Popeye's arms:}

          2. Yes! This happened to me in January. I tried to switch to 100% vegetarian cooking for the entire month, and I started to, slowly but surely, gain weight (only about 1-2 lbs, but before switching I had actively been losing weight). I like to think I was also very conscientious about eating very healthy- lots of non-starchy fresh vegetables, legumes and beans for protein. I didn't suddenly start eating french fries, or a ton of bread and pasta, and I made a concerted effort to keep my protein intake up (LOTs of eggwhites and non fat cottage cheese). It just didn't work for me, within two weeks I realized it just wasn't a good fit and went back to my normal style of eating (relatively high protein/low carb).

            Objectively, it was probably pretty healthy, I just didn't feel good eating that way. I found myself getting very full, very fast while eating a vegetarian meal, so invariably I would stop eating. Then about 2 hours later, I would be FAMISHED! The worst part was the sugar cravings- I've found that eating more protein help keeps my sweet tooth in check, but with the vegetarian diet it came raging back. I did try out a lot of new dishes that are still in my cooking repetoire, but I find adding about 2 oz of lean meat to a meal just works better for me.

            Interesting question- thanks for posting, I thought I was the only one! But my rec for your friend would be to try a different type of diet if his only concern is with losing weight. If someone responds well to a high protein diet, then it will be very hard for them to have weightloss success on a vegetarian diet, at least that was my experience.

            4 Replies
            1. re: mjhals

              Your experience mirrors my friend. Before he switched, he was eating a high protein diet. I'm trying not to judge him or his reasons although it is leaving me a bit perplexed. (He says its for ethical reasons but he wears leather all the time. ??)
              Not that I've tried going veggie, but whenever I eat a high carb meal (i.e. pasta) I seem to crave dessert much more than if I eat a more well rounded meal with protein... which is similar to what you experienced. A co-worker of mine who used to be a veggie kept telling me the protein in pasta is enough. Somehow I'm doubting that.

              1. re: NicoleFriedman

                This is very interesting, as I have 3 vegetarians that I work with and they all profess a completely incontrollable sweet tooth.

                1. re: rockandroller1

                  I'm the opposite. I'm a lifelong veggie with almost zero sweet tooth (well, besides recently, but I'm pregnant).

                2. re: NicoleFriedman

                  I have higher sugar cravings lately, but my mother also tells me she got this way around my age too, so what do I know (I've also craved sugars alot during chemo).

                  Pasta wouldn't have anywhere near enough protein on its own imho. It's fine as long as you've incorporated proteins into other parts of the day, which you pretty much have to do if you're veg.

                  mjhals experience with lack of fullness does not mirror mine at all. If I eat beans or some whole grains and protein in some form, I stay full throughout the day, and don't even have an energy drop. But, it's whatever works for an individual, right.

                  As for the leather .... don't judge. Your friend is attempting to make a difference in perhaps baby steps at this point, and may only be comfortable getting to a "harm reduction" lifestyle instead of an all-out. I avoid leather products, but I still own a couple of pairs of shoes that are, I didn't toss everything out. And I still have a couple times a year "treat" of a seafood dinner (usually when I visit home), but am completely veg at home and such. I still feel I'm making a difference, and I'm ok with that.

              2. Yep, my wife did the veg thing for awhile and was surprised to find that she gained weight. Not that she expected pounds to just melt away (nor did she make the switch with the intention of losing weight) but she was surprised to see her weight creep up over time.

                I think there's a couple factors - heavy protein foods (read: meat) tend to make you feel full, so you compensate by eating more of everything else. "Everything else" happens to include a lot of high calorie stuff. Plus you sort of think in the back of your mind that "It's vegetarian. It's healthy! I don't have to focus so much on portion control!"

                But you do. In a sense the false sense of security makes paying careful attention to calories in vs. calories out and balance of vegetable/starch/protein even more important.

                1 Reply
                1. re: jzerocsk

                  You may have hit the nail on the head. It reminds me of when I was a teenager and ate as much "fat free" frozen yogurt and muffins as I wanted... and couldn't figure out why I was chubby.

                2. All the vegetarians I know are chubby, and not to be sexist, just an observation...female

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: BiscuitBoy

                    I'm a fat (female) vegetarian. I simply eat too many (simple and complex) carbs along with my veggies.

                    1. re: invinotheresverde

                      My veg friends also have the "cookie gene," as do I !

                  2. Excellent points. it's worth noting that on my vegeterian days (twice a week) I realized quickly that very few desserts are made of meat. :)

                    1. Vegetarian is a very overused term since I know people who claim to be vegetarians but still heat seafood or chicken. Hmmm.... The last I heard seafood and chicken where still in the animal kingdom.

                      Losing weight all comes down to calories... pizza, french fries, cheese, desserts can all be "vegetarian", but all contribute high calories and a poor diet.

                      1. it's very common.

                        having read the OP and the additional info that came to light in your responses, i think it's safe to say it's a combination of calorie density and increased carbs. tell him to lay off the starches, increase the fibrous vegetables like leafy greens, go easy on the high-fat nuts, cheeses, etc, and make sure he's eating lower-fat tofu, yogurt, etc.

                        1. I think you'd probably have to make an effort to eat a fattening vegan diet, but it's actually pretty easy to gain weight on a "classic" ovo-lacto vegetarian one. (For that matter, if you overdo the allowable animal fats, it's easy enough to eat a vegetarian diet that'll kill off the average cardiovascular system as fast any, though certain health risks might still be avoided.)

                          Most vegs, grains and legumes are pretty low calorie by volume, but in terms of dietary intake, it depends entirely on how you prepare them. Basically, fat is fat, as far as calorie content is concerned. Olive oil may be "better" for you, but it's every bit as fattening as suet, lard and schmaltz. I love green beans stewed with tomatoes in olive oil. That's even vegan, but it's not diet food! And of course dairy/butterfat remains butterfat. Good creamed spinach is "vegetarian", but it's still a calorie-bomb. Baked potatoes drowned in butter and/or sour cream will fatten you up and kill you off almost as quick as the usual steak accompaniment. And being vegetarian doesn't mean that whipped cream somehow loses its usual calories. ;)

                          Seitan is pretty low in inherent fat, but often cooked with a lot of fat. Most pulses are generally low in fat, but not soybeans. Tofu making extracts much of the fiber, but not fat, from soybeans - it's actually quite fatty for a vegetable product. Tempeh is made from whole beans so lower in fat, but still not dietetic. (Foods like TVP and "faux meat" made from defatted soy are less caloric, but are also a little weird and expensive, respectively.) Peanuts have a lot of protein, but are high in fat. Tree nuts and oily seeds are "good for you," but very caloric. If he eats them, the fat in eggs can add up. Most cheese is very caloric. Some fruits are "worse" than others, but while they're healthy, many are not low-calorie. And needless to say, "junk food" is still junk food, even if it has no dead animal in it. Potato chips are fattening whether vegetarian or no, as is ice cream. If he overlooks gelatin or even just looks for agar, there's all sorts of processed junk food he could be eating.

                          I don't know whether he's just overcompensating by eating too much of everything out of a sense of "loss" of meat, or as you suggest, he's just not paying enough attention and overdoing the fats, with dairy being a big potential culprit, I think.

                          1. I think there's often an adjustment period after you switch to meat-free that sometimes makes people rely on meat-minus dishes (often carb heavy) as opposed to proteins in other forms, vegetables etc. When I first did this, I ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, there's a learning curve. You have to learn to eat in a new way really, especially if you were one of the meat and potato types.

                            Plus, many vegetarian protein foods already contain carbs (i.e. beans), so you also maybe need to cut back on the other carbs. It's not the vegetarian diet per se. And maybe it's just me, but I didn't fill up any more when I ate meat than when I no longer ate it.

                            Any time I've tried to lose weight and had success with a diet, I've had to cut out simple carbs, and really a lot of carbs in general save for beans and the occasional whole grain, so rice did not accompany my stir fry, eggs alone for breakfast (maybe with some beans), yogurt, fruit were ok, but no bread, potatoes, rice, etc. This worked for me, may not work for your friend.

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: im_nomad

                              I have an incredible difficult time in trying to get 1500 calories or more in a pescetarian diet. If you eat real food, it will fill you up fast and you will lose/maintain weight.

                              My sample diet: 2oz salmon fillet, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, spinach, tomatos all lightly sauteed with a small amount of olive oil. It's under 350 calories. I get about maybe 20grams of protein a day and I run, those high protein low carb diets are a joke. Protein shakes are also a joke.

                              Commercial bread is too processed...150 calories for a slice? No thanks. Bread should be yeast, flour, water, salt...which is like what...40-60 calories per slice?

                              1. re: mwok

                                Well, perhaps you need to up your food intake in general. 2 oz. of salmon? You're kidding, right? Make it 4 or 5 oz. - et voilá! It's certainly not rocket science.

                                1. re: linguafood

                                  Anything more than 2oz is a lot actually (plus I eat salmon everyday). I mash up the fillet (sashimi grade) after slightly searing it and incorporate it into the mixture. The bell peppers take the role of the "grains" so I can cut them into long strips.

                                  I'm fine with 1500 calories. I think people eat too much, the RDA guidelines should be reduced by at least 500 calories.

                                  1. re: mwok

                                    Well, as a salmon lover, 2 oz. is not enough for me. I'm generally happy with a 5-6 oz. portion of any kind of protein, though, and simply don't understand the need for steaks that clock in at 48+ oz.

                                    I don't know how tall/old you are and how much you weigh, so maybe 1,500 is right for you to maintain. Generally, that amount of calories is for weight loss (at least in my case - I'm 5.7").

                                2. re: mwok

                                  I do eat real food.... my point was primarily that I wasn't stuffed before just because I ate meat.

                                  And not sure if you are responding directly to me, but I'd also like to stress that my diet is not a joke, nor is it (when i'm eating correctly) a "low carb diet"..... it's simply a choice of different carbs which I also kind of have to do, otherwise I tend to miss out on my proteins and consequently eating too much. I don't do trendy diets. Plus, I tend towards insulin resistance, and have to watch that stuff (which is why I said it might not work for everyone).

                                  20 grams of protein per day doesn't seem like much to me. When I was calculating my protein needs in my early meat-free days, when I was still working out just about every day, I was told i'd need around 40-ish.

                                  1. re: mwok

                                    "those high protein low carb diets are a joke. Protein shakes are also a joke."
                                    actually, the high-protein, low-carb lifestyle can be *essential* for people who have endocrine/metabolic issues, and protein shakes are incredibly helpful for people who have difficulty keeping on weight.

                                    you may not agree with certain philosophies or lifestyle choices, but there's no need to be rude or judgmental about it.

                                    1. re: mwok

                                      No offense but I would starve if ate that little. I do agree that bread should contain real ingredients, but that means it should probably be 100 calories a slice. The only "bread" that's 40 calories per slice has 10 million preservatives.

                                  2. I gained about 15 pounds when I became vegetarian. Too much cheese I guess? At my doctor's advice, I'm including some fish in my diet. Never was a real big meat eater.

                                    1. Interesting. I've been the same weight for 15+ yrs and a vegetarian the entire time. For the equine people out there, I'd say I'm a "5" on the body fat scale — ribby, but not too ribby.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: odkaty

                                        LOL at the body scale rating - esp. since I just logged on here from my favorite equine board & still had horses on the brain.

                                      2. I had the reverse situation. When I moved in with my husband I started eating more meat (he has very high protein needs) and I lost weight.

                                        If you stopped eating meat, but ate more things like cheese and pasta to feel full, then I could easily see you gaining weight.

                                        1. This happened to me, too, and happens to a lot of people. I agree with im-nomad that there's a real adjustment period. Your friend might want to try taking a good quality enzyme supplement for a while. It's possible his body just hasn't learned to digest an all vegetable matter diet, especially if he just came off of a high protein diet. Maybe that's why poster mjhals got full so fast on the veg diet. When you can't digest stuff, it just sort of sits there causing gas and bloating until it gets pushed out, so you feel stuffed for a while, but in the end are still left hungry.

                                          A few other suggestions are to cut back on soy and TVP products, except for tempeh and miso, to try to get at least 35 grams of dietary fiber a day (both soluble and insoluble), to take in enough good fats (like flax seed oil, uncooked cold-pressed olive oil, or borage oil), and to make sure to get B-vitamins and water.

                                          I think the bottom line is you can't really lose weight if you just take things out of your diet, you have to get your digestion in order and put in enough good stuff or your body will never feel "fed" enough and will start to pack on pounds tin reaction.

                                          1. I did a vegan/vegetarian cleanse for the month of Jan and found that I lost about 15 lbs. I did find it to be a LOT of work to keep my diet healthy and balanced so I can understand that if you don't totally modify your way of thinking, you could gain a lot of weight.

                                            You can eat pancakes for breakfast, mac and cheese for lunch and lasagna for dinner and be a vegetarian, however it is probably a better idea to eat oatmeal w/fruit for breakfast, a quinoa salad for lunch and chickpea stew for dinner. I think your friend needs to start keeping track of calories and portions if he wants to lose weight and stay healthy.

                                            1. I've been vegetarian for 4 years now and have maintained my (normal) weight without really trying. My husband has been vegetarian longer and used to be on the very underweight side. Now's he up to a normal weight.

                                              We have very few dairy and egg products in the house, which probably helps things. We eat a fair bit of soy, nuts, and beans, but also a lot of carbs. We also don't drink and very rarely consume any sort of caloric beverage such as soda. We do drink copious amounts of tea (no sugar or milk, so calorie-free).

                                              We get take out or go out a couple of times a week, and it's typically thai, indian or sandwiches, and we tend to order the healthier options (just by accident mostly).

                                              Then again, we live in a city and don't have a car. Giving up a car has been one of the best decisions we could have made for our health. I randomly lost 10 pounds in the 6 months since our car died.

                                              1. Doesn't this post set off an idea in anyone's head that maybe, just maybe, calories have nothing to do with weight gain (or loss for that matter)? That it's not fat that makes you fat? All I'm seeing is "oh, I was eating HEALTHY grains/veggies/starches and only 1500 calories a day, I don't UNDERSTAND why I gained weight!"

                                                I tried to be a ovo-vegetarian with lots of "healthy" whole grains, ate about 1300 calories a day rigidly measured per my doctor. I gained ten pounds in a month and was constantly hungry. The doctor accused me of cheating. Eff that.

                                                I tried to eat a low-fat 1500-calorie-a-day diet. I did lose weight but it was veeeeerrrryyyy slow and again I was constantly hungry. Eff that.

                                                I read "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes. I ditched grains, starches and most veggies other than green ones and ate fat and meat and eggs. I averaged about 2000 calories a day and a lot of times was higher than that. I lost sixty pounds in six months and was only hungry at mealtimes. I got off blood pressure meds and my blood sugar, which was making me borderline type 2 diabetic, dropped nicely. And I ate lots of steak and pork, you know, stuff that was supposed to send my cholesterol through the roof. Cholesterol (which is actually meaningless but that's another story) is where it should be.

                                                And I am far from the only one who's thrived eating this way. It's not the number of calories, but what makes them up. I was skeptical too but it worked unbelievably well and continues to work. If you're hung up on where your meat comes from there's lots of sources for humanely raised meat and it's not super-expensive. We're all part of the food chain.

                                                9 Replies
                                                1. re: ediblover

                                                  That law applies to machines, not people with hugely variable metabolisms/endocrine status.
                                                  And different types of food stimulate different hormones, with fat stimulating fat storage and sugar raising hormones not at all.

                                                  1. re: mcf

                                                    It applies to everything in known science.

                                                    The human body is a system. Energy goes in in the form of food and is used up by cell metabolism. If a person gains weight while taking in less energy than is used, well, congratulate that person on becoming a deity by breaking a science law and creating energy. But, it's more likely that energy input/output wasn't determined correctly.

                                                      1. re: ediblover

                                                        I don't know anything about these diets, but speaking as someone with a physics degree....

                                                        The equation isn't simply

                                                        (calories in) - (energy burned) = (weight gained or lost)

                                                        A better approximation would be

                                                        (Calories in) x (efficiency) - (energy burned) = (weight gained or lost).

                                                        Our bodies are not 100% efficient at processing food. So, hypothetically, if one person's body turns food into energy more efficiently for carbohydrates than fat, then they would gain more weight eating X calories of carbs than X calories of fat.

                                                        1. re: ediblover

                                                          idk, you're right, but you're wrong--like, the number of calories is determined by--essentially--burning them in a calorimeter, which fails to take into account vastly different 'in vitro'/'in vivo' effects--namely that digestion may be much more effective at converting one type of nutrient into energy or fat than another, nor that one kind of nutrient may increase the basal metabolic rate, etc. While it it--obviously--governed by thermodynamics, it should be plausible that it wouldn't explain everything.

                                                          1. re: xanadude

                                                            That's the reason that I didn't go into detail (since there are too many ). But, the general notion of energy intake and output holds.

                                                            It comes down to the person being either incorrect in calorie intake/use or the small stuff making a huge difference. Given the demonstration by others (The college professor who lost weight on a candy diet, the active person staying the same on a fast food diet, etc.) and that there wasn't any special condition mentioned (like DM) the most reasonable explanation is the former.

                                                            My guess here is that people just severely underestimate how much carb is considered to be a single serving. If you order a plate of pasta, odds are you're going to get 3-4 servings. A harmless looking piece of bread can easily top 200 calories. For many, it's simply easier to cut grains out all together instead of estimating the intake.

                                                            Even in this topic, the problem is estimating the energy density in foods like nuts and seeds. It takes a lot of nuts to make you feel full and that amount can easily reach the 1k mark.

                                                            1. re: ediblover

                                                              "My guess here is that people just severely underestimate how much carb is considered to be a single serving. "

                                                              I bought a food scale and used fitday to document my food intake for years... found out I'd been grossly OVERestimating my food intake.

                                                              I maintained my weight on exactly 50% more calories when I made the switch from low fat to low carb, just as numerous studies have found to be the case.

                                                              It's not calories alone that determines weight gain or fat/lean body mass retention. It's what your hormones do with calories, and that varies wildly from person to person, and from genetic kindred to kindred.

                                                      2. re: MandalayVA

                                                        That diet does work for some people, but not everyone.
                                                        And cholesterol is very far from being meaningless.

                                                        1. re: MandalayVA

                                                          I'm glad this works for you but that doesn't mean it will work for everyone. Also, if there are alternatives I don't see why a vegetarian should shuck their ethics completely. Personally I do eat meat, but I would be miserable on such a high protein diet. Id rather eat less calories with bread than mre calories without.

                                                        2. Yup, happened to me. I was vegan for a year, ovo-lacto vegetarian for a year, and I incorporated fish into my diet for another year for a year. I gained about 10 pounds, initially, and maintained that weight for the duration of those 3 years. I began eating poultry (only a little bit. A serving maybe once or twice a week.) and automatically lost that 10 pounds. I have a couple theories about why that was.

                                                          For one, I was eating a lot of the processed vegetarian meat substitutes you can find in your grocer's freezer. I think that was probably the main problem, because at the time i still thought fat-free dieting was the best, so I wasn't eating a lot (or any) of fatty cheese, cream, oil, butter, etc.

                                                          But I also think that the protein from the lean poultry was good for my system. Not sure what, exactly, it did to make me lose weight. But I notice that just the right amount is best for me. Too much or too little tends to make me gain a few pounds.

                                                          Also, maybe there was a lot of salt in the foods I was eating, leading to extra water weight. Though, I'm sure most of it wasn't water.

                                                          1. i LOST weight when i gave up meat and poultry.
                                                            of course, at the same time, i also gave up white-flour pasta, and white-flour bread, white potatos, and cut down on sugar.
                                                            although i was never a true vegetarian because i would occasionally eat fish, i at a LOT LESS in the way of dairy products and cheese, and a lot more of soy products.

                                                            12 years later the 25 lbs i lost is still off.
                                                            same eating routine.
                                                            fish once or twice a week.
                                                            soy milk instead of regular.
                                                            my 'treat' is a daily ice-blended mocha made with valrhona cocoa powder , a combination of 'real' and phoney sugars, and soy milk.
                                                            dairy sparingly
                                                            sugar sparingly
                                                            very little white flour in ANY form.

                                                            1. The sugar cravings come from fluctuating blood sugar. Simple carbs (such as pasta & bread) make your blood sugar rise fast, then crash. When your blood sugar is too low, you crave sweets to bring it back up to normal. This up and down of blood sugar causes you to take in too many empty calories, thus the weight gain. Protein foods, such as nuts, are great because they keep your blood sugar level for a longer time. No crashing! I eat natural peanut butter on everything. (no hydrogenated vegetable oils or trans fats - EVER!!) To exit this sugar craving cycle, I suggest snacking on a handful of nuts instead of going for the sweets. I have a veg friend who is obese partially due to this cycle, plus, she eats artichoke dip whenever we go out (way too many fat calories!!!)