I've recently celebrated my fortieth birthday — hard to believe, still, as a youngster at heart, but in the lead-up to this anniversary, I've certainly begun to show signs of age. Gray hair. Foundation that comfortably nestles into my developing wrinkles, showing off, rather than hiding, this "newfound maturity". One thing I never expected is that I'd become fat.
A lifelong vegetarian raised by a nearly lifelong vegetarian, I was as thin as a stick until I was in my mid thirties. Vegetarianism wasn't exactly fashionable in my neck of the woods when I was growing up, and more than one person told my mother and me that it was no wonder I was underweight. I was only being fed "rabbit food", after all. As I entered my teens, I was just happy that I could seemingly eat as much as I wanted without any horizontal growth. And I did, always, enjoy eating. A lot. I don't want to brag, but I stayed thin even later in life; I could fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes the day after I gave birth, both times.
Obese Vegetarians: A Rarity
Of all the diary lifestyles, a very large-scale study found, vegans had the lowest body mass index. Lacto-ovo vegetarians (that's me!) were a close second, and only 16.7 percent of them are obese . It's both common knowledge and scientifically confirmed that switching from an omnivore diet to a vegetarian or vegan one can help you lose weight . That wasn't helping me much, because although I wasn't obese, I was certainly overweight — and for all that data about lower BMIs and weight loss on a vegetarian or vegan diet, there really isn't much specific advice around for vegetarians who want to lose weight.
How do you lose weight as a vegetarian? In a healthy, controlled manner, meeting all your nutritional needs? Someone my age with my physical activity level (I chose "moderately active", even though I am sometimes "sedentary") needs around 2,000 calories a day, according to the USDA . You need to subtract 500 calories from your daily intake to lose about a pound a week, and 1,000 to lose about two pounds .
So, How Do You Lose Weight As A Vegetarian?
Never having tried before, I really wasn't sure, so I asked my coworker Tanya Todd, a nutritionist and personal trainer, for some pointers. "If you go low-fat, you'll probably feel tired and suffer from brain fog," she started, adding: "Fats are important for healthy weight loss, and there's an abundance in nuts and seeds."
Though it counters nearly everything most people will have heard about weight loss, she's right. Too much fat is bad, of course, but the body does need some fats — they give you energy, keep your skin and hair healthy, and helps you absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. It's best to avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, though.  Not watching the fats too much also simply makes your diet a lot more bearable! So far so good, for me; no major changes required in this area.
What about carbs, then? That's where things got a bit shaky. Slowly but surely, I'd dipped my toes in, gone to the proverbial meetings (at restaurants, of course!) and then joined the ranks of the dreaded junk-food vegetarians as a card-carrying member. Pasta, bread, cookies, pizza... yum! What did Tanya have to say about them? "You need carbs, of course, but if you cut out highly processed carbs and start eating real food, you may have a 'low-carb flu' for two or three days, but after you will feel energized."
The only carbs I'd eat would be through real foods, foods like beans, vegetables, and fruits.
As I continued quizzing my coworker on the best way to lose weight, the subject of protein came up. Tanya shared:
"Protein? I bet vegetarians everywhere are tired of the question of how they get enough of it. There's protein in grains, for God's sake! The current trend in bodybuilding is to max out on proteins — some say a gram per kilo, some even say two. That's really not necessary. Most people, yes, even vegetarians, get enough protein in their natural diet without even thinking about it. If you want more, make chia seeds and soy primary sources, along with, of course, things like eggs, bean, and cottage cheese."
What Did I Eat To Lose Weight As A Vegetarian?
OK. Slowly but surely, a diet plan formed. Tanya recommended a variation of "bulletproof coffee", wherein I'd mix some MCT oil and 25 grams of butter (rather than ghee, which is quite hard to come by where I live) into my morning coffee. This would supply the energy I'd need to make it to lunch, which, alongside a snack in the late afternoon and an evening dinner, would make up my day's supply of food.
Tanya was right. I felt awful the first two days, but after that, things settled and I haven't been hungry since. Curious what I've been eating? Here are some lunch examples:
- A big salad with lamb's lettuce, baby spinach, lettuce, sliced gherkins, a sprinkling of beans and corn, raw strips of bell pepper, and a sliced boiled egg. With a mustard and honey dressing. Olive oil included, you bet!
- A bed of lettuce and rocket with sliced avocados, fried pumpkin, radishes, carrots, raw mushrooms, and spring onions on top. A spicy curry dressing. Again, with fat, I'm sure — I bought it at a store and didn't read the nutritional label.
- Lettuce and spinach with pears, a royal amount of slightly fried goat cheese, and fresh cherry tomatoes, and a balsamic vinegar dressing.
As you can see, a theme emerged — salads for lunch, every single day. But different ones each time, so they don't get boring.
Snack time should, Tanya and I agreed, be a (modest) handful of nuts, seeds, an apple, a tangerine or two, or a few berries.
For dinner, anything except the highly-processed carbs I was used to. For instance:
- Curry with lentils, onions, garlic, bell peppers, sweet potato, tomatoes, peas, eggplant, spinach, and curry spices and coconut oil.
- Soup with broccoli, kale, carrots, celery, onions, and leeks.
- Chickpeas, lentils, onion, garlic, celery, turmeric, tomatoes, freshly ground pepper, harissa (a spice), fresh parsley and lemon juice.
Lots of vegetables, lots of taste, no junk food, and no calorie counting — these are the foundations of my new diet.
Indeed! I lost five kilos in my first three weeks, and I didn't feel hungry once — I didn't miss the junk food, felt more energized, and even found myself fitting into an M-sized skirt again. I'm not done yet, but I'm getting there. In the process, I've learned a few things. Yes, I really did eat more than I thought I did, and you may be, too. Though I mildly increased my physical activity level during the first few weeks, I got busy at work and got pretty darn sedentary after that, yet didn't put the weight back on. Diet really is the bulk of your weight loss efforts. Above all, it's possible to enjoy your food without feeling hungry and without stuffing yourself with bad stuff.