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How to Lose Weight on a Plant-Based Diet – Everyday Health

For years, plant-based diets have enjoyed rising popularity for their emphasis on sustainability and possible wellness benefits, such as improved heart health, lower risk of diabetes, and even longer life, as various research suggests. Another potential advantage of eating a diet high in plants: weight loss. If dropping a pants size or two is one of your personal goals, a growing body of research suggests replacing animal products with plants could promote a healthier weight.
That said, merely ditching animal products isn’t a guaranteed route to losing weight (after all, Oreos and soda are technically vegan). Here’s a look at what the science says about plant-based diets for weight loss, and how to effectively implement them to shed pounds.
Numerous studies have examined the effect of plant-based eating on weight loss, and many have positive results. A large systematic review published in Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome, and Obesity found that plant-based diets could aid weight loss in multiple populations, such as those with overweight, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Other research, published in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, concluded that people who consumed plant-based diets tended to have lower body mass index (BMI) than those who didn't eat plant-based diets.
“Several recent meta-analyses suggest that vegetarian diets are superior to nonvegetarian diets as a weight loss strategy,” says Carol Johnston, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at Arizona State University in Tempe. Yet it’s not entirely clear whether the key to plant-based diets’ success is the plants themselves or the fact that they contain fewer calories than many other foods. “The key to sustained weight loss is a sustained reduction in calories,” Dr. Johnston notes. “This can be achieved in various ways, like reducing processed foods, high-fat foods, [or] high sugar foods” — actions someone would take on a healthy, whole-foods plant-based diet.
If you enjoy nature’s bounty of plant foods, a veg-forward diet could be your best bet. “Plant-based eating is the perfect choice for weight loss because plants are inherently low in calories, high in fiber, and packed full of health promoting nutrition — all things that lead to better weight loss,” says Bonnie Newlin, RD, of Crave Nourishment in Annapolis, Maryland.
Another perk of a plant-based diet’s fiber: it promotes feelings of fullness. “Research shows fiber produces short-chain fatty acids in the gut upon digestion, which directly triggers appetite-reducing hormones,” says Monroe, Connecticut–based dietitian Melissa Mitri, RDN.
Johnston agrees that plant-based eating can be effective for weight loss, but cautions that it may not be right for everyone. “It is my view that individuals need to understand what diet strategy they can best adhere to and will have healthy outcomes,” she says. She also notes that eliminating all animal products means potentially missing out on some critical nutrients. “Vegan diets have some nutrient inadequacy concerns (vitamin B12, vitamin D, protein, and iron) that would need to be addressed if adopted long-term.” If you opt for a vegan diet, be aware that you may need to supplement these nutrients.
Curious about heading down the plant-based path for weight loss? Try starting with these tips.
There’s no single definition of plant-based eating, so it’s up to you to decide which style of this diet works for you. For example, your dietary pattern could look like veganism, which nixes all foods derived from animals; lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, which permits eggs and dairy; or pescatarianism, which includes seafood. There’s even a flexitarian diet, which means you’ll still eat animal products here and there, but primarily follow a plant-based eating pattern. Research has associated veganism, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, pescetarianism, and flexitarianism with weight loss. Ultimately, you have options and identifying your own definition will provide direction for your dietary choices.
Before diving in, you may also want to give some thought to how this dietary pattern will affect your lifestyle. For example, going vegan may present extra challenges in social settings or while dining out, and will require more substitutions in cooking and baking at home. Broader versions of vegetarianism, on the other hand, may be easier to follow.
Remember, your diet is up to you — so even if you choose a plant-based eating pattern, it doesn’t mean you can never depart from it. You may also find you prefer to ease into plant-forward eating slowly, rather than in one fell swoop. “Maybe you are not ready to go fully plant based right now; that is fine,” says Newlin. “Perhaps start by adding more vegetables to meals you already love and eating fruit as dessert.”
Substituting fruit for higher-calorie desserts could amplify your weight loss efforts. A study published in 2019 in Frontiers in Nutrition revealed that eating fresh, whole fruits was unlikely to contribute excess calories and body fat, and could even help prevent overweight.
Switching to a plant-based diet won’t require tweaking your macros or counting your calories, but it does require a bit of education. To be prepared for this way of eating, take some time to learn about various plant-based substitutions you can make. “Experiment with different types of plant-based proteins and recipes,” suggests Mitri — or learn about how to use flax “eggs” and plant oils in place of animal products in baking.
Often, these plant-based substitutions contain fewer calories and fat than their animal counterparts, thus possibly supporting weight loss. A 3-ounce serving of tofu, for example, supplies just 63 calories, whereas a 3-ounce chicken breast has 122 calories, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Similarly, 1 cup of almond milk contains 37 calories and 3 grams of fat, compared with the 122 calories and 4.6 grams of fat in 1 cup of 2 percent cow’s milk, per the USDA.
Missing out on protein is a common pitfall of a plant-based diet, especially if you’ve long depended on animal products for this macronutrient. As you transition away from meat, don’t forget to include protein-rich plant foods like beans, legumes, tofu, seitan, and tempeh.
Protein could be one key to successful weight loss. While research doesn’t show that plant protein has any significant edge over animal protein for dropping pounds, studies suggest getting enough of this macronutrient indeed supports losing weight.
“Don't complicate plant-based eating!” advises Newlin. “You can throw together a healthy plant-based meal in less than 10 minutes.” Her go-to meal: a bag of frozen precooked rice, a bag of stir-fry vegetables, some shelled edamame, and a small amount of bottled sauce. “In the beginning, keep it easy and venture into trying new recipes as you feel more confident.”
Simple, home-cooked meals are not only a boon to busy weeknights; they might also lead to a lower number on the scale In a study in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, people who planned their meals had lower body mass index (BMI) than those who did not.
Downing a bowl of salad greens for lunch is an excellent way to take in micronutrients and antioxidants, but it might leave you hungry by 2 p.m. On a plant-based diet, it’s helpful to plan for foods that keep you full. “Prioritize including a protein and fiber source with every meal, and limit the number of refined carbs in your diet,” Mitri suggests. By staying satisfied throughout the day, you’ll reduce the likelihood of overeating when mealtime or snacktime rolls around.
Just because a food advertises itself as plant-based doesn’t make it healthy. Get savvy with food labels so you can distinguish when a packaged food is actually a good choice. “Read the labels, pay attention to saturated fats, added sugar, and the sodium content in packaged foods,” Newlin recommends. “Junk food is still junk food even when wrapped in plant-based labeling.” This is an especially smart move for reaching a healthy weight, since highly processed foods are associated with weight gain, per the National Institutes of Health.
A plant-based diet isn’t just rabbit food! Depending on your chosen version (from vegan to pescatarian) you can enjoy a wide variety of options for meals and snacks. Here’s what you would ideally eat (and not eat), per the research outlined in this story, if you’re following a plant-based diet with weight loss as your aim.
Let’s get down to eating! Kick off your plant-based weight loss journey with these five tasty recipes:
Familiar favorites like chili don’t have to jump ship from a plant-based diet. This version from Chelsea’s Messy Apron packs plenty of heartiness with beans, corn, and veggies — no meat required.
According to a study in Food and Nutrition Research, vegetable protein sources like beans can be even more filling than animal proteins like veal and pork, meaning they may have an edge in the weight loss department because they help prevent overeating.
Nutrition per serving (serves 6–8): 415 calories, 7g fat (1g saturated fat), 21g protein, 71g carbohydrates, 22g fiber, 6g sugar, 499mg sodium
If your plant-based diet includes dairy, don’t miss this easy creamy tomato and spinach pasta from Budget Bytes. Use whole-wheat penne instead of white for extra fiber. This nutrient is well known for its satiating properties.
Nutrition per serving (serves 4): 309 calories, 6g fat, 12g protein, 54g carbohydrates, 6g fiber, 349mg sodium
At lunchtime, switch the usual meat and cheese sandwich for this vegan wrap from Vibrant Plate. Pan-frying extra-firm tofu makes it deliciously crispy — a perfect contrast to the pillowy softness of a flour tortilla. The whole package comes in at a weight loss-friendly total of 386 calories.
Nutrition per serving (serves 3): 386 calories, 20g fat (3g saturated fat), 12g protein, 43g carbohydrates, 9g fiber, 5g sugar, 294mg sodium
These orange-spiced pancakes from Craving Something Healthy feature buckwheat flour for a boost of plant-based protein at breakfast. Each serving boasts 12 grams of protein (the equivalent of two eggs). Plus, higher intake of whole grains (like buckwheat) has been linked to lower body weight in research.
Nutrition per serving (serves 2): 253 calories, 6g fat (2g saturated fat), 12g protein, 42g carbohydrates, 5g fiber, 17g sugar, 218mg sodium
Is it lunch, dinner, or a snack? You decide. Any way you serve ‘em, Mediterranean hummus sheet pan nachos from Dietitian Debbie are a flavorful plant-based meal that comes together in minutes. To keep this all-purpose recipe portion-controlled, serve yourself on an individual plate, rather than directly from the sheet pan.
Nutrition per serving (serves 8): 325 calories, 14g fat (2.5g saturated fat), 12.5g protein, 41g carbohydrates, 7g fiber, 9g sugar, 525mg sodium
These days, there are more appealing options for plant-based eating than ever — so switching to this diet can be a delicious (and not terribly difficult) endeavor. And since many plant foods are low in calories and high in satiating fiber, protein, and healthy fats, losing animal products could very well mean losing weight.
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