By Sarah B. Weir
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It's well-documented that vegetarians are healthier than the general population. People who do not eat meat, fowl, or fish have a lower risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol, less incidence of type 2 diabetes, lower rate of hypertension, and lower overall cancer rates.
Now research shows vegetarians are skinnier, too.
Weight loss benefits of vegetarianism
According to the article "Vegetarian Diets and Weight Status" published in the Nutrition Journal by Susan E. Berkow, PhD, certified nutrition specialist, and Neal Barnard, MD, vegetarians weigh "significantly" less than non-vegetarians. After surveying 40 studies on the relationship between a vegetarian diet and body mass, the authors determined that female vegetarians weigh between 6% and 17% less then their non-vegetarian counterparts and male vegetarians weigh between 8% and 17% less. People who follow a vegan diet (not eating any animal products including milk and eggs) are the slimmest of all.
Dr. Barnard, who is also the author of the recent book, "21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health" and accompanying PBS special, attributes the results to a combination of factors. He says:
Because of the way the body metabolizes different types of food into energy, a plant-based diet can actually boost calorie burning by up to 16% for three hours after eating a meal.
Vegetarians tend to consume less fat, especially saturated fat, which mainly comes from animal products.
Vegetarians consume more fiber, which is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, but not in animal products.
Dr. Barnard calls fiber the "Clark Kent" of nutrition -- boring on the outside but possessing extraordinary powers. Fiber holds water and fills a person up with zero added calories. He contends that the average person will lose weight on a low-fat, plant-based diet with "no exercise, portion control, or calorie counting."
Dr. Berkow, who is also an adjunct professor of nutrition at George Mason University, suspects that vegetarians may lead more health-conscious lifestyles in general, which could contribute to their relative leanness.
Dr. Berkow points out that replacing meat with a pile of white pasta or bread is not a healthy way to go. She recommends a balanced (and slimming) vegetarian diet consisting mainly of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and the judicious use of nuts and beneficial fats such as olive oil and canola oil. Eat eggs in moderation and choose low-fat milk products.
Beware of the many highly processed products on the market that are touted as vegetarian and vegan. They can be loaded with sugar, corn syrup, salt, and trans-fats. It's always prudent to read the back of food labels no matter how "natural" or "healthy" a product proclaims itself to be.
Getting started on a vegetarian diet
If you are eating a variety of whole foods, getting enough protein shouldn't be a problem. However, you should consider a B-12 supplement since the vitamin is only found in animal products.
You can test the waters of a vegetarian diet by subscribing to Meatless Mondays, an initiative started out of the John Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health and supported by food luminaries such as Mario Batali, Michael Pollan, and Padma Lakshmi as well as schools, businesses, and hospitals across the nation.
Alternatively, Dr. Barnard recommends taking the plunge by giving up animal products completely for three weeks and seeing if you like the results. So, what have you got to lose other than a few pounds?