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Ask Sharon: Why Don’t I Lose Weight on a Plant-based Diet?

Sharon Palmer

As part of my new program “Ask Sharon”, I am answering the top question of the month submitted through my  blog,  Facebook,  Twitter      or  Instagram    to answer here. You can even win a prize! Don’t forget to submit your burning nutrition question this month via my blog, or other social media. Here is my favorite question this month. 

Question: 

I started a vegetarian diet, but haven’t lost a single pound and also have anemia.

Answer:

While it’s true that people who eat a plant-based diet tend to weigh less than non-vegetarians, according to research, that may not be an automatic benefit for everyone. Your energy needs are a very individual thing—some people require significantly fewer calories to maintain their weight than do others. Your energy needs are dependent upon genetics, body weight, activity levels, age, gender and more.

It’s also important to consider that even a vegetarian or vegan diet can be rich in nutrient-poor, high-calorie food choices. Many junk foods, such as soda, French fries, and potato chips, are plant-based foods! And to make matters worse, adding the word “vegetarian” to pizza, burgers, and pasta at your local market and restaurant may make them appear healthier, but it doesn’t make those calories magically disappear. These foods may have similar calorie counts as their non-vegetarian counterparts. And many vegetarian dishes rely upon ooey-gooey layers of cheese and cream to fill in for meat, which can be very high in calories and saturated fat.

Even some plant-based foods that are legitimately healthy and nutrient-rich can add up in calories, if you’re not careful. An ounce of walnuts (14 halves) contains 185 calories, but if you munch on a whole cup for your snack you’re sucking down 765 calories! The same goes for dried fruits. Raisins have 123 calories per ¼ cup, but if you feast on a whole cup of these naturally sweet snacks, you’ll gain 493 calories. Extra virgin olive oil is a good thing, but at 40 calories per teaspoon, if you dump it all over your plant-based foods, you can be drowning in hundreds of extra calories every day. Even foods like whole grains (up to 130 calories per ½ cup cooked) whole grain breads (about 75 calories per 1-oz slice), and potatoes (161 for a medium potato) can add up if you’re not keeping track of your portion size.

Plant-Based Iron Food Sources

 Food Serving Iron (mg)
Breakfast cereals, fortified with iron1 cup18*
Bran flakes¾ cup8
Oats, cooked1 cup7
Lentils, cooked1 cup7
Spinach, cooked1 cup6
Bread, whole wheat1 slice6
Dark chocolate1.5 ounce5
Sundried tomatoes1 cup5
Garbanzo beans, cooked1 cup5
Soybeans, cooked1 cup5
Tempeh1 cup5
Lima beans, cooked1 cup4
Navy beans, cooked1 cup4
Swiss chard, cooked1 cup4
Kidney beans, cooked1 cup4
Dried peaches½ cup3
Tahini2 tablespoons3
Peas, cooked1 cup3
Prune juice1 cup3
Quinoa, cooked1 cup3
Tofu, firm½ cup3
Tomato paste¼ cup2
Pumpkin seeds1 ounce2
Barley, cooked1 cup2
Bok choy, cooked1 cup2
Raisins½ cup2
Cashews, raw1 ounce2

Here are a few of my best tips for keeping your weight loss on track with a plant-based diet.

  1. Vegetarians, Don’t Overload on Dairy Products. Cheese, cream, and sour cream are often the default options for vegetarians. But beware, high-fat cheeses can contain up to 120 calories and 6 grams of saturated fat per ounce. Heavy cream has 52 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat in a single tablespoon. These are both very small portion sizes—one serving of cream-based soup or cheesy lasagna can have several times this portion size.
  2. Use Caution with Nut and Seed Servings. Nuts and seeds, such as almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds, and hemp seeds are a good thing. Just keep close track of how much you’re consuming. Limit your servings to 1 – 3 per day (depending on your calorie needs), and remember that one serving is ¼ cup nuts or seeds, or 2 tablespoons of nut butter.
  3. Watch Your Fats. Adding a moderate amount of healthy plant-based fats is a healthy habit. But limit your amount to 1 teaspoon of plant oil (i.e. olive, sunflower, canola) per serving, and no more than 5 servings per day, including in cooking.
  4. Keep Your Grains in Check. A healthy plant-based diet absolutely includes plenty of whole grains, but only 5 – 8 servings per day, depending on your calorie needs. So, make sure you’re not overdoing cereals, breads, and grain servings throughout your day.
  5. Go Crazy for Veggies. The one food group you should eat without caution is vegetables. These plant foods average about 25 calories per serving, and their bulk, water, and volume can help you feel more full and satisfied.
  6. Fruit for Dessert. Skip the dessert and enjoy a serving of seasonal unsweetened fruit to hit your natural sweet spot. At about 60 calories per serving, you can’t go wrong!
  7. Balance Your Diet Wisely. Make sure you’re eating a balanced diet with the help of my eating plan in The Plant-Powered Diet, which includes the recommended number of servings you should choose each day.

Image: Plant-based menu option at restaurant, Sharon Palmer, RDN

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