To reach a healthier weight this summer, consider throwing some Portobello mushrooms, veggie burgers and fish on the grill in place of the usual steak, hot dogs and chicken.
A new study of about 55,000 healthy, middle-aged Swedish women finds that vegetarians of all types weighed significantly less than their meat-eating counterparts. The findings are some of the first to show a direct link between a plant-based diet and a lower body mass index.
This doesn’t mean that you have to completely forgo juicy steak and other animal-derived foods. The study found graduated weight benefits from following a semi-vegetarian lifestyle, being vegan (no animal products) or being a lactovegetarian, which was linked with the lowest body weight.
“The take-home message is that individuals who have the lowest risk of being overweight or obese are consuming a mostly plant-based diet,” said P.K. Newby, lead author of the study and a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
Numerous other studies have demonstrated health benefits of eating a diet rich in plant-based foods, from lower blood pressure to a reduced risk of cancer.
The latest findings come from a large mammography trial of healthy women in Stockholm. Participants answered questionnaires and submitted food records in 1987 and then again in 1997.
The study found that 40% of women who ate meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products (as well as plant-based foods) were overweight or obese, as defined by having a body mass index of 25 or more. That’s equal to a person 5 feet 6 weighing 155 pounds or more.
Compare that with 29% of vegans and semi-vegetarians (who in this study were defined as those who skipped meat, poultry and eggs but who ate dairy products and fish). The leanest women were lactovegetarians, who ate dairy products but who avoided meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Twenty-five percent were overweight or obese.
One surprise was that all participants who considered themselves vegetarians or vegans reported on food records that they ate animal products from time to time.
Meat-eaters in the study ate the most calories, consumed the highest amount of protein, the most saturated and monounsaturated fat and “had significantly lower carbohydrate intake than did any of the three vegetarian groups,” the researchers report in the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Because vegetarians tend to be leaner than their meat-eating counterparts, the authors note that the results are likely applicable to younger women and to men.
Even so, not all vegetarian diets are healthy. A steady intake of sweetened soft drinks, French fries and candy bars qualifies as vegetarian, but is loaded with saturated fat, unhealthy trans fat and added sugar.
Here are a few simple ways to add plant-based foods and to make smart choices about animal foods:
* Go semi-vegetarian sometimes. You may be doing it already. Eat a breakfast of shredded wheat with berries, slivered almonds and skim milk. Have a large Greek salad with feta cheese and a slice of crusty bread for lunch. Snack on fruit and yogurt and eat bean burritos with low fat cheese and rice for dinner.
* Choose a meatless option. Gazpacho, pasta with pesto or tomato sauce, bean soup, vegetable lasagna, hummus, peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat, stir-fry with tofu or a grilled cheese (with reduced fat cheese) are all good choices. Or you could try the growing number of meat substitutes and “chicken” nuggets.
* Choose the leanest cuts of meat and poultry. Meat-eaters in the study consumed about 30% of daily calories as fat -- nearly half of it from saturated fat. Fat intake for the vegetarian groups ranged from 23% to 26% of total calories; 11% to 13% saturated -- both closer to the 10% limit recommended by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
* Have the healthy carbs. All three vegetarian groups ate two servings daily of whole grains, about a serving of cereal, two servings of fruit, nearly three of non-starchy vegetables and about one of potatoes. They ate few refined grains. These results “suggest that a high carbohydrate diet may be protective against obesity if the carbohydrates come from fiber-rich foods, such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains,” Newby said.