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EATING GREENS, SHEDDING POUNDS

The Basics

Most nutrition experts agree that the basics of weight loss are the same for vegetarians as for meat eaters: low fat, high fiber, high complex carbohydrates, exercise, and water.

Fat-vegetarians have the edge on this because by excluding meat they're automatically reducing saturated fats. They can substitute the protein they get from meat with a variety of whole food sources, like beans, whole grains, and low-fat tofu (regular tofu is higher in fat).

But not all proteins are equal when it comes to fat, even from non-meat sources. For weight loss, Dean Ornish, MD, in his book Eat More,Weigh Less (HarperCollins, 1993), recommends low-fat beans and legumes, such as lentils, kidney beans, peas, black beans, and so on, over high-fat avocados, olives, and dairy products, such as whole milk, yogurt, butter, or cheese. He also recommends avoiding nuts and seeds.

The reason why fat has gotten such a bad rap in recent years is that it has more than twice as many calories (nine per gram) as proteins or carbohydrates (four per gram) and the body doesn't use them nearly as efficiently, Ornish says. "Your body easily converts dietary fat calories into body fat. One hundred fat calories can be stored as body fat by expending only 2.5 calories, whereas your body must spend 23 calories-almost 10 times as much-to convert 100 calories of dietary protein or carbohydrate into body fat," he writes.

Ornish recommends a diet with about 10 percent calories from fat, which can be accomplished by avoiding meat, oils, butter and margarine, avocados, olives, dairy, and any commercially available product with more than two grams of fat per serving, he says.

Fiber-one trap with cutting out too much fat is that you're also cutting out the satisfied feeling of fullness that comes with it, Pedigo says. This can be replaced with fiber sources, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. "People who eat a lot of fiber usually get the signal that they're full sooner and will stop eating," says Dr. Tara Skye Goldin, a naturopath in Boulder, Colorado.

"I believe fiber is the major shining point of being a vegetarian," Gittleman says. "It is so important in any diet, and vegetarians seem to get the most of it."

Complex Carbohydrates-these carbohydrates are starches in their natural, unrefined form, such as potatoes, pasta, rice, beans, whole wheat bread, and apples, Ornish says. They are low in calories, and high in fiber and bulk. Simple carbohydrates, such as table sugar, alcohol, honey, molasses, and corn syrup, do not fill you up and are high in calories. For hypoglycemics, or people like me who get hungry between meals, complex carbohydrates are better than quick sugar boosts because they are absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream, keeping your blood sugar and energy levels more constant.

Veggie Variables

Vegetables have different characteristics that can help someone trying to shed pounds. For instance, parsley, celery, and carrots have diuretic qualities, Goldin says. For most vegetables she recommends steaming or juicing. "Vegetable juices are really concentrated sources of vitamins and minerals," Goldin says. She cautions vegetarians who crave sugar to be careful with carrot juice because carrots are high in natural sugars and can encourage an undesireable insulin response. She recommends sticking with green vegetable juices, with carrots only to sweeten.

In addition, she recommends eating only quality, organic vegetables and balancing land and sea veggies, such as dulse, kelp, and arame, which also are excellent nutrient sources.

Gaining Weight on a Vegetarian Diet

I am one of those unfortunate souls who gained weight when I became a vegetarian. Not unfortunately, really. Hungry, and probably a little malnourished. Learning to eat properly as a vegetarian for me has been a process, not an event. I lost that full feeling of meat and snacked a lot more between meals on high-fat foods and simple carbohydrates. Also, I ate too much at meals. Someone recently told me, "If you eat enough pasta, it will stick." To my rear to be exact.

I am now exercising more, eating small vegetable or complex carbohydrate snacks between meals only when I'm hungry, and trying to eat consciously by paying attention to when I'm full, a lesson I learned in Geneen Roth's Breaking Free From Compulsive Overeating (Plume, 1993). Slowly, I'm taking off the 10 pounds I put on when I made the incorrect choices for meat substitutes.

"Not all vegetarians lose weight just by cutting out meat," Goldin says. She says those who do usually don't replace fatty meats with chips, dairy, eggs, avocados, nut butters, nuts, seeds, and especially high-fat granola, which is filled with calories, sugar, and oils.

More than a few vegetarians crave sugar, which may be an indication they're not getting enough protein, or that their food at meals isn't lasting long enough and they want an energy boost, Goldin says. For these people she recommends eating frequent protein meals rather than getting a jolt from simple carbohydrates. "For these people it would be better for them to eat a vegetable patty than a fruit-juice sweetened cookie," she says.

In some cases, vegetarians lose too much weight when they make the switch to a non-meat diet. Pedigo says if someone loses more than one to two pounds a week, something may not be right. She says it's easy to add just 100 calories more a day, with a banana or piece of toast with fruit-sweetened jelly. If you don't change your energy output, you will gain about 10 pounds a year. Same goes for losing. If you eliminate 100 calories a day, you'll lose about 10 pounds a year.

When my friend Al got below 140 his friends and colleagues told him he looked too thin. He agreed and started eating more frequently throughout the day, such as adding a healthful homemade muffin between meals. He's held at 140 pounds for a year now. "I haven't seen that number since I was a junior or senior in high school," he says. "I feel really good about myself. And I found a great seamstress." Written by: Leslie Krampf


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