Much attention is focused on the health benefits of the vegetarian diet. While eliminating fatty, processed meats is a healthy lifestyle choice, it is only one factor in the shift towards an overall dietary health. Some vegetarians continue to struggle with their weight even after they have made the change to a meat-free diet.
The Importance of Protein
Protein is an essential nutrient for muscle-development and for the growth and repair of all types of tissue. Dietary protein provides the necessary hormones and enzymes for metabolism and other bodily processes. A protein-rich meal will provide more sustained energy than one made up only of carbohydrates.
Meat provides the complete proteins that are absorbed most efficiently by the body. In a meat-free diet, a combination of legumes, grains, seeds and nuts must replace these proteins. Vegetarians who eat only vegetables, fruits, or refined carbohydrates have difficulty in satisfying their appetites or maintaining energy.
Increased muscle mass also plays a role in burning fat. Muscle loss will negatively affect the body’s ability to burn calories and will add to unhealthy weight in vegetarians.
Choosing the Right Carbohydrates
Although some meats contribute to poor health, refined carbohydrates are the most common culprits in weight gain. The body metabolizes the calories from products made with white flour or sugar differently than the calories found in protein-rich meat. Replacing meat with pasta, bread, potatoes and other simple starches give quick bursts of energy followed by sudden drops in blood sugar.
The extra calories in these foods are stored by the body as fat, and the drastic fluctuations in appetite and energy levels induce overeating.
Carbohydrates are necessary to provide energy. Fiber-rich whole grains and unrefined starches provide necessary carbohydrates while slowing down their absorption. This results in more sustained energy and fewer fluctuations in blood sugar. Fiber also acts as an appetite suppressant, creating a feeling of fullness longer than refined starches. Vegetarians who choose grains and legumes that are high in fiber will also gain vital protein from these foods.
Healthy Vegetable Fats
The saturated fats found in meat and animal by-products contribute to disease and higher cholesterol levels. Replacing these fats with vegetable oils may seem like a healthier option, but not all vegetable fats are beneficial. Trans-fats, vegetable oils that have been processed to stay solid at room temperature, will raise bad cholesterol levels while decreasing good cholesterol.
Like saturated fats, trans-fats are harder to expel from the body because they do not become liquid except at high temperatures. Trans-fats are found in margarine, vegetable shortening and a number of seemingly vegetarian-friendly foods like peanut butter, commercially baked goods and foods fried in vegetable shortening.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, found in unprocessed vegetable oils, seeds and nuts, are good for overall health. They control weight, add to emotional health, and help the body to absorb vital nutrients. These healthy fats remain fluid at room temperature and do not contribute to a raised cholesterol level.
Striking a Healthy Balance
Vegetarians who want to control their weight and stay healthy overall must choose a variety of foods. Increased vegetable and fruit consumption should be supplemented with protein-rich grains and nuts, fiber-laden carbohydrates, and unsaturated fats. These critical nutrients are most readily available in minimally processed plant-based foods.
This article was written by Jane Thomas, on behalf of Adventures Cross Country – visit their blog to learn more about teen travel adventures for your kids.