Is it possible to become vegetarian and gain weight at the same time?
January 7, 2009 12:18 AM   Subscribe

I´ve recently discovered that my body "dislikes" red meat, this is, I become heavy and slow when eat this kind of food. Additionally, my doctor suggested that I should eat less meat since my kidneys are not working properly. One of my life goals is to become vegetarian (ovo-lacto kind to start), and I purchased some books on the subject, but none of them explains how to do so without putting your health in risk. Is there a comprehensive and safe guide to start being vegetarian?

My case: 36 year-old male, 70 kg. 1.82 mts tall. I´ve been struggling all my life about being too skinny. I consider myself a healthy person, and I don´t like to eat processed sugar or soft drinks. Mostly of the time I´m home, and have the chance to fix my own meals. I exercise regularly (bike, push-ups, Yoga).

As explained above, I´ve been trying to stop eating meat (poultry and fish as well), but I´m afraid of becoming thinner if my protein intake is lowered. My goal is to gain some weight (about 5 kg) and keep it being vegetarian. Is it possible?

Any resource will do: websites, books, etc.
posted by Matrod to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'd imagine you'd be capable of gaining healthy-ish weight as a vegetarian if you included rich (full-fat dairy, avocado, nuts, olives) and fried (falafel, mushrooms, crisp veg; latter two in light batters; all in sesame/veg oil mix) foods.
posted by batmonkey at 1:14 AM on January 7, 2009

You can get plenty of protein in a vegetarian diet. Beans & pulses & legumes (black beans, kidney beans, chick peas, pinto beans, borlotti beans, lentils of all colours...), soya derived products (tofu, seitan), eggs and dairy.

I'm not veggie at the moment, but have been for about 16 out of my 35 years on this planet (3 of those vegan), and I currently eat vegetarian 4 or 5 days a week. If you're really concerned about protein, try to eat some at every meal and try to eat a range. e.g.: breakfast of beans on toast or eggs or scrambled tofu, lunch cheese salad or an omelette or bean salad or tacos or ramen noodle soup with tofu, dinner veggie lasagne or couscous with chickpeas or nutburger or ....

But even when I was a vegan going to the gym 4 times a week, I found that I felt fairly healthy (healthier than normal!) just having protein 2 meals a day. You do have to think about diet a bit more, and I did supplement B vitamins & iron during the vegan period (these are problematic for vegans but not for people who eat dairy).

The penniless vegetarian is one of my favourite veggie cookbooks - it's out of print now, I think, but you can find secondhand copies for nowt. It's got a lot of good, tasty, basic recipes in it. It's also got a lot of general info (how to soak and cook various bean types, for example).
posted by handee at 2:10 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

You'll probably be eating a lot more carbs as a vegetarian, which could easily make you fatter rather than skinnier. If you're worried about losing muscle-mass specifically...then you can buy a large tub of protein powder from a body-building store and drink it with milk regularly. It's actually a really cheap and efficient way of feeding yourself. Aside from that, make lots of dishes with lentils, chickpeas, etc. I would check out Indian recipes if I were you -- that's what I did when I was vegetarian. Also, you know, if you're already worried about being skinny, biking isn't helping you. That shit's just making you even skinnier. Buy a weight-set and look up Rippetoe's "Starting Strength" program. With weightlifting and sufficient protein and carb intake you should have no problem gaining muscle mass even as a vegetarian. It's a lot more convenient to gain muscle from eating meat, but its not necessary.
posted by creasy boy at 2:12 AM on January 7, 2009

Btw, excess protein intake can cause kidney damage. In normal humans, "excess" is more than any person would ever end up taking, but I don't know what your kidney problems are. Also a lot of people supplement with creatine, and it's supposed to be especially good for vegetarians and is also cheap and available at body-building stores...but I have no idea how that would interact with whatever kidney problems you have.
posted by creasy boy at 2:23 AM on January 7, 2009

I stayed at almost exactly the same weight when I switched from a very beef-heavy diet to a ovo-lacto vegetarian diet. And then I stayed at almost exactly the same weight when I switched back after five years.

Now, admittedly, that (extra) weight's mostly in lard... but, I really don't think you'll have any issue, assuming that you don't also drop your caloric intake.

Between beans, tofu (yummy stuff, when you do it right), seitan (like tofu, but with texture), eggs, and dairy products, I had plenty of protein.
posted by Netzapper at 2:37 AM on January 7, 2009

If you continue to eat eggs and dairy, you should have no problem. Books don't explain how to be a vegetarian without putting your health at risk because being a vegetarian isn't particularly risky, which is great news for someone whose meat consumption is a problem.

If you're really worried, you might consider cutting out red meat and eating chicken or fish with reduced frequency (say, once a week).

You might also try to acquire a taste for bread with olive oil and cream sauces.
posted by sondrialiac at 3:35 AM on January 7, 2009

(ex-veg here, sort of. I ate meat once or twice a year for a very, very long time)

Try a gradual transition. Start out doing what handee is currently doing and only eat meat occasionally. Pay attention to how you feel, and if you get weird cravings, you may want to indulge. Once those weird cravings go away, you just sort of stop eating meat. If you keep getting those cravings, you're probably not meant to live a meat-free lifestyle. You're better off eating meat once or twice a week than every day anyway.

It's really not as big of a shock to the system as you might think. Make good friends with avocados, learn the difference between complete and incomplete proteins, and try to watch the carb intake. Make sure you're getting enough calories. Cheese will also become a close friend of yours, but stay away from the shrink-wrapped grocery store cheese. Too many nasties in that stuff.

You'll miss some foods, and if you cook, you'll miss a lot of dishes that can't be reproduced. I know some people will raise hell over this, but they're wrong, and I'll fight to the death over this. I've been working with some vegan cooks to reproduce some things lately, and there are a lot of culinary techniques that you just can't do without animal products. This is exactly why I started eating more meat again.

Having said that, fake chicken is fearsomly accurate. I didn't eat much chicken before I stopped eating meat regularly, and it was so much like chicken (depending on preparation) that I never ate the fake stuff either.

And know that, if you're like me, eating red meat after a year or two of not having it may cause, um, discomfort.
posted by onedarkride at 3:39 AM on January 7, 2009

Remember, it's just about calories. Sounds like you want dense calories, but are concerned that because of all that damned fiber veggies will fill you up too fast. People are correct to point out things like avacados, nuts. When I was shy a few pounds after an illness, I enjoyed snacking on fried-battered onions or fried potatoes (mmm, latkes) or deep-fried tofu with some kind of dipping sauce. Since you're down with dairy, enjoy a salad with hard-boiled eggs, cheese, tomatoes, and a rich real ranch dressing. Make deadly delights like mornay sauce. Wash it down with a glass of wine or a nice beer.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:43 AM on January 7, 2009

I'm 5'6". about 150lbs, and a serious martial artist and cyclist. I've also been a vegetarian for over a decade. No issues at all - my diet is diverse, and in a given week includes eggs for breakfast, vegetarian chilis and bean soups, lots of stir-fry, gnocci, risotto, pasta, and fresh veggies.

The hardest part of being a vegetarian is not succumbing to the junk-food diet - you'll need to think through how you can prepare and cook lots of vegetables, rather than cheap "meat substitutes." Protein shouldn't be a concern given the basics I laid out, and if you start to feel like you're not getting enough, a dietitian or doctor can help quantify that. For the typical adult male, weight loss occurs if you take in fewer calories than you burn, not if you take in less protein.
posted by ellF at 5:03 AM on January 7, 2009

Don't let it bother you! If you are ovo-lacto, you will get enough protein and calories. Do you like full cream yoghurt (mmm, full cream yoghurt!!). Fill up on that. Have yourself a few servings of beans every now and then for your protein, make sure you get a few serves of green leafy vegies (for the iron), and you'll do OK. Also, second the olive oil. It is great for your cholesterol, add some of that to whatever you're cooking, it will add flavour and calories.

The best thing I ever did was to give up meat and chicken 12 months ago. I still have fish about once a week. You'll feel much better - your cholesterol will drop, you'll become more "regular", and you'll just feel so much better. Good luck!!
posted by humpy at 5:07 AM on January 7, 2009

Being veggie needs a lot of thought if you're pregnant, nursing, or a growing child. If you're a grown man with a reasonably healthy diet, cutting out the meat isn't going to be too much of a stretch. I'm giving meat a rest for the next few months for health reasons, so if you need moral support, let me know.

If you want to give your taste buds a chance to migrate, Quorn is pretty good. Particularly the mince. Mushrooms are my special tool to wean myself off meat. It has the same sort of mouth feel and richness that meat can have.

If you want to learn more about food combinations, nutritional balancing, and recipes, I'd recommend Laurel's Kitchen. It can be a bit groovy in places, but as an overall guide to meatless living, it's really good.

By the way, you don't need that much protein. A cup of cottage cheese gives you 60 grams of protein. That's way more than an adult male needs, right there.
posted by Grrlscout at 5:09 AM on January 7, 2009

Also, pay attention to nutrition labels - you'll likely want to keep an eye on what you're taking in. You likely need 50g of protein on a daily basis; that would be, for example, 2 cups of cottage cheese, but you'd likely want more variety in your diet to get at those grams of protein.
posted by ellF at 5:17 AM on January 7, 2009

I periodically eat vegetarian and I've find no correlation between weight loss and the extended periods when I am eating no meat -- in fact, I think I hit my peak weight while eating vegetarian. I do eat eggs and dairy, however -- typical recipes I would cook are like those in the original Moosewood cookbook (more, more)-- so there's really no shortage of fat and protein when I am going meatless, tofu, cheese, nuts, and beans have lots of fat and protein. Also, even if you end up reducing or eliminating eggs and dairy too, getting enough protein really isn't rocket science. I've always felt that meat-oriented nutritionists have made it sound a lot scarier and more difficult than it really is, with the "OMG I could shrivel up and die in as little as a week without the magic 'complete proteins'" routine.

Any veg. cookbook should have a summary intro on your new mindset: before you had to remember "Need to eat a certain amount of meat to get my protein," now you will need to remember, "Need to eat a variety/combo of rice/grains/legumes to get my protein." Not harder, just different. Maybe the biggest difference will be when eating out, since mainstream restaurants assume diners will have their major portion of meat with every meal. Last but not least, if you have, or if you develop in the future, a fondness for tofu, then it will make all of this much easier (and liking tofu is really about knowing how to prep it, in terms of marinating for taste and sauteeing/baking/frying for various textures).

On preview: as others say, yes, there are some tasty meat substitute products out there like Boca 'burgers' and breakfast 'sausage' links, Quorn and Gardenburger products, and Morningstar farms 'hot dogs' -- but keep an eye on the sodium (particularly if you have kidney issues), since any prepared food, meat-oriented or vegetarian, will tend to hit the salt a lot harder than what you make at home.
posted by aught at 5:50 AM on January 7, 2009

Grrlscout beat me to Laurel's Kitchen. It's definitely granola-riffic, and the recipes are bland beyond belief. But the "how to eat vegetarian healthily" chapters struck me as pretty solid when I read them. I'd also look up some info (maybe someone here can suggest specific titles or websites) on vegetarian athletes -- they are dealing with the same need to keep or gain weight, while maintaining physical exertion, that you are. Lots of high-profile athletes are vegetarian, some even vegan, which should tell you that it is possible to be both fit and veggie.

Basically, it's really easy to eat vegetarian and be healthy; the trick is to eat vegan and be healthy -- that's a much tougher challenge, particularly if you are short on time. But if you are ok eating eggs and dairy and eat them every day, then you definitely won't have a shortage of protein or fat; have a chat with your doctor to see if you are someone who needs to keep a close eye on his iron and B12 levels or not.

But if you decide to be a "junk food vegetarian," just cutting out meat and not really replacing it with anything more substantial than poptarts, then you are on the path to some pretty poor health. Don't do this. It's easier now than it used to be -- pretty much every restaurant has multiple veggie options, and there are all kinds of vegetarian-friendly foods in the grocery store now -- but there's no getting around that it takes a bit more thought and care, as well as time in the kitchen, then does eating meat.
posted by Forktine at 5:59 AM on January 7, 2009

Vegetarian for 20 something years. I switched without thinking about it and never had any issues. My love of dairy has stood me in good stead on this one I think but really don't worry about it just jump in. Boca Bratwurst sausages are good breakfast meat substitutes and the Quorn range available at Wholefoods and in many health food shops and supermarkets is great for us vegetarians that like the meat texture and flavour.

Seconding that the reason you can't find info on the risks are that there are not so many risks. Enjoy but please have a bacon sandwich for me before you switch!
posted by merocet at 6:24 AM on January 7, 2009

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is the best cookbook I have ever used.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine provides a lot of useful information for vegetarians new & old (especially see the "Vegetarian Diets" link).

I would also note that vegetarian diets are not risky, especially compared to diets heavy in meat.

I've been a vegetarian my whole life (22 years), but one thing I've noticed in friends who are trying to become vegetarian is that they complain that they're hungry too much. My theory about that is that they are used to eating meat, which is a very dense, fatty food with lots of calories/cc, and they're simply not eating enough. I would keep in mind that vegetables aren't as calorie dense as meat, so you will probably have to eat larger servings of food than you are used to and more often. Good luck - I think you'll be pleased - medical science (and climate-change science) is pretty unanimous about the health benefits of vegetarianism.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:23 AM on January 7, 2009

Becoming Vegetarian, chapter 3 addresses your protein concerns directly (check out pg. 59 to learn amazing things like broccoli is 34% protein!). Overall, this is a phenomenal resource for vegetarians and anyone wanting to decrease their dietary reliance on meat. It has all kinds of detailed nutritional information, and although it is very pro-vegetarian, it addresses nutritional "myths" coming from both vegetarian and non-vegetarian camps. Plus, the breakfast muffin recipe totally rocks.
posted by carmen at 7:24 AM on January 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, Re: vitamins, the only vitamin I would recommend is B-12. Meat eaters usually get enough B-12 because animals tend to eat a fair amount of poop, or it gets mixed in with the meat during slaughtering, but it is probably a good idea to take a B-12 supplement once a week. If you eat dark leafy vegetables, you'll probably get plenty of iron.

of course, IANADoctor. Talk to yours.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:35 AM on January 7, 2009

Also, seconding the calls to disregard the protein myth. Protein is an essential molecule for all life as we know it - plants have lots of it.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:37 AM on January 7, 2009

Also, Re: vitamins, the only vitamin I would recommend is B-12. Meat eaters usually get enough B-12 because animals tend to eat a fair amount of poop, or it gets mixed in with the meat during slaughtering, but it is probably a good idea to take a B-12 supplement once a week.

That's for vegans, not vegetarians.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:57 AM on January 7, 2009

You likely need 50g of protein on a daily basis

That is not enough if you're trying to gain muscle mass. Most sources I've encountered recommend a minimum of 1g protein per lb. of bodyweight daily.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:16 AM on January 7, 2009

I am in a hurry, so I can't scan all the other answers to see if mine is redundant.

I am 26 years old, and have been a veggie (lacto-ovo) since I was 15. In less than a month I will have my 11th anniversary as a veggie. When I went veggie at 15 years old, I was 5'8" and 128 lbs. Now, I am almost 5'10"and weigh 180 lbs. (Finishing my MS degree has me a little heavy-my ideal weight is probably 165-170).

The key to gaining weight as a vegetarian, for me, was twofold: work out and eat well. Bike, pushups, and yoga are a good start, but you should think about adding some more strenuous strength work than just a few pushups here and there. There are lots of good exercise threads here, so I won't go into more detail than that.

As to diet, you need to get protein. Beans (large and small), soy, seitan (wheat protein), dairy, eggs, and nuts are new best friend. Make sure each meal has some protein in it. I try and eat three big healthy meals daily. Get as wide a range of vegetables, grains, and protein sources as possible. Fresh produce is best, but if it isn't available in your area, go with frozen. You can't be a good vegetarian if you don't eat vegetables. Last, scan the myriad sources of veggie info on the net. There are TONS of websites that offer free recipes.

Best of luck! I'll try and check back later to see if I've forgotten anything.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 1:02 PM on January 7, 2009

Also, Re: vitamins, the only vitamin I would recommend is B-12. Meat eaters usually get enough B-12 because animals tend to eat a fair amount of poop, or it gets mixed in with the meat during slaughtering, but it is probably a good idea to take a B-12 supplement once a week.

That's for vegans, not vegetarians.

Actually, research shows that vegetarians can be at risk for B12 deficiency too, though not as much so as vegan diets. Vegetarians who are heavy consumers of dairy products are probably fine, but in general B12 supplements are a good idea for vegetarians too.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:15 PM on January 7, 2009

Actually, research shows that vegetarians can be at risk for B12 deficiency too, though not as much so as vegan diets. Vegetarians who are heavy consumers of dairy products are probably fine, but in general B12 supplements are a good idea for vegetarians too.

The report you link to says: "It is essential that all vegetarians use a supplement, fortified food, dairy products, or eggs to meet recommended intakes of vitamin B-12 (see Table)."

Note the "or" -- that is, you don't need supplements if you get enough B12 from other things in the list, like dairy and eggs. I don't see where the report says that lacto-ovo vegetarians "in general" should take B12 supplements.

That doesn't mean you're technically wrong -- you just said it's a "good idea" "in general." I'm no expert in nutrition, so for all I know you're right -- maybe that is a generally good idea.

But based on my very limited understanding, the better statement would be: "vegans should probably take B12 supplements (unless they're very careful and knowledgeable about getting it from other sources such as soy milk), and vegetarians should be aware of the need to get enough B12 from dairy and eggs."
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:15 PM on January 7, 2009

ludwig_van: "1g protein per lb. of bodyweight daily" will give you some health issues (gas, kidney problems, etc.) -- the standard is (IIRC) 1g of protein per lb. of lean muscle mass. Even so, that's a highly debated figure, and the OP should check with their doctor.

Agree in general, though -- gaining muscle (aka, hypertrophy) is a different beast from being fit in general, and if that's the goal then the diet needs to be sufficiently altered in order to properly support it.
posted by ellF at 6:29 PM on January 7, 2009

From that article, B12 amounts in dairy and eggs are:

Cow's milk, 1/2 c (125 mL)....... 0.4-0.5 mcg
Egg, large, 1 (50 g) ................ 0.5 mcg

And the RDI is 6 mcg. So, that would be 12 eggs, or six cups of milk, or some mix. At least for me, that would be many times more dairy/eggs than I consume in a day. Thus,

Vegetarians who are heavy consumers of dairy products are probably fine, but in general B12 supplements are a good idea for vegetarians too.

I am also not a nutritional expert, but that's what it seemed to say to me. You are quite right however that it is possible to be a healthy vegetarian w/o B12 supplements.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:04 PM on January 7, 2009

With kidney issues I would consult a nutritionist before making any major changes in diet. They can help you set out a decent diet that doesn't rely on too much protein, as even vegetarians can fall into that trap and if you doctor has stated you need lower protein that includes vegetarian proteins, not just meat.

A high protein diet is bad for those with reduced kidney function and can further damage your kidneys. That is the reason those with kidney issues are told to avoid low carb diets. A lot of people have mentioned fats to add in, just remember the protein issue as well.
posted by SuzySmith at 6:18 AM on January 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi everyone,

Thanks a lot for your comprehensive answers.

To round up the main ideas:

Soy, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts and green leaf vegetables are a must.
B12 Vitamin suplements are recommended
Avoid exceeding the daily protein intake to protect kidneys. (Nutritionist advice is recommended).
Regular exercise (additional to yoga, biking and pushups).
Generous portions on each meal.
And last but not least, variety is key to avoid "going back" to eat meat.
Books: The penniless vegetarian, Becoming Vegetarian, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Websites: Moosewood cookbook, Laurel´s Kitchen

Definitely, I´ll give the tips a try and post my results.

Best of luck to you all.

posted by Matrod at 7:36 AM on January 12, 2009

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