Can vegetarians track macros? Yes
(Remember…every diet works!!)
Even more than they “can,” they should! In fact, it’s probably more important for vegetarians to track macros because of the work that comes with the commitment.
Many of you probably may think that my approach does not work for vegans and vegetarians…but that actually couldn’t be more wrong. Remember, I provide individualized coaching…meaning I adjust my approach (which is just science-based nutrition coaching) to each individual client, including vegetarians.
Now there are a couple of things to consider first when it comes to being vegan or vegetarian.
First, and most important, being vegetarian (or vegan) is NOT the secret to weight loss. This idea has unfortunately become far too mainstream and has no validity whatsoever. It basically turns vegetarianism into just another fad diet like keto, paleo, going gluten-free, and fasting. This isn’t the answer. You can eat animal protein and still lose weight. In fact, it’s likely easier for you to eat animal protein and lose weight because it is no longer creating restriction in your diet.
In addition to weight loss, vegetarianism doesn’t guarantee health. In a recent study, it was found that non-smoking vegetarians were no more or less healthy, or even lived longer, than non-smoking omnivores (meat and plant eaters).
With all of this in mind, this blog post isn’t for those that follow this mainstream myth. It’s for those that consciously choose, most often for moral or personal reasons, to not eat meat. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being vegetarian and avoiding animal protein…in fact, I completely understand and support the moral and personal arguments behind it. This post is here to educate you on how to live your healthiest life while also reaching your personal nutrition goals be it losing weight, gaining weight or simply maintaining.
Secondly, being vegan or vegetarian comes with a slew of health risks…which is why your reasoning has to be more than just for weight loss. Non-animal protein sources are not as bioavailable—the portion of a nutrient that is absorbed in the digestive tract. They aren’t as easily absorbed or digested in the body nor are they as nutrient-dense as animal protein sources. Vegetarian, and especially vegan, diets are lower in several essential nutrients, including vitamins A, B12, and D, as well as calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, choline, selenium, creatine, taurine, methionine, glycine, and EPA and DHA. This is especially true if bioavailability is considered.
Unfortunately, protein is a crucial part of your diet and an essential nutrient your body needs for survival, so you can’t just avoid it. You are at risk for a number of nutrient deficiencies and for undereating and malnourishment, meaning you might need to rely more heavily on supplementation to ensure you’re healthy.
Thirdly, being vegan or vegetarian requires more work. This is why it’s so important to have a reason behind your desire to be vegetarian…besides just trying to lose weight. You will likely have to spend more time practicing and committing to calorie and macro counting. Because most protein sources are also carb sources, intuitive eating won’t be as intuitive. You’ll have to put more effort at reaching your protein sources. You might have to consider increasing your meal frequency. You’ll most likely need to add a number of supplements to ensure optimal health and function. It’s not easy, but if you’re committed to the reason behind your decision (because it’s for a good reason), then you’ll put forth the extra effort.
Alright, now onto the fun part…how to actually go about being vegetarian…the right way!
Calories need to be in check first. Because vegetarian diets are mostly coming from “calorically-light” plant foods, it requires a significantly more volume of food compared to non-vegetarians. This puts many vegetarians at risk for chronically underfeeding oneself. A
Next up is macros. The most important macro missing from vegetarian diets is protein. Protein is a non-negotiable, regardless of if you’re vegan or vegetarian. It definitely is much more difficult to get in protein as a vegetarian, but it’s not possible. For a non-vegetarian, it’s recommended to eat 1-1.2 g/lb which is roughly bodyweight or slightly above. This, ideally, should be the goal even for a vegetarian, however this might be unrealistic to start. You should still strive for >0.8g/lb (0.8 x 150lbs = 120g protein/day for a 150lb individual) at a bare minimum.
Fats generally follow the similar trend as with a non-vegetarian. We don’t need fats to be too high, so it’s recommended that no more than 30% of calories should be coming from healthy fats with a minimum of 0.3g/lb bodyweight to keep hormones happy. The only difference between non-vegetarian and vegetarian fat intake is that most will be coming from added fats. As a non-vegetarian, animal sources will account for some fat. The biggest benefit that fats are going to provide, in addition to the usual benefits (hormones, homeostasis, cell membrane function, energy, etc.) is increasing caloric intake without increasing volume. As previously mentioned, one of the biggest issues with vegetarian diets is under-eating. Many vegetarians struggle to reach healthy calorie goals due to the fact that most of their foods are coming plant-based foods, which are naturally very low in calories. Including a healthy dose of fats will help bring intake up and get in those calories without having to feel like you’re eating pounds and pounds of food.
The hardest part with vegetarianism, outside of reaching protein goals, is not overshooting carbohydrate goals. Because majority of protein sources are also carb sources (beans, quinoa, lentils, etc.), it’s very easy to eat a much higher carb diet. The solution? Intentionally put in more carbs by either bringing calories up (mainly if you’ve been under-eating) or bringing fats down (they’re not as crucial). This will also improve strength and gym performance (two birds with one stone!).
Below is a chart that gives you an example macro and calorie breakdown based on 3 different weights. Note that this is NOT exact. A number of factors go into calorie, and as a result macro calculations: sex, age, weight, height, and activity. The chart below is calculated off of average height (5’7”) and light to moderate activity.
EAT YOUR PROTEIN
“Protein is absolutely important for fitness and building muscle no matter if you are keto, paleo, raw, vegan, or something between”. - Matt Ruscigno, R.D., co-author of the No Meat Athlete
You need protein. This is the biggest issue when it comes to vegetarian and vegan diets.
The biggest issue I find is just now knowing what to eat or how to find good protein sources. It’s common for people to jump to the oh-so popular veggie burgers…but most times if you look at the nutrition labels, you find a laundry list of crap thrown in there.
The following are great vegetarian options…that also are delicious and not just salads.
Quinoa, beans, lentils >> These are your natural carb sources that are also relatively high in protein. Use these for some creativity and inspiration by using them in bowls.
Protein pastas >> These are on the rise and for a good reason. From even your basic grocery store, you can find relatively cheap and simple (with very few ingredients) protein pastas made with either black beans, lentils, or peas.
Dairy >> Dairy is a great protein source, minimally processed, and provides a number of micronutrient benefits. Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk are great options that can also be a bit lower in fats that will help increase protein.
Eggs and egg-whites >> Eggs, and egg whites especially, are going to be very good protein sources. I, personally, am not the biggest fan of egg whites; however, I can’t always include all of the fats that come from egg yolks. Solution? Use egg whites as your protein-filler. If you’re making scrambled eggs or an omelet, swap out half of your protein coming for eggs for egg whites. If you need the protein from 6 eggs, use 3 eggs then 3 egg whites. You won’t know the difference.
Oats >> Steel-cut oats, especially, are high in protein and help tremendously with hunger. They provide a great base for a ton of nutrients. You can load oats up with protein powder, nuts/nut butters, fruit, seeds, etc. to create delicious and nutrient-dense meals (without having to always eat salads).
Spinach, kale, beets >> These veggies are incredibly high in protein that will help tremendously create some variety while also helping you reach your protein goals.
Notice that I’m through 5 extensive categories of protein and haven’t gotten to any of the heavily processed examples or any of the commonly relied on meat replacement options.
If you do want a bit more, here are some of the “meat and/or meal replacement” vegetarian options: veggie burgers, veggie sausages and bacons, meal replacement bars, tofu, tempeh etc.
Likely at some point, you will need to consider supplementation. Humans require about 20 amino acids and roughly 40 micronutrients to both survive and thrive. This is best achieved through a diet that contains both animal and plant based foods…because they both bring different strengths to the table (great pun I might add). Animal foods bring nutrients such as a diverse amino acid profile, B12, iron, zinc, EPA and DHA, etc. Plant foods bring other nutrients such as carotenoids, fiber, flavonoids, etc. Removing one of these main contributors means you likely will have to resort to supplementation for optimal health and function.
The biggest supplement you’ll likely need to implement at some point in your nutrition journey is protein powder. Not only will this help you get adequate protein in your diet but will increase your amino acid profile. Most protein powders have a roughly equal amount of the amino acids, which will help supplement the ones you’d typically get from animal protein sources.
The next supplement is omega-3s. If you’re a pescatarian, you could resort to fish or krill oil but if you are a true vegetarian, you’ll have to get omega-3s. This is a supplement needed even for the non-vegetarian…however more so for vegetarians. Omega-3s are found mostly in cold-water fish, so unless you eat cold-water fish 2-3/week at least, you’ll need to supplement. Omega 3-s lower inflammation and help tremendously with disease prevention. Increase consumption of eggs, avocados, walnuts and pecans
One of the most common vitamin deficiencies among vegetarians a B12 deficiency. B12 is found naturally in animal sources, such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk and is not present in most plant foods. Because of this, supplementation is encouraged. If you’re a female (and on a hormonal birth control), you should go for a B-complex vitamin instead as you’re likely deficient in pretty much all of the B vitamins.
Other supplements to consider are zinc, iron, vitamins D and C, and magnesium. All of these are going to help with energy, muscle fatigue, sleep, recovery, and stress. If you’re doing all of the above-mentioned requirements and varying your diet on a weekly or biweekly rotation, then you likely don’t need this much supplementation. If, however, you’re either not going everything above or you are but still don’t feel 100% and/or have lab work indicating a deficiency in any of the above vitamins or minerals, then consider adding supplementation.
Being a vegetarian isn’t impossible.
Being a healthy vegetarian also isn’t impossible. In fact, it’s very possible. It simply, like with everyone, takes a bit of time, patience, commitment, and trusting the process to get results that last.
And if you want the ease of having all of this set up for you, along with the education along the way, then apply today for nutrition coaching.