Why Some Vegetarians are “Doughy”

It’s all about the math.

Many of my patients tell me they do not eat meat. Although they are very proud of this accomplishment, most of them are overweight and don’t understand why they cannot lose weight. There is a very scientific reason for this. It’s their choice of protein source that is in part causing them to be overweight.

An example will help to explain. Recently, I watched a documentary on TV that told the story of a middle-aged man who gave up his previous unhealthy diet and became vegan. In addition, he embarked on a high intensity exercise program. He even became a triathlete. The man was the picture of health with almost zero body fat. His diet consisted of grains, vegetables and fruit. This is a good example of a person who is eating the correct ratio of protein to carbohydrate for his activity level. He was only able to do this because of his tremendous exercising.

Although he is eating a lot of carbohydrates, he is effectively burning them up. Accordingly, because he is so athletic and burns so many calories, he has no problem existing on grains and nuts for his protein source. We discussed earlier that these healthy protein sources are also significant carbohydrate sources. They have a high ratio of carbohydrate to protein. Unless you burn these calories, you will gain weight on this diet.


If you are using meat as your protein source, you are not consuming any carbohydrates when you eat your protein. Alternatively, if you’re using non-meat protein sources, you are almost certainly eating carbohydrate with your protein. You may be eating twice as many grams of carbohydrate than you are protein. This must be taken into consideration in calculating your total carbohydrate intake for a day. I told you earlier to try to keep your ratio of carbohydrate to protein at 4 to one or less. You can only increase this ratio if you are very physically active.

The typical patient of mine who has gone vegetarian is not nearly as active as this triathlete. Actually, most are relatively sedentary. As a result, they gain weight due to the excess amount of carbohydrates they are ingesting in their protein sources. Worse are those who use dairy products as their source of protein in addition to carbohydrate, as they ingest a large amount of saturated fat.

Meat eaters consume protein sources that contain no carbohydrate. It is easier to keep your weight down though. We’ve already discussed how unhealthy a diet like this can be though. The typical meat and potatoes diet is high in fat and low in fiber.

The bottom line is: if you are going to be vegetarian, you have to be very conscious of how many grams of carbohydrate you are ingesting in the process of eating protein. Remember, none of the vegetarian protein sources is free of carbohydrate. Physical activity is critical. If you are very physically active, you will have an easier time being vegetarian. You can choose grains as a protein source and still maintain your weight. If you are sedentary or only minimally physically active, then you will have some difficulty and will have to utilize other items like tofu as a protein source. You will also not be able to eat as many carbohydrates as side dishes. You will need to combine your grains with greens rather than with carbohydrates.

Follow these rules if you are at your ideal weight:

  • Sedentary: 100 to 150 grams of carbohydrate per day
  • Moderately active: 200 grams of carbohydrate per day
  • Very physically active: > 300 grams of carbohydrate per day
  • Keep your food choices around 4 grams of carbohydrate per gram of protein.
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise and then do a little more exercise