Vegetarian and vegan diets are nothing new, but now that we’re facing meat shortages and COVID-19 is shining a bright light on the flaws and troubles of our nation’s commercial meat supply chain, more and more people are eating less meat these days, or at least thinking about it.
Many are ditching meat with other ethical, environmental and health reasons in mind, too. Meatless diets have been associated with increased nutrient intake and lower risk of some chronic diseases. And meat production ― particularly beef production ― isn’t doing any favors for the health of our planet. Greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based agriculture are actually so sizable that a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year recommended reducing meat consumption in order to adapt to climate change.
But how exactly does a meat-free diet affect your body? We reached out to some experts to find out what happens when you adopt a plant-based diet so you can decide if it’s the right choice for you.
Before we get into that, an important note: When we say a vegetarian diet, we’re referring to a diet that’s free of any meat and fish. But vegetarianism has many variations ― some people still eat dairy and eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarians), some allow eggs but no dairy (ovo-vegetarians), and some allow fish and sometimes dairy and eggs (pescatarian). Vegan diets don’t include any of those items.
Here’s what you can expect when you go on a plant-based diet:
Your bowel habits will probably change.
Eating more plant-based foods like vegetables, beans and whole grains increases your fiber intake. This will help prevent constipation, improve bowel function and probably result in more regular bowel habits.
“Bowel regularity is beneficial for overall health and well-being,” said Colleen Chiariello, a registered dietitian and chief clinical dietitian at Northwell Health’s Syosset Hospital.
At the same time, you may become more bloated than usual, especially if you’ve recently upped your intake of vegetables or if you’re consistently filling up on brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage and other vegetables that are known to produce excess gas.
When switching to a vegetarian diet, Chiariello advised incorporating a range of fruits and vegetables, not just the same ones. Staying hydrated is important too, as drinking more fluids can minimize gas from certain fruits and vegetables.
Keep in mind that if the gas is minimal, you probably don’t need to worry too much. “A little bit of gas is worth the benefit of colon health,” Chiariello said.
You’ll probably be consuming more nutrients.
When you stop eating meat and switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet, you may be eating a lot more nutrient-rich foods.
“This increases the intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber in the diet,” said Kim Rose, a registered dietitian based in Florida. “Fiber is not only an important part of a healthy digestive system; it has the potential to improve cholesterol, make you feel full for a longer period of time, give the body energy, and assist in the prevention of constipation and diarrhea.”
Unhealthy eating behaviors can develop if you’re not mindful of them.
A plant-focused diet has many potential benefits, but it’s not necessarily healthier than a non-vegetarian or non-vegan diet ― especially if you’re eating a ton of processed foods.
“It really all depends on the foods chosen and the individual nutrition needs of the person who is going vegetarian,” said Emily Hamm, a registered dietitian at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. “Research shows that there are multiple health benefits to going vegetarian if the vegetarian diet is rich in plant-based whole foods rather than just the reduction or absence of animal-based foods.”
Tim Radak, a registered dietitian in North Carolina and an academic coordinator for Walden University’s PhD in Public Health program, recommended carefully planning any dietary change in order to avoid nutritional deficiencies and other negative effects.
For example, “a soda and cheese pizza are vegetarian, but certainly do not promote health,” he said.
For some people, a diet that’s restrictive in any way can be hard to maintain and can even be associated with disordered eating patterns.
“Consider the reason ― is it for ethical reasons like animal rights? Or is it because you feel it will be a healthier lifestyle?” said Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian in New York.
Instead of fully avoiding any one type of food, she recommended making decisions and choices based on how certain foods make you feel physically, emotionally and ethically.
You probably won’t have any trouble getting enough protein.
Many people fear plant-based diets, thinking they won’t be able to get enough protein without meat. But the truth is, lots of these foods are high in protein. It’s good to be mindful of protein intake, but you probably won’t struggle to consume enough protein if you’re being mindful.
“A variety of nuts and seeds — such as pistachios and quinoa, beans and peas, and soy-based products — such as tofu and tempeh, are good sources of protein that also contain an array of vitamins and minerals that will properly nourish,” Rose said.
But there is a caveat here: You’ll want to pay attention to the source of the protein you reach for since many of the meat-replacement products some vegetarians rely on are heavily processed and can be high in sodium.
You may need to take dietary supplements.
While you might consume a lot more nutrients than usual after transitioning to a vegetarian diet, you still may need to take dietary supplements to avoid certain nutrient deficiencies.
Many vegetarians or vegans take supplements for vitamin B12, which is available mostly in animal products and only in a small number of plant-based foods. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause fatigue, weakness, neurological disorders and other problems. Other supplements common among vegetarians or vegans are iron, vitamin D and calcium. But this all depends on your individual body and diet.
“Check with your dietitian and health care provider if you are concerned about your vitamin or mineral status and tell your health care providers if you follow any dietary restrictions,” Hamm said. “Lab work and a nutrition-focused physical assessment will reveal if there are deficiencies.”
Your heart health may improve.
“Much of the fiber found in produce is soluble, which has been shown to improve cholesterol,” Fine said. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and binds with cholesterol in the small intestine so that the cholesterol leaves the body through your feces rather than being absorbed into your bloodstream, where it can contribute to plaque build-up in the arteries.
A lot of foods consumed in a plant-focused diet are beneficial to heart health, too. Fine pointed out that flax seeds and canola oil are good sources of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. And olive oil, avocado, almonds, peanuts and other nuts are good sources of healthy fats that protect your heart.
You may have a reduced risk of cancer.
Plant-based foods contain phytochemicals — naturally occurring chemical compounds that not only contribute to the color, taste and smell of plants but also protect human health and help our bodies fight off disease. Some research shows that these phytochemicals may protect against certain types of cancer.
The bottom line: A vegetarian diet can have a lot of positive benefits to your overall health, especially if you’re loading up on nutrient-dense, plant-based, whole foods. But it all depends on what you’re eating ― swapping meat with highly processed food isn’t the best option. Take some time to examine if it’s best for you, and if you’re ever unsure, you should always chat with your doctor.
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