As far as diets go, it’s looking like the plant-based green team will continue to dominate in 2018. Vegetarian and vegan diets are continuing to climb in popularity in the United States. In 2017, about 6 percent of Americans became vegan, which is up from 1 percent in 2014, according to a research firm’s food trend report. Additionally, about 36 percent of people eat vegetarian meals throughout the week, according to a Harris Interactive Poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group. (That percentage is even higher in the west and the northeast).
Those who adopt plant-based diets cite several reasons for doing so—everything from the desire to improve their health to concerns about animal welfare to religious convictions to worries about the excessive use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock. Plus, veggie diets are a way to conserve natural resources, as they produce a third less greenhouse gas emissions, according to one study.
If you’ve given up meat, or are flirting with the idea, you might be curious how it will affect your health. Here’s exactly what happens to your body when you transition from being an omnivore to an herbivore, according to science and health experts.
1. You turbocharge your weight loss and lose deeper layers of fat.
Dieters who eschew meat and adopt a vegetarian diet are almost twice as effective at losing weight as their peers who are on conventional, low-calorie diets, according to findings from a June 2017 study published in the “Journal of the American College of Nutrition.” Of course, this is assuming that your vegetarian diet is healthy, consisting of veggies, grains, legumes, fruits and nuts, with animal products limited to a max of one low-fat yogurt serving per day. A diet of bean-and-cheese burritos and pasta won’t get you the same results. (Darn it!)
Here’s where things get interesting. Both low-calorie and vegetarian diets can cause a similar reduction in subcutaneous fat, which is the fancy term for the fat that hides out right underneath your skin and that you can pinch with your fingers. But the study showed that subfascial fat, the type of fat that lines our muscles, was only reduced in response to the vegetarian diet. Also, intramuscular fat was greatly reduced by the vegetarian diet.
2. You improve your metabolism.
Why exactly does it matter what type of fat you lose? According to the research, a vegetarian diet that promotes fat loss in the muscles can rev up metabolism. Losing muscle fat helps boost glucose and lipid metabolism. Another benefit? Trimming back that intramuscular fat can help improve muscular strength, especially in older individuals with diabetes, according to the study’s lead author, Hana Kahleová, Director of Clinical Research at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington D.C. Vegetarian diets, Kahleová concludes, are the most effective for weight loss.
3. You also improve your heart health.
Red meat—such as beef, pork and lamb—has more cholesterol and saturated, bad fat than lean proteins. Cholesterol and saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol, putting you at risk for heart disease or worsening it. Meanwhile, omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish and some plant sources, can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. So by cutting out red meat and replacing it with plant-based proteins like beans (which don’t have cholesterol unless we’re talking refried beans in animal lard), you can improve your heart health.
Interestingly, a 2014 study published in “Cell” found that our gut bacteria plays a role in this whole process. The research showed that our gut bacteria turned a nutrient that is found in red meat into metabolites that increase the risk of developing heart disease.
4. You can reduce inflammation.
Bad news burger and steak lovers: Excessive saturated fat—which is found in beef, as well as pork and lamb—can promote inflammation. In turn, chronic inflammation can cause a wide range of problems, including heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. Alana Kessler, R.D., founder of BE WELL By AlanaKessler, explains it like this: “Meat is harder to digest than other foods, and this can relate to an increase in digestive waste collecting in the cells.” That makes it tough for the liver to carry out its detoxification process, she says. “When this happens, there is an increase in inflammation and, over time, that can lead to an imbalance in enzymes, coenzymes and hormones.”
Kessler herself gave up meat about a decade ago and noticed a difference. “When I gave up meat, I immediately noticed a decrease in my body’s inflammation,” she says. “I often would feel bloated and weighed down, but without meat in my diet, I immediately noticed change.”
5. Your nails and hair could become healthier.
Omega-3s are a good fatty acid that can help prevent heart disease and boost your memory. But they also can be a boon for beauty, with one study showing that fatty acid makes hair thicker and omega-3-rich diets are linked to healthy nails. While omega-3s are highly concentrated in fish, vegetarians can get this good fat in high doses from tofu, spinach, navy beans and walnuts. Anecdotally, Kessler says she noticed a difference in her hair and nails when she cut out meat from her diet and replaced it with foods high in omega-3s. “My hair and nails had started thinning and becoming coarse when I was 25,” she says. “When I eliminated meat from my diet and added protein sources rich in omega-3s and plants, my hair and nails began to regain its luminescence.” This change took her about six months to notice.
6. You could become nutrient-deficient.
First, let’s get a myth out of the way. Those on plant-based diets typically don’t have a problem getting enough protein, explains Heather Fields, M.D., with Community and Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. However, they may be lacking some important nutrients, including vitamin B-12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. “We found that some of these nutrients, which can have implications in neurological disorders, anemia, bone strength and other health concerns, can be deficient in poorly planned vegan diets,” Fields says in a press release. If you’re considering making the switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet, it’s a great idea to consult with a registered dietitian to ensure you’re getting all of the nutrients you need.
Considering a plant-based diet, or just the prospect of scaling back on meat? These 8 vegetarian foods have more iron than meat.