People have various reasons for adopting any diet. The Vegetarian diet has various traits and benefits that can satisfy many reasons for adopting the diet. Whatever your reasons, going vegetarian (also referred to as vegan) is likely a welcome change.
“Vegan” is typically reserved for strict adherence to eating nothing from animal sources. “Vegetarian” is often used to describe hybrids of vegan that include some form of animal source foods. “Lacto-ovo vegetarian” denotes a diet that is vegan except for the inclusion of dairy (“lacto”) and egg (“ovo”) products.
Going vegetarian can be great for your health. A recent report from Harvard Medical school states… “Vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” 1
How Can a Vegetarian Diet Help Your Health?
Heart health issues are the number one cause of morbidity in the United States. Chronic inflammation and saturated fats are the protagonists in the development of CAD, both of which are remarkably affected (read “reduced”) by a Vegetarian diet.
Largely through the reduction in saturated fat – a mainstay of most animal proteins – as well as the increased fiber intake, many Vegetarian diet adopters have moved from the worst tier of LDL (bad) cholesterol to the best in just 30 days.
And, inflammatory markers including highly sensitive C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) – a measure of risk for developing cardiovascular disease – have gone from over 3mg/L (a high risk) to less than 1mg/L (a below average risk) in 30 days.
More About Inflammatory Markers
Inflammation is also a protagonist in the development of other morbidities such as diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis. And, saturated fat consumption promotes inflammation through its creation of certain prostaglandins. So its consumption presents a “double whammy” toward ill health.
Endothelial (vascular) inflammation affects the heart and increases men’s and women’s risk of stroke, but for men, it has an added effect to diminish erectile function. Studies have shown that Vegetarian diet adopters increase the frequency of erections nine-fold as well as the strength of erections.
Research suggests vegetarians could have a lower prevalence of obesity. Vegetarians have also been found to have a lower risk of blood sugar imbalances. There are also fewer intestinal issues and eye health concerns. 2 And with the variety of vegan and vegetarian meals on the shelves, there’s just one question left… How will your body change when you begin to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet?
In the Beginning…
If a healthier diet is what you’re after, the time to start a plant-based regimen is now. If you’ve been a meat-eater all your life, you’ll likely notice some changes. But most should delight you as you begin your vegan or vegetarian journey.
Early on, you may notice a potential boost in energy. The fat in meat could slow your digestive process. So it could require more energy to process such foods. But vegetable and fruit staples in your new vegan diet can boost your vitamin intake. They could even provide more energy.
A Week Or So In…
When you cut out animal protein, you might experience a change in your bowel function. In some cases, your bowel movements could become more regular. However, sometimes the uptick in fiber can cause temporary bloating and gas.
If you’ve been focusing on meat, your low fiber diet might have left you constipated. Diets full of fruit, vegetables, and fluids can help with constipation. Vegetarian foods, like the following, tend to reduce incidences of constipation.
- Whole grains
- Vegetables 3
Remember though, you must keep your vegetarian diet well-planned. Make sure you’re still getting the right balance of nutrients. If you rely on processed foods and junk, you might as well be on a fatty meat-based diet.
Six Months Into Your Vegetarian or Vegan Lifestyle
One thing you might notice a few months into your vegetarian diet is a decrease in acne. That’s because vitamin A plays a big role in skin health. Vitamin A deficiency can cause dry skin, dry hair, and acne. 4 By increasing your vitamin A-rich veggie intake, you’ll likely see effects diminish.
Fruit and Veggies Rich in Vitamin A
- Dark green leafy vegetables
- Sweet potatoes
- Yellow corn
- Papayas 5
Pay Attention to Vitamin D in Your First Year
Though you may increase your vitamin A intake, you could decrease your vitamin D intake. Meat and dairy are big vitamin D sources. And this vitamin is essential in order to keep your muscles, bones, and teeth in good health.
Mushrooms and soy milk contain vitamin D. But not enough to keep you healthy. You could want to chat with your doctor about vitamin D supplements. You can also shop for vitamin D fortified foods. 6
Well-Balanced Vegetarian Diet (Year 1 and Beyond)
Losing weight is possible on a vegetarian or vegan diet. But only if you eat well-balanced meals. Studies do show that vegans actually feel more satiated after meals. Why? Because vegans and vegetarians consume more nutrients, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
In several studies, those on vegetarian meal plans lost more weight than others. Vegetarian diets — specifically vegan diets — seem to have positive effects on weight reduction. 7
One area you might want to be careful: calcium. A high-calcium diet is important for bone health. When vegetarians don’t include enough calcium-rich foods, your bone health can suffer. Look into calcium supplements. And keep these calcium-rich vegetarian foods on your “daily intake” list:
- Turnip greens
- Bok choy
- Corn tortilla
- Tofu 8
Your Body on a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet
In the end, there are quantifiable benefits to a well-planned vegetarian diet. Studies report decreased risk for several chronic conditions. They also report increased longevity. Whole plant-based foods seem to help prevent various health problems.
Fatty meats – especially processed meats – are connected to an increased risk for several illnesses. Fill your plate with vegetables, nuts, healthy whole grains and occasional fruits. A diet based on these foods can be linked to a lower risk for several conditions including…
- Coronary artery disease
- Blood sugar concerns including insulin insensitivity and diabetes
- Fat gain
- Stroke and other serious health concerns 9
The take-home message here should be to focus on balance. A balanced vegetarian diet could offer several potential health benefits. Meal preparation and vitamin supplementation are key. Practice these habits and you’ll be able to make a vegetarian or vegan diet work for you.
Rand McClain, D.O. is a leading mind in regenerative and sports medicine using nutrition, progressive therapies and supplements to optimize the body and improve quality of life. He is chief medical officer of LCR Health, a health optimization supplement line, and practices medicine at his clinic, Regenerative and Sports Medicine. His therapies — “based on science and proven in practice” — include: cryotherapy, stem cell therapies, and more.