Vegetarian and vegan diets are nothing new, but more and more people are reducing meat consumption – or at least thinking about it.
Many are abandoning meat for ethical, environmental or health reasons. Meatless diets are associated with increased nutrient intake and lower risk of some chronic diseases. And meat production – especially beef – does nothing for the health of the planet. Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock are considerable.
A report last year by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended a reduction in meat consumption as part of the strategy to prevent climate change.
But how does the meatless diet affect your body ? We talked to some experts to understand what happens when you adopt a plant-based diet – so you can decide if this is the right one for you.
Before starting, an important note: when we talk about a vegetarian diet, we are referring to a diet without any type of meat or fish . But vegetarianism has many variations – some people still eat dairy and eggs (ovo-lacto-vegetarians), some allow eggs, but not dairy (ovo-vegetarians), and some allow fish and sometimes dairy and eggs (pescetarian). Vegan diets do not include any of these items.
Here’s what you can expect when you decide to switch to a plant-based diet:
Your bowel function will change.
Eating more plant-based foods, such as vegetables, beans and whole grains, increases your fiber intake. This helps prevent constipation, improves bowel function and is likely to result in more regular bowel habits.
“Intestinal regularity is important for overall health and well-being,” says Colleen Chiariello, chief clinical nutritionist at Syosset Hospital, Northwell Health.
At the same time, you may become more bloated than usual, especially if you have started to eat more vegetables or if you are eating a lot of Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale and other vegetables that can cause gas.
Chiariello advises incorporating a variety of fruits and vegetables in the diet. Staying hydrated is also important, as drinking more fluids can minimize the accumulation of gases caused by certain vegetables and fruits.
Remember that if the gases are minimal, you probably don’t have to worry. “A little gas outweighs the health benefit of the colon,” says Chiariello.
You will probably consume more nutrients.
When you stop eating meat and go on a vegan or vegetarian diet, you will probably eat more nutrient-rich foods.
“This increases the intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber in the diet,” says nutritionist Kim Rose, from Florida. “Fiber is not only important for a healthy digestive system; they can lower cholesterol, increase the feeling of satiety, provide energy to the body and help prevent constipation and diarrhea. ”
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“There are many advantages to the vegetarian diet in addition to the absence or reduction of consumption of foods of animal origin”, says nutritionist.
Pay attention to unhealthy eating behaviors.
A plant-based diet has many potential benefits, but it is not necessarily healthier than a traditional diet – especially if you overdo processed foods.
“It all depends on the choices we make and the individual nutritional needs of the person who decided to be a vegetarian,” says Emily Hamm, a nutritionist at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. “Research points to many advantages in the vegetarian diet in addition to the absence or reduction of consumption of food of animal origins.” One is the inclusion of whole foods, says Hamm.
North Carolina nutritionist Tim Radak also recommends careful planning before making dietary changes to avoid nutritional deficiencies and other negative effects.
For example, “a cheese pizza with soda is a vegetarian meal, but it is certainly not the best thing for health,” he says.
For many people, it is difficult to maintain extremely restrictive diets – and they can even open the door to eating disorders.
“Consider your reasons – is it concern for animals? Or is it because you think the lifestyle will be healthier? ”Says Rachel Fine, a nutritionist who works in New York.
Instead of avoiding certain foods completely, she recommends basing your choices on the physical, emotional and ethical sensations associated with each one.
You probably won’t have a protein deficit.
Many people think that plant-based diets are equivalent to a protein deficit. But the truth is that many of these foods are high in protein. It’s good to be aware of your protein intake, but with a little attention you probably won’t have a hard time consuming enough protein.
“Nuts and seeds – like pistachios and quinoa, beans and peas and soy products (like tofu and tempeh) – are good sources of protein that also contain vitamins and minerals,” says Rose.
But a caveat: you should pay attention to the source of the protein, since many of the products that replace meat are highly processed and can be high in sodium.
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When switching to a vegetarian diet, incorporate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
You may need food supplements.
Although you can consume far more nutrients than usual after the transition, dietary supplements may be needed to compensate for certain nutritional deficiencies.
Many vegetarians or vegans take supplements of vitamin B12, which is very present in animal-based foods, but relatively rare in plant-based foods. Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause fatigue, weakness, neurological disorders and other problems. Other common supplements among vegetarians or vegans are iron, vitamin D and calcium. Everything will depend on your body and your diet.
“See a nutritionist or health care professional if you are concerned about your vitamin and mineral level and inform about your dietary restrictions,” says Hamm. “Laboratory tests and a physical assessment focused on nutrition will reveal any deficiencies.”
Heart health can improve.
“Most of the fibers found in vegetarian or vegan food are soluble, which helps fight cholesterol,” says Fine. Soluble fibers dissolve in water and bind to cholesterol in the small intestine, which causes cholesterol to be eliminated in the stool, instead of being absorbed into the bloodstream.
Many foods eaten on a plant-based diet are also beneficial for the heart. Fine points out that flax seeds and canola oil are good sources of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Olive oil, avocado, almonds, peanuts and other nuts are good sources of healthy fats that help protect the heart.
You can reduce your 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 fight disease. Some research indicates that these phytochemicals can protect against certain types of cancer.
Conclusion: a vegetarian diet can bring many health benefits, especially if it is loaded with whole foods and rich in nutrients. But it all depends on what you’re eating – swapping meat for over-processed foods isn’t the best option. Take time to assess whether these diets are best for you. And, when in doubt, always look for a nutritionist.