6 Things That Happen in Your Body When You Swap Out Meat for Plants
Eating more plant-based protein has numerous health benefits, but you'll also want to watch out for some downsides. Here are 6 things that can happen in your body when you eat less meat.
Whether you're going all-in with a vegan diet or simply choosing to eat less meat, striving for a more plant-centric diet has its benefits (Here are the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet).
The food we eat and the resources it takes to produce it puts a significant strain on our environment. Limiting your meat intake by shifting to a plant-based diet can reduce the environmental impact. It has a positive impact on animal welfare and your overall health, too.
One caveat: When it comes to your health, just eating plant-based foods instead of meat doesn't guarantee an improved diet—you have to make healthier choices when substituting. Refined white bread, fake "bacon" and French fries all stem from plants, technically, but these types of ultra-processed foods aren't doing your health any favors. (Try this grocery list of healthy plant-based foods to help you choose better-for-you options.)
Instead, focus on consuming whole, plant-based foods and take the time to plan your meals to ensure you're meeting all of your nutritional needs.
Here are six things that happen in your body when you swap out meat and eat more plants instead.
1. You'll Get More Fiber
This is one of the most immediate changes you'll see in your diet. Meats like chicken, ground beef and bacon are void of any fiber. Plants, on the other hand, are filled with this nutrient so when you make the shift to eating less meat and consuming more quinoa, black beans, chickpeas, and edamame instead, you get a significant bump in your fiber intake.
Research confirms this, showing that the less meat (and subsequently, more plants) you eat, the more fiber you get. A recent study found that vegans consume the most fiber (about 41 grams per day), followed by vegetarians (34 grams), semi-vegetarians (34 grams), pescatarians (33 grams), and finally, omnivores (27 grams).
Dietary fiber is important for heart and gut health (hello, more normal poops), as well as managing your blood sugars and your weight. (Here are 10 amazing benefits of eating more fiber.)
2. You May Become Gassy
We know that vegetarian and other plant-centric diets tend to mean eating more fiber and that can take some getting used to. We aren't able to digest fiber, instead, we rely on the gut microbiota in our GI tract to do the job. When we eat fiber-filled foods, the fiber resists digestion. It ends up making its way to the colon where it's fermented, producing short-chain fatty acids as well as gases. It's these gases that give you, well, gas.
This affects everyone differently. If you have good GI health and slowly increase your fiber intake, you should be able to tolerate a variety of whole foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics stresses that we tend to see more GI distress (read: gas, bloating, and diarrhea) with isolated fibers or fiber supplements. Make sure you increase your fiber intake slowly and drink plenty of water.
3. You Might Miss Out on Iron and Vitamin B12
While there are a lot of benefits to eating a plant-centric diet, there are a few potential nutritional downsides you should be aware of. When you cut out meat, you're cutting out rich sources of iron and vitamin B12.
Some of the top sources of vitamin B12 include fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products—it's scarcely found in plants. This is why vitamin B12 deficiency is common amongst vegans and supplementation is recommended.
The same goes for iron, another common deficiency found in vegetarians. Predominate food sources of the mineral include lean meats, poultry, seafood, and fortified cereals and bread. Compared to vitamin B12, there are more plant-based iron-containing sources (white beans, spinach, lentils, and nuts) but non-heme iron, the type of iron found in plants, isn't absorbed as easily by our bodies so more needs to be consumed.
4. You'll Lose Weight
Cutting down on meat and upping your plant intake may help slim your waistline. A recent randomized clinical study published in Nutrition monitored overweight subjects on five different diets—vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, semi-vegetarian, and omnivore—over the course of six months. Researchers found that the vegan dieters lost significantly more weight compared to the meat-eating group, semi-vegetarian, and pescatarians, despite not following a calorie-restricted diet.
These findings are in line with a 2019 review article that evaluated dozens of studies focused on plant-based diets. The researchers found that even though caloric intakes appeared to be similar across different diet types, vegans dieters experienced greater weight loss.
5. Your Gut Health Will Improve
Passing on meat and filling up on plants may be the right play when it comes to your gut. Plants are rich in fiber, polyphenols, and other phytonutrients— compounds our microbiota thrives on. A growing body of research suggests that consuming more plants and fewer animal proteins (like meat) causes a positive shift in the environment in our intestines—namely less harmful organisms, more beneficial bacteria, and reduced inflammation.
A recent study from the American Gut Project found that consuming more than 30 different types of plant-based foods per week (e.g., whole-wheat bread, brown rice, broccoli, kidney beans, and pistachios) supports a more diverse community of bugs in your gut (this is a good thing!).
6. You'll Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease
Eating more plants and cutting out meat is a healthy way to show your heart some love. A 2019 study from the American Heart Association found that when we eat more plant-based foods and fewer animal products overall, there's a reduced risk of dying from a stroke, heart attack, or any other heart-related condition.
This is likely due to the fact that plant-based eaters consume more fruits, vegetables, fiber, and polyunsaturated fats and lower amounts of saturated fat, all dietary factors that play a role in heart health.