6 Things That May Happen To Your Body When You Go Vegetarian

People who stop eating meat for the first time might experience some interesting changes.

July 13, 2017
grilled vegetables

Many of us flirt with vegetarianism, but aren't fully committed to the lifestyle. Heck, most people with healthy (or environmental) urges have seriously contemplated the meatless life at one time or another. If you're considering going veggie-only for environmental reasons, you should first read up why it's more important to be an ethical omnivore than a vegetarian

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If you've hesitated out of concern for your meat-loving, deprivation-hating body, don't worry as long as you continue to eat a balanced, healthy diet, says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. "Nothing dramatic is going to happen biochemically," she says. 

Related: I Started Eating Meat After 8 Years As A Vegetarian—Here's Why

Of course, that doesn't mean you won't benefit, either. Here are 6 things that may happen in your body when you go vegetarian. 

stepping onto scale
You may lose a few pounds

Neal Barnard, MD, adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine—a group he founded to promote a plant-based diet for disease prevention—recently reviewed all clinical trials of vegetarian diets in terms of weight loss.

His findings, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, reveal that going green tends to lead to a lighter you—even if shedding pounds isn't the original goal for going vegetarian. The average weight loss tracked by Barnard: 7.5 pounds. And the longer study, the greater the loss.

Related: 13 Quick Weeknight Vegetarian Dinners That Actually Fill You Up

gut bacteria
You may gain some healthy bacteria in your gut—and feel a little bloat at first

"Your body has digestive enzymes that handle the proteins in both meat and plants, and that doesn't change when you stop eating meat," explains Liz Applegate, PhD, director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis. However, she says, all the indigestible carbohydrates in plant protein sources and other plant-based foods can alter the bacterial profile in your intestines. And researchers believe the new carbs can help boost the population of healthy bacteria in the gut.

Related: 5 Ways To Sneak More Fiber Into Your Diet

Because it can take some time for your intestinal tract to adapt to its new residents, you can initially feel gassy and bloated. But with patience, you'll adapt. Plus, Applegate points out: "Plant-based diets have been shown to lower the risk for various chronic diseases along with waist size," she says.

heart disease
You may be protecting yourself from heart disease

Several large studies involving more than 76,000 men and women have compared vegetarians and non-vegetarians with similar lifestyles. The results demonstrate that death from ischemic heart disease (caused by severe narrowing or closing of the coronary arteries) was 24 percent lower in vegetarians than in carnivores—perhaps due in part to lower levels of inflammation.

Related: Is A Vegan Diet Safe For Kids?

"Plant-based diets have been proven time and again to be anti-inflammatory," asserts Emily Bailey, RD, director of nutrition coaching and weight management at NutriFormance in St. Louis.

woman sticking out her tongue
You may experience a change in your sense of taste

Zinc is a biochemical heavy lifter, performing loads of functions within the body, including giving the immune system a boost. But the mineral, plentiful in oysters and red meat, is also crucial for taste and hearing. One study, out of the Institute of Health Bioscience at the University of Tokushima in Japan found that zinc deficiency is a predominant factor behind taste impairment.

Related: I Went Vegetarian For A Month And This Is What Happened

"We hypothesize that patients with taste impairment may have malabsorption of dietary zinc," conclude the study authors—which is why new vegetarians need to make a special effort to get enough, says Joan Salge Blake, RD, clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. While beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products all provide zinc, the phytic acid in whole grains, seeds, beans, and legumes can interfere with zinc absorption. As a result, vegetarians might need as much as 50% more zinc than carnivores, so up those servings of beans, nuts, and yogurts. (Here are the 6 healthiest beans you can eat.) The recommended daily target for women is 8 milligrams, which means you might want to shoot for at least 12 mg, either through food sources or a supplement.

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muscle recovery
Your muscles may need more time to recover

Protein is essential for building muscle, maintaining it, and repairing it post-workout. That part's non-negotiable, but the source of your protein is. Animal or plant protein works—the latter just takes a little longer to get the job done. "Knowing that, I recommend vegetarian athletes and vegan athletes in particular get their post-workout protein in liquid form," says Bailey.

Related: 14 Vegetarian Foods That Have More Iron Than Meat

"Make a smoothie with coconut milk, almond milk, hemp milk, rice milk, or soy milk, and add carbohydrates in the form of fresh fruit to replenish your glycogen stores, which your body uses for energy, post-workout." (This no-recipe formula for healthy smoothies will also do the trick.)

Bailey’s favorite a.m. smoothie: ¾ cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt, 1 banana, ½ cup frozen strawberries, ½ cup frozen blueberries, 1 cup spinach, 1 tablespoon peanut butter that has flax and chia seeds mixed in, 1 tablespoon hemp seeds, and ¾ to 1 cup 1 percent milk. "The spinach gives the smoothie kind of a funky color," she warns, "but all you'll taste is fruit—promise!"

You may need to consider taking supplements

Studies suggest that vegetarians tend to get the same amount of iron as carnivores. They also do okay on calcium and even vitamin B12, which is essential for proper nerve function. But if you're worried about any missing nutrients—including zinc, mentioned above—you may want to supplement (Here's 5 things you should know about vitamins and supplements.)

This article was originally published on Prevention.