Five percent of the US population is vegetarian. Another 2% is vegan. The former group doesn’t eat meat or fish, while the latter group eats no animal-derived products at all. Every year, many thousands of people decide to forgo meat and fish (though 84% of them eventually return to meat according to a study, by the Human Research Council, and a third of current vegetarians secretly eat meat while drunk, per a new survey). If you've decided to quit being on the lamb, experts say you can expect to experience some or all of these changes.
You'll Be Less Acidic
“Meat, dairy and processed foods are linked to over-acidification in the body,” says Susan Tucker, holistic nutritionist and founder of Green Beat Life. Tucker says that common symptoms of a more acidic environment in the body can include headaches, fatigue, fogginess, or nausea. “A more alkaline diet naturally aligns with a plant-based diet,” she says, noting that vegetarians and vegans primarily eat foods that counteract acid, such as vegetables and fruits, sprouted grains, legumes, almonds and some soy products.
You’ll Lose Weight and Lower Your Cholesterol
A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics prescribed a vegetarian diet; those who undertook it had an average weight loss of 7.5 lbs. If you build your meals from an array of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans, weight loss can be easier than if you follow other regimens: A recent study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found veganism to the be superior to 11 other diets for weight loss. Aside from weight loss, you’ll probably see a marked drop in your cholesterol. To a large extent, our genes determine our cholesterol level. Changing to a vegetarian diet, however, can have an impact because only foods derived from animals contain cholesterol.
You’ll Have a Cleaner Gut
The gut of a non-meat-eater will be cleaner than that of a person who digests meat on a daily basis, says Tucker. Why? Most meat comes from animals that are given hormones and antibiotics. Then it’s treated with preservatives. (Under normal circumstances, meat starts to decompose very quickly.) “Vegans and vegetarians consume a high volume of fiber, phytonutrients and antioxidants, which keep the whole system cleaner,” she says. The extra fiber and good bacteria in a vegetarian’s gut reduces inflammation, adds nutritionist Keri Glassman MD, RD, CDN, founder of Nutritious Life. She cites a 2014 study published in the journal Nutrition, in which researchers compared the gut health of vegetarians, vegans and omnivores. Vegetarians were found to have lower rates of improper insulin signaling, which results in metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Glassman says it’s theorized that lower inflammation enables an internal housecleaning: Fiber acts like a broom to sweep out pathogens in the gut. Chim Chim Cher-ee!
Your Skin Will Glow
Beauty may only only skin deep, but it reflects how happy our digestive situation is, says Tucker. She claims that plant eaters have a certain glow. “Many find that their acne, rosacea or eczema clears up when they give up meat,” she says, adding that the antioxidants, fiber and minerals in a plant-based diet help the system to detoxify daily, contributing to healthier skin.
There Will Be Gas
You may find that the people applauding your lifestyle change are doing so from a safe distance. Suddenly increasing your fiber intake (via fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains) may cause you to experience gas and bloating. To offset this unwanted side effect, Glassman recommends that you ease into the diet, phasing out meat and steadily increasing foods that are especially high in fiber.
You’ll Lower Your Risk of Disease
Assuming you swap meat with healthier alternatives — and not potato chips and ice cream — you'll protect yourself from various heart diseases, cardio-metabolic risk factors, and some cancers. This was the conclusion of a 2014 study which looked at three groups of 7th Day Adventists, a Christian denomination whose members abstain from meat eating. According to Glassman, these improved health outcomes are, in part, another result of eating more fiber, which lowers cholesterol and increases satiety, causing people to eat fewer calories. The antioxidants that abound in fruits and vegetables protect against heart disease, she says. Other studies have shown that meat eaters also have increased risks of ailments such as appendicitis, chronic inflammation and kidney disease.