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 this month 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.
You may gain some healthy bacteria in your gut—and some bloat, at least 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. (Want more ideas for boosting beneficial gut bacteria? Check out The Good Gut Diet.)
You may protect 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% lower in vegetarians than in carnivores—perhaps due in part to lower levels of inflammation. (Try one of these 6 simple habits that can lower your heart disease risk 90%.) “Plant-based diets have been proven time and again to be anti-inflammatory,” asserts Emily Bailey, RD, director of nutrition coaching, sports nutrition, eating disorders, and weight management at NutriFormance in St. Louis.
You may lose your taste. And not just for red meat.
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. “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 some 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. The recommended daily target for women is 8 milligrams, which means you might want to shoot for at least 12 mg.