Anyone who's seen the documentary/horror show Supersize Me has considered going vegetarian. Heck, almost everyone with healthy urges has seriously contemplated the meatless life at one time or another. If you've hesitated out of concern for your burger-loving, deprivation-hating body, don't worry, says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. "Nothing dramatic is going to happen biochemically."
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.
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.
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. "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.
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, since liquids are absorbed more quickly into the body than solids," says Bailey. "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."
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 Trader Joe’s peanut butter that has flax and chia seeds mixed in it, 1 tablespoon hemp seeds, and ¾ to 1 cup 1% 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 supplement. But not a lot.
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 of these nutrients—including zinc, mentioned above—you may want to supplement.