If you’ve been dabbling in vegetarianism or have sworn off meat for good, you’re not alone. Around 6 to 8 million people in the U.S. don’t consume meat, fish, or chicken, according to a poll commissioned by the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group. Several million more have eliminated red meat but still eat chicken or fish. And an additional 2 million have become vegans.
While there is a risk of certain deficiencies when following a vegan or vegetarian diet, the short- and long-term benefits of reducing or eliminating your meat consumption are staggering, from an increase in energy to a significant decrease in the likelihood for diabetes, high cholesterol, and even cancer. Here’s exactly what happens to your body when you give up meat for just a day—or for good.
After One Day
When you consume plenty of healthy foods like vegetables, whole grains, and fruits, you’ll likely receive a natural boost of energy from the support of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. But if you’re used to consuming a high-protein diet and then dramatically cut it, you’ll naturally feel a bit sluggish.
Beyond how you feel, the environmental effects of going vegetarian, even for just a day, are impressive and incentivizing. On average, a meat eater has twice the carbon footprint of a vegan. And going vegetarian just for 24 hours, like the Meatless Monday movement advocates, can not only save animal lives but also reduce water consumption and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. (Did you know the global livestock production creates more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector?)
After One Week
Gut health is vital for overall wellness, and your gut bacteria love plant-based diets. The fiber in plants promotes the abundant growth of good bacteria, and your gut bacterial patterns can shift positively in just a few days. Adversely, diets high in meat, eggs, and dairy can encourage the growth of toxic, disease-promoting bacteria, which can lead to an elevated risk of heart attack and stroke.
After One Month
In addition to improved gut health and energy levels, studies have shown that many plant-based diets are more effective at cutting excess weight than ones that include meat, even when vegan participants are allowed to eat as much as they’d like. One study in particular noted that vegan diets can help participants lose 9.3 pounds more than a controlled diet over an 18-week period.
Plant-based diets are also naturally anti-inflammatory. It sounds innocent enough, but inflammation in the body is a serious issue. One study showed that vegetarian diets result in the decrease of a particular type of inflammation in the body (called C-reactive protein, or CRP), which is directly linked to heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases.
After Six Months
After months of being on a plant-based diet, the benefits for long-term health start to kick in. Most notably, meatless eaters reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. An estimated 38 percent of Americans have prediabetes—a precursor to type 2 diabetes—and animal protein, especially red and processed meats, has been shown to increase the risk of the disease. On the flip side, those who follow a plant-based diet can have up to a 78 percent lowered risk of developing it.
That said, 75 percent of vegans consistently get less than the daily recommended amount of calcium and have relatively higher rates of bone fractures compared to meat eaters, so taking supplements can help.
After a Year
Removing meat, especially red meat, from your diet can have dramatic disease-reducing benefits. In one of the largest studies ever conducted on health benefits related to vegetarianism, more than 76,000 participants were analyzed, and scientists discovered that people with plant-based diets were 25 percent less likely to die of heart disease.
According to the World Health Organization, about one-third of all cancers can be prevented by factors within your control, including diet. There is still more research needed for conclusive evidence, but initial studies have shown that eating at least seven portions of fresh fruits and vegetables per day may lower your risk of dying from cancer by up to 15 percent. Specifically, eliminating red meat from your diet can reduce your risk factor for colon cancer.
On top of your being healthier, the earth will be, too. Animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and a leading cause of water overuse, deforestation, and wildlife destruction. And as far as seafood goes, oceans are rapidly becoming depleted of fish, and some estimate that oceans may be fishless by 2048.
So why not pass up the meat and give peas (and greens) a chance?
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