What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Eating Meat? We Asked an RD

Hot dogs on the baseball field, grilled platters of burgers and sausages, date night roast chicken, Thanksgiving turkey, holiday roasts—many of the most memorable moments revolve around eating meat. So it may come as a surprise to learn that there has been a massive increase in the number of people in the United States who have chosen plant-based diets in the past 15 years. Whether for health, sustainability, or ethical reasons, more people are choosing to eat less animal protein or nothing at all.

But what are the health effects of cutting meat out of your diet? Is reducing or removing meat a cure for all health problems? Or does it leave you lacking in important nutrients? And what should someone know when transitioning from a diet that includes meat to a completely vegetarian or vegan diet?

To answer some of these questions and learn what happens to your body when you stop eating meat, we turned to Dani Levy-Wolins, RD, a registered dietitian with Thistle and Nourilife. If you are considering replacing carnitas for jackfruit, here are some key factors to consider.

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Get to know your starting point

Not everyone considering a meat-free lifestyle begins with the same level or type of consumption, a factor that can have an impact on the way the body reacts when deprived of animal protein. “When we think about how meat affects our physical health, we first need to think about the type of meat consumed; studies suggest that processed meat, for example, may present greater negative effects than unprocessed meat,” says Levi Wolins. “Red meat, when compared to white meat, may also be associated with an increased risk of certain disease conditions. This suggests that the type and source of meat protein play a role in how our bodies react upon consumption.”

You’ll also need to consider what cuts of meat you typically eat (fatty cuts of meat will provide more saturated fat and cholesterol, which may be a concern for some residents), and how you cook it (high-heat cooking produces heterocyclic amines, which may damage DNA).

Depending on factors like these, the effect of cutting out meat will vary greatly from person to person. So the first step is to assess how often you eat meat, the types of meat you eat, and how you cook it.

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What do you lose and what do you gain?

In general, animal proteins are not inherently good or harmful to our health. As in all areas of nutrition, the case is more subtle than that. Meat contains both beneficial and unhelpful components, and moderation is an imperative factor.

“Meat provides essential micronutrients, such as revitalizing B vitamins, iron and zinc, and is also a complete protein source,” says Levi Wolins. A complete protein food contains all nine amino acids that are essential for good health – they cannot be produced by the human body, we must get them from external sources. You can also get complete proteins from non-meat sources like dairy, eggs, and soy products (edamame, tofu, tempeh), or by combining other ingredients (like rice and beans). But since meat is an accessible and highly effective source of complete proteins, there may be drawbacks to stopping consumption completely without replacing its nutritional benefits. “If the meat is simply removed and not replaced, the consumer is at risk for iron or B12 deficiency, anemia, and muscle wasting,” Levi Wolins explains.

On the other hand, there are definite health pros to removing meat from the diet. According to Levy-Wollins, these can include reductions in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium — all compounds that can increase certain health risks for conditions such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. “If meat is replaced with plant-based sources of protein, other benefits may include increased intake of fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants,” she adds. Some research indicates that [swapping out] Meat (red and processed meat in particular) to vegetarian options may be linked to increased shelf life, particularly in relation to the prevention of disease conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. “

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Get the essential nutrients

If a former carnivore decides to abstain from eating (or just cut back), it is important that they continue to meet all nutritional requirements to maintain their overall health and energy levels. There are some vitamins and nutrients that consumers should pay special attention to when giving up animal proteins. These include the five B vitamins — niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 — as well as protein and general calorie intake.

While a vegan diet can certainly be nutritionally complete, transitioning from eating meat may require some extra effort to avoid a lack of calories, protein, and micronutrients. If you go meat-free, Levy-Wollins recommends regular visits to the doctor and lab work to monitor nutritional needs and any deficiencies.

There are also some obvious signs of a micronutrient deficiency that you can and should watch for: “A vitamin B12 deficiency, for example, often manifests as weakness and general lethargy, or pale skin,” she says. Paying close attention to these factors becomes especially important in populations with increased nutritional needs such as children, pregnant women and the elderly.

Related: 15 vegetables rich in protein and how to include them in your diet

Start slow and be flexible

Levi Wolins says that when we think about making a change, it’s important to consider the whole range of factors that drive our food choices. It’s also important to take small, achievable steps – this is useful for building habits as well as giving your body time to adjust to the changes.

“Food is such an integral part of our lives that any kind of diet modification may feel overwhelming or restrictive at first. For this reason, it may be easier to start slowly — try to limit portion size or frequency of consumption,” she says. If you’re a heavy meat eater, for example, you probably won’t stop eating cold turkey. Instead, consider options such as choosing one or two days a week to not eat meat (at least for one meal); Commit to eating 80 percent meat-free meals; Or just avoid a certain category of meat to start with (red meat, processed meat, pork, etc.). Levy-Wollins recommends choosing a designated day (or a few) per week to allow yourself to eat animal protein, rather than trying to deprive yourself for an entire week.

Additionally, choose plant-based ingredients that are rich and satiating, such as eggplant and portobello mushrooms that have the same mouth-watering texture as animal protein. “Finally, you may want to ensure your nutritional needs are met by eating a variety of foods and lots of plant proteins,” adds Levi Wolins. “Not only will this help you feel stronger and healthier, but it may also introduce you to new and exciting ingredients!”

“As a general guide, the ‘plate method’ of eating can help support a balanced nutritional intake. The plate method recommends filling half the plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter of the plate with starch, and a quarter of the plate full of protein,” adds Levi Wolins.

Related: I gave up eating meat for three weeks – here are 11 things I learned

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