What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Eating Meat?
There are many reasons that one may decide to stop eating meat, including environmental and ethical reasons, as well as to help improve health biomarkers and overall physical health. Before making such a big change to their diet, people often do research around the benefits of cutting out meat (specifically red meat). Research around whether red meat is bad for your health has always been controversial because of the deep ties many studies have to the meat industry, which is why it’s so important to not only gather credible information, but to also determine what’s best for you and your unique body and health.
With that being said, it’s important to consult with your healthcare practitioner or a nutrition expert before making any drastic diet changes. If you want to follow a specific meal plan, check in with a nutritionist or dietitian. If you also want accountability for making changes to your diet and understanding how it could impact your health holistically, check in with a Health Coach.
It’s also important to know what the journey could look like, such as learning how your body could transform after making such a change.
Here are the 7 things that happen to your body when you stop eating meat:
1. Reduced inflammation
Inflammation in the body is normal, but when it becomes chronic instead of only rising temporarily to fight infection, it can contribute to many conditions including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity.
Studies have shown that meat consumption can contribute to this systemic inflammation in the body, such as this study in mice that demonstrated that a diet high in red meat such as lamb, beef, and pork impacted the health of the cardiovascular system by increasing oxidative stress and inflammation.
In another study on the impact of consuming red meat on cancer prevention, researchers found that intake of red meat was positively associated with inflammatory biomarkers in participants’ blood, such as C-reactive protein (CRP). Removing red meat from your diet may help bring down these inflammatory markers, which can then lead to improvements in other areas of your health, as we’ll discuss below.
2. Reduced risk of disease
Inflammation is the root of almost all diseases, so reducing chronic inflammation will reduce your risk of developing diseases that we’ve mentioned before, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, as well as other health conditions.
In this meta-analysis of five independent cohort studies, researchers determined that there was a statistically significant positive association between red and/or processed meat consumption and risk of stroke. The association was stronger for processed meat, likely due to its sodium content. In another analysis of two large cohort studies, researchers found that a positive association between red meat intake and total mortality.
3. Improved cholesterol
Cholesterol is often thought of as a “dirty word,” but did you know that it’s an essential building block for hormones? Maintaining proper levels of cholesterol is important to prevent disease while also maintaining other bodily processes.
There are two main types of cholesterol - LDL ( “bad” cholesterol) and HDL (“good” cholesterol) - and the foods we eat have a direct effect on the levels of these two types of cholesterol. Researchers from the University of Nottingham asked study participants to reduce their red meat intake - not cut it out completely - over 12 weeks and saw a reduction in their LDL cholesterol.
They attributed this change to the fact that the participants were ultimately reducing their saturated fat intake, reducing the portion of red meat they were eating as well as substituting for leaner protein options such as fish.
4. Improved blood pressure
Red meat products that are processed, such as sausage and cold cuts, are higher in sodium than non-processed meat products. Increased sodium intake is associated with higher risk of high blood pressure or hypertension. When there’s too much salt, the kidneys have trouble maintaining balance between the amount of salt and amount of water you have in your body, which means it will hold onto water (retain fluid) to help dilute the salt. Fluid retention increases blood volume, which then puts more pressure on the blood vessels to properly move blood around the body, causing high blood pressure.
By removing processed meat products from the diet, you could effectively remove excess salt that you are consuming on a daily basis. However, it’s important to point out that salt is found in all processed foods, and as a population, we’re consuming much more salt than we actually need. By minimizing the amount of processed foods you’re eating, you’ll also reduce sodium intake which will have a positive effect on your blood pressure.
5. Improved nutrient levels
Removing meat from the diet creates an opportunity to try new plant-based sources of protein, such beans and other legumes, lentils, and nuts. A diet rich in plant-based foods is naturally anti-inflammatory, as well as provides the necessary fiber and nutrients that one could be missing if they were a serious meat eater. Plant-based foods are high in phytonutrients and antioxidants, such as carotenoids (which can be converted to vitamin A, supporting the immune system), resveratrol (supports cognitive and cardiovascular health), and flavonoids (promotes anticancer activity).
6. Improved gut health
Studies have found that the microbiome of the gut can be altered by compounds found in red meat, such as L-carnitine, which could potentially lead to an increased risk of heart disease.
In addition to reducing risk of heart problems caused by a changing gut microbiome, adding in more plant-based substitutes for meat will help improve digestion because you’ll be increasing your fiber intake. Fiber promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria and facilitates the movement of food through your digestive tract for proper assimilation and elimination.
7. Potential weight loss
Losing weight may not happen by just cutting out meat from your diet alone, but reducing or eliminating meat as part of a larger shift in dietary habits can contribute to weight loss. Naturally, when you remove a food or food group from your diet, you’ll substitute what you removed. At IIN, we like to call this removal and substitution “crowding out,” or the adding in of other (healthier) foods that replace the less-healthy foods.
If you replace your meat-heavy meals with plant-based proteins such as tofu, tempeh, or lentils, you’ll be reducing the calories you take in, which can help you lose weight, but you’ll also be adding fiber and other nutrients, which will further aid weight loss.
If you cut meat from your diet, keep these additional supplements in mind
Meat, particularly red meat, is a great source of iron, vitamin B12, selenium, and zinc. These micronutrients are crucial to support your immune system, cardiovascular health, and your mood and energy levels. The bio-availability of these important nutrients - or how well they’re absorbed by the body - is higher in meat than in plant-based foods, which means that if you're following a strict vegetarian diet, you may need to supplement these particular micronutrients.
Dr. Partha Nandi, a holistic health physician, international speaker, and chief health editor at WXYZ ABC Detroit, says that it’s key to monitor how you feel emotionally and physically when transitioning to a diet without meat or meat products. Because your body was used to getting its protein and iron through animal foods, your body needs to adjust to smaller quantities, he says.
If you find yourself feeling more sore after a workout or more tired in the mornings, you may need to re-think how and when you’re getting your protein. Dr. Nandi notes, “Protein is essential for building muscle, maintaining it, and repairing it post-workout. Animal or plant protein works - the latter (plant protein) just takes a little longer to get the job done.”
Cutting out meat is an opportunity to look at your diet from a holistic perspective
Often, cutting out a major food group from the diet will create a need to revisit other areas of your diet that could use improvement. For example, if you’re cutting out processed meat products, what else in your diet is processed as well? If you’re starting small - which is recommended! - and just reducing the amount of meat that you eat, can you also see what other food groups could also be reduced, such as foods high in sugar?
Making any dietary change requires commitment and patience, especially if you’re looking for particular results. It takes up to 66 days to create a habit, so don’t get discouraged if you’re having a hard time sticking to your new diet plan a few days in. Remember, you can enlist the support of a Health Coach who can help you set goals, stick to them, and provide you with a safe space to discuss it all. If you loved reading this, we think you’ll love reading about how nutrition science research is always changing, and how to figure out what works best for you!