If you've been known to enjoy a plate of steak and potatoes (like this steak house filet mignon recipe) a couple nights a week, the idea of going meatless might seem horrible. Yet, there are some amazing benefits to reducing your intake of meat in favor of more plant-based foods.
What might they be? By eating more plant foods, you're drastically able to increase your fiber intake, which will keep you full, regular, and better able to manage weight, long-term, says Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, NYC-based Registered Dietician, bestselling author, and founder of The F-Factor Diet.
In fact, "the average American eats around 9-11 grams of fiber per day, when we should really be consuming 25-35 grams per day," she adds.
And, you'll also lower your risk of heart disease, she says. "Studies show that the more plant based foods people eat, the less likely they are to come down with diseases like heart disease and cancer. And, according to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, with cancer closely trailing behind," she adds.
What's more, while there isn't much evidence of any mental health benefits of eliminating meat entirely, studies have demonstrated that diets high in fish, vegetables, and perhaps fruit, with lower amounts of animal fats, have neuroprotective benefits, as evidenced by reductions in the incidence of age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease, she says.
So, if you decide to take a plunge and ween yourself off of your favorite meaty dishes, you might notice a few strange mental and physical symptoms throughout the transition process.
1. You Might Become Low In Zinc
Upon giving up meat, your zinc intake might decrease, drastically, says Zuckerbrot.
Here's why. "With the elimination of meat and the addition of phytates found in beans and whole grains, the absorption of zinc is lower in vegetarian diet compared to meat eaters. Vegetarians are therefore at higher risk for zinc deficiency, which can result in dysgeusia (loss of taste)," she warns.
Luckily Dysgeusia is not permanent, as long as you get adequate sources of zinc. Common vegetarian sources of zinc are pumpkin seeds, cashews, yogurt mushrooms, spinach and cocoa powder, she says.
Try this morning yogurt recipe to get your fill. Throw in some pumpkin seeds or cashews for an extra kick.
2. Bloating & Indigestion
Giving up meat means eating more plant based foods, and plant based foods such as vegetable, legumes, and whole grains are all good sources of fiber, but can also make you gassy, says Zuckerbrot.
So, if you suddenly switch to a high fiber diet in a short period time, you'll likely end up with bloating.
To avoid that uncomfortable sensation, add fiber into your diet slowly and drink about 2-3 liters of water daily, she recommends.
3. You Might Have Mood Swings
If you've swapped your burger (like this one topped with blue cheese) for a veggie patty, you might start to feel a bit off, emotionally. The tears, angry bursts, and strange sensations can be short-term consequences during transition.
"At first, eliminating meat from your diet (and thus changing the content of your microbiome) may put you on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster as your body adjusts," says Zuckerbrot.
However, the bright side, eventually as your body acclimates to a vegetarian lifestyle, you might start to feel less stressed and more level headed over all, she adds.
4. You Might Feel More Depressed
Luckily, this is only an initial reaction, and you can beat depressive symptoms by supplementing or regularly eating your daily requirements of vital nutrients.
"Vegetarian diets often lack adequate amounts of B12 and iron, which play an important role in affecting an individual's mood," says Zuckerbrot.
5. You Might Get Tired
If you're cutting out meat, which has likely been a major protein source for you, you might feel low in energy and get fatigued quicker, especially if you're not eating enough plant protein to fill you up and keep levels stable.
What's more, this can carry over into your workouts, where endurance might suffer. Make sure you're fueling up right, both before, after, and around exercise, to stay nourished all day long.
And, if you do find yourself in the dreaded afternoon slump, here are a few ways to get that spark back.
A Few Tips?
Need an easier transition? Add plant food slowly, Zuckerbrot says.
"Before making any drastic changes, add plant-based foods into your normal diet. If you usually have grilled chicken in your salad switch it out for grilled tofu. This will allow your taste buds and gut to adjust to the different food composition," she says.
And, avoid common vitamin and mineral deficiencies by eating good sources of iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and zinc.
As for protein, you'll need lots of it to power the body. Here are Zuckerbrot's recommendations:
Vegetarian Protein sources:
Soy - ½ cup, 10 grams of protein
Hemp Seed- 2 Tbsp., 10 grams of protein
Seitan- ⅓ cup, 21 grams of protein
Tempeh- 4 oz., 22 grams of protein
Greek Yogurt - 1 serving size, 18 grams of protein
Egg - 1 egg, 7 grams of protein
Lentils - 1 cup, 18 grams of protein