With the new year and decade here, many resolve to make changes to their lifestyle. Maybe it’s a new exercise regimen, dry January, or the currently trending “Veganuary” — which is exactly what it sounds like.
If you’ve considered giving up meat, or animal products altogether, in 2020 you’re not alone — more than 500,000 people have already pledged to go vegan on the official Veganuary site. And while maintaining a climate-conscious diet is certainly on many people’s minds, nearly half of those who’ve pledged to eat vegan for the first month of the year did so for health reasons.
According to experts, it is true that cutting out meat can result in health benefits — but only if you do it safely. That means keeping in mind all the nutrients you are (and aren’t) getting from plant-based eating. It’s important not to transition blindly or to assume that by dropping meat alone, your health will improve.
What happens to your body when you stop eating meat?
Assuming you’re not loading up on high-carb, processed foods like pasta and sweets, one benefit of going vegetarian or vegan might be a reduction in inflammation, says Chris D’Adamo, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. That’s a benefit of eating minimally processed foods in general, D’Adamo tells Inverse.
D’Adamo explains that plants have an abundance of nutrients, especially in their non-processed form. Plant-based diets also typically mean that one is consuming more fiber, which can help with satiety — making you feel less hungry and curbing overeating.
In addition to decreased inflammation, positives can include a healthier weight, better energy metabolism, suggests at 2019 study published in Nature. The researchers reviewed hundreds of studies on how vegetarian diets influence health and determined that plant-based diets, compared to conventional diets, can benefit weight, metabolism, and systemic inflammation.
The researchers write that one of the reasons those benefits arise is because of changes to the gut. Studies suggest that eating plants can cause the microbiome to foster “a favorable diversity of bacteria species.”
In October, Stephanie Papadakis, a certified holistic nutrition consultant at Gut of Integrity, told Bustle that the antibiotics used to raise meat are also part of the reason why the gut experiences a change when one goes meat-less.
“If you cut all meat out of your diet, you would likely see a positive shift in the number of beneficial bacteria in your gut,” Papadakis explained. “Many conventionally raised animals are given hormones and antibiotics, which can shift our own beneficial bacteria in the same way taking antibiotics can.”
Other studies have shown a potential reduction in the risk of heart disease, commonly linked to red meat consumption. But there’s a bit of a grey area there — another review 2019 paper, this one published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, suggested that red meat does not actually carry the health risks we’ve previously thought it to have. But many doctors and nutritionists still say that cutting out red meat is still a good idea.
When looking at health benefits of vegetarianism, one factor influencing results can be the health of vegetarian population overall, says Drew Frugé, an assistant professor at Auburn University.
“On a population level, we see that any derivative of a vegetarian diet is associated with improved health compared to the average omnivore,” Frugé tells Inverse, “but we often neglect the fact that vegetarians are typically pursuing multiple healthy lifestyle behaviors such as exercising regularly and not smoking.”
And while in humans, it’s “nearly impossible” to prove that meat is not beneficial to the diet, it’s also widely accepted that humans can be perfectly healthy without consuming meat, Frugé says.
Like many areas of nutrition, red meat is open for debate. But if you’re thinking of going veg, there are some more immediate health concerns to keep in mind.
Plant-based doesn’t always mean healthy
While plant-based foods can benefit your body in various ways, there are some health aspects to consider if you’re cutting out meat. D’Adamo notes that vegetarian and vegan diets can sometimes lack important nutrients, like iron, zinc, vitamin B12 — and the lesser-discussed creatine, choline, and omega-3 fats.
“Just cutting out animal products in favor of plant foods is not necessarily going to be healthy,” D’Adamo says. “Really this comes down to eating minimally processed food, eating whole foods, regardless of whether there are animal foods in it or not.”
To get at those potential deficiencies, vitamin supplements can be key. D’Adamo says that “taking a B12 supplement is something that every vegan should be doing” alongside monitoring the levels of other nutrients.
Essentially, it’s important to consider going vegetarian as part of a bigger health push. Cutting out meat, in and of itself, is not going to improve health, notes D’Adamo. But it can lead be healthy if done in the context of a minimally processed, whole-food-based diet.
On the Veganuary website, a list of foods that are “vegan by accident” includes treats like Oreos, Doritos, and several types of beer. Perhaps this part misses the point — but the list includes some “real food,” too, like oatmeal and hummus.
The same goes for trendy meat alternatives, like the [Impossible Burger], Frugé says. Since the burger is “highly processed” and high in saturated fat and sodium, some pro-vegetarian nutritionists and researchers argue that it’s not a healthy alternative to a beef burger.
“This is a good representation of extremes in the vegetarian diet,” Frugé says. “If all I do to call my diet vegetarian is exchange one fast food meal for another, I would expect zero health benefits, metabolic, or physical changes.”
On the other hand, replacing fast-food meals with minimally processed vegetarian dishes would mean consuming less saturated fat, sodium, and likely total calories. Therefore, diet change would lead to improved blood pressure, blood glucose, and body composition.
How can you be a healthy vegan or vegetarian?
To ensure you’re truly keeping it healthy, Frugé says: Learn to cook.
“There are plenty of healthy vegetarian options in restaurants and grocery store freezers, but foods will almost always be healthier coming out of your kitchen,” he says.
Frugé adds that legumes in particular are among the least expensive nutrient-dense foods you can find at the grocery store, “so following a vegetarian diet does not have to be an expensive endeavor.”
For D’Adamo’s part, he says that going vegetarian or vegan might be a totally legit way to improve your health. But he also says there are other options. For example, low-carb, paleo, and Mediterranean diets all work for some people too.
“The reality is that there are many ways to be healthy,” D’Adamo says. “There’s no one right way.”