National Vegetarian Week: What happens to your body when you stop eating meat?

<i>It’s National Vegetarian Week [Photo: Getty]</i>
It’s National Vegetarian Week [Photo: Getty]

With over 1.2 million people in the UK turning vegetarian, the drastic diet change seems appealing.

Yet many of us are left worrying about the effects on our body. For every positive experience, a horror story (usually focusing on a lack of nutrients) comes close behind.

To help put certain rumours to bed, we carried out a deep dive into what really happens to your body when you ditch the meat for good.

“Going veggie means you automatically eat more vegetables, your diet is more colourful and you boost your fibre intake,” leading dietitian Dimple Thakrar tells Yahoo Style UK. “It’s all good stuff. More colour equals more vitamins and more fibre equals healthier bowels.”

The majority of people swap to a vegetarian diet in a bid to lose weight. Dimple is quick to point out that although the increase in fibre will make you feel fuller for longer, you may only “lose a pound or two.”

However, research suggests that there is an opportunity to lose up to 10 pounds – provided you stick to a balanced diet. “The take-home message is that a plant-based diet can help you lose weight without counting calories and without ramping up your exercise routine,” Neal Barnard, the lead author of the study commented.

<i>A vegetarian diet can be good for your skin [Photo: Getty]</i>
A vegetarian diet can be good for your skin [Photo: Getty]

Another major benefit of going veggie is the positive effect all those greens will have on your skin. Your new diet will be giving you much more antioxidants than before, leading to “healthier skin” overall, according to Dimple.

But don’t mistake this for a complete overhaul in your complexion. While a plant-based diet is proven to give your skin a much-needed daily detox, the vegetarian lifestyle may not be the miracle cure you’re after.

People are under the (often misguided) assumption that a no-meat diet will clear up acne, rosacea and many other common skin ailments. Some, however, find that the sudden diet change can cause breakouts. Experts aren’t surprised at hearing this with many blaming a lack of important vitamins from a vegetarian diet for the acne onset.

Zinc is labelled as the mineral new vegetarians are most likely to be deficient in (and the one that can cause those life-ruining spots). This is due to a simple fact.

A lot of the foods consumed by vegetarians – grains, beans and peas – are high in fibre and other good stuff but can actually lower zinc absorption in the body. A quick way of reducing the problem is to stock up on zinc-heavy foods including seeds, nuts and tofu.

You may also need to buy supplements to ensure your body is getting the necessary amount of vitamins and minerals. Many studies suggest that vegetarians receive the same amount of iron as meat eaters. The same studies also show that vegetarians and carnivores do not have wildly different levels of calcium and vitamin B12.

However, if you’re feeling a little tired and sluggish, simply visit your nearest healthcare store to purchase a few supplements. You can also solve the issue by ensuring you have a balanced vegetarian diet.

If you know exactly what you’re lacking in, you can simply buy the foods that will help boost those all-important levels. Vitamin B12 – needed for proper nerve function – can be found in yeast extract products including Marmite and soya foods. Vitamin D, meanwhile, comes from things like eggs, cereal and certain types of milk.

<i>Ensure you have a balanced diet to avoid any of the negative effects of going veggie [Photo: Donna Hay]</i>
Ensure you have a balanced diet to avoid any of the negative effects of going veggie [Photo: Donna Hay]

Another slightly negative thing you may experience in the beginning is an increase in wind. This is due to your gut gaining healthy bacteria. Your body will need to adjust to the new plant-based proteins it is taking in, meaning you may initially feel bloated and more gassy than usual.

This is nothing to worry about, says Dimple. “It’s just your healthy gut bacteria having a party. It’s finally getting nourished.”

She also notes that new vegetarians may experience feelings of constipation due to a lack of protein and “if enough water isn’t drank. Also make sure you have enough plant-based protein sources like tofu, pulses, nuts and seeds.”

The Veg Space blogger Kate Ford has been a vegetarian since the age of 7. “Going vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean you will be healthier or feel great. It is possible to have an unhealthy veggie diet just as much as it is for non-veggies,” she says.

“But there are so many fabulous ingredients out there so you don’t have to rely on fake meat or processed foods. Learn to love fresh vegetables, interesting grains and fabulous pulses that are packed with protein and really fill you up.”

“If you’re thinking of going vegetarian, I would recommend a 30 day challenge to really kickstart the changes and work out how it can fit into your lifestyle.”

<i>Giving up meat can reduce your risk of cancer [Photo: Getty]</i>
Giving up meat can reduce your risk of cancer [Photo: Getty]

Once you’ve got a good diet down, your body can start reaping the true benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. Your risk of developing major diseases can reduce rather dramatically. Red meat was recently labelled as “probably” having cancer-causing properties by the World Health Organisation with just two rashers of bacon a day increasing your chance of bowel cancer by 18%.

Several studies have also found a link between eating meat and heart disease. One research group found that death from ischemic heart disease was a whopping 24% lower in vegetarians than in carnivores.

There are a couple more cons to turning veggie. But worry not for they’re only short-term negatives. Your taste buds may reduce slightly due to a change in zinc levels. As red meat is high in zinc, you need to find alternative ways of obtaining the mineral.

We’ve already mentioned the vegetarian-friendly foods high in zinc but doctors recommend that veggies may need 50% more of the mineral than meat-eaters. The recommended daily level for women is 8mg so go for 12mg in your first few months of vegetarianism.

If you like to work out, you may also struggle a little more after your exercise classes. Protein is needed for muscle yet more importantly, it is crucial for repairing muscle after a workout.

Plant-based protein does work just as well as animal but it will take a little longer so prepare to feel more of an ache. To ensure you’re not left unable to walk up stairs after a heavy gym session, you can absorb protein much quicker in liquid form.

An effective way of doing this is by making a smoothie using coconut milk, almond milk, hemp milk, soy milk or rice milk and add in some fresh fruit for those essential carbs.

None of the above pros and cons are set in stone. At the end of the day, the effects on your body from going veggie will be determined by how well you eat.

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Read more from Yahoo Style UK:

12 of the UK’s tastiest vegetarian restaurants

12 delicious veggie food ideas to rustle up for National Vegetarian Week

Is going vegan good for you? The pros and cons of ditching meat and dairy