If you’re like many Americans, meat may tend to crowd out the fruits and vegetables on your dinner plate. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with eating meat, there’s plenty of research to suggest that a more veggie-focused diet may help your overall health.
Plant-based foods are, generally, good for your body, mind, wallet and environment.
But it can be tough to know where and how to start. Short of working directly with a registered dietician — which we recommend if you’ve got specific health concerns — there’s no “right” approach when it comes to eating less meat.
Trying a vegetarian diet, though, can be the best way to discover the value of plant-based eating. And with that in mind, here are seven good reasons to give it a go — and how to get started when you’re ready.
#1) Plant based food may improve your heart health.
If you want to keep your heart ticking like it should, make plants your primary food source. Because plants are low in saturated fat and high in fiber and potassium, vegetarian diets are linked to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
In one large British study, vegetarians and vegans had a 22% lower risk of developing heart disease compared to meat-eaters in the study.
#2) You’ll also enjoy a serving of antioxidants with every meal.
Antioxidants are nutrients that guard your cells against damage from free radicals. Examples of antioxidants include vitamins A, C and E and minerals like copper and selenium.
Many phytochemicals, which are substances that come from various plants, work as powerful antioxidants as well. Example? You can get lycopene from tomatoes, glutathione from asparagus, betalain from beets and lutein from corn.
Other plants contain additional beneficial phytochemicals.
The more fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains you consume, the more antioxidants you’ll supply to your system.
Antioxidants offer a variety of health benefits. They may help reduce your risk of cancer, fight the effects of aging and maintain your eyesight. Keeping free radicals at bay could also lower your chances of developing arthritis or heart disease.
#3) The boost in fiber could mean extra protection against diabetes.
As your consumption of plants goes up, you’re likely to get a fiber boost, too. And boosting your dietary fiber intake may help you maintain balanced blood sugar levels.
As a result, eating a plant-based diet might be one of the best ways to ward off or improve diabetes.
In a study that compared a low-fat vegan diet to a diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association, participants with type 2 diabetes followed one of the two eating plans for 22 weeks.
At the end of the test period, those in the vegan group had done a better job of lowering their blood glucose levels and reducing their dependence on medication.
#4) You may also drop some pounds.
Plant-based diets are often linked to weight loss. One 2013 study followed participants who were overweight or had type 2 diabetes for 18 weeks.
Those who ate a low-fat vegan diet during that time dropped more pounds than those who continued with their normal eating habits.
Meat contains saturated fat. By cutting out meat, you may be able to reduce your saturated fat intake and shed unwanted pounds.
It’s not a guarantee, of course.
You can eat too much — and too many indulgent foods — on a diet full of greens just as you could with more typical fare. As with any eating style, the key is doing it well and paying attention to your own body.
#5) A plant-based diet could keep you sharper.
If you’re worried about cognitive decline as you grow older, it might be time to switch to a plant-based diet. That’s because eating plenty of fruits and vegetables may guard your brain against dementia.
Produce rich in vitamin E can be especially beneficial. Examples include:
- Leafy greens
You can also get vitamin E from a variety of seeds and nuts, such as almonds, pecans and pumpkin seeds.
On the other hand, a diet rich in animal products can have a negative effect on brain health. Research suggests that people who consume high levels of saturated fat experience more memory problems than those who get their dietary fat from nuts and olive oil.
#6) Eating less meat could also help the environment.
Many resources go into meat production. An enormous amount of grain, for example, is grown specifically for feeding livestock. Raising animals also requires an abundance of water. Plus, land must be cleared for livestock to live on, which results in deforestation and the depletion of natural habitats.
Raising livestock for meat contributes to pollution, too. This industry adds methane, ammonia and nitrous oxide to the atmosphere. Antibiotics and other chemicals that are given to farm animals make their way into water supplies.
Growing plants for food requires significantly fewer resources and contributes less pollution to the world. If environmental sustainability is your goal, a plant-based lifestyle may help you achieve it.
#7) And you might even save money on a plant-based diet.
Meat isn’t cheap. According to a 2018 study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as reported by BeefMagazine.com, each American consumer spends, on average, $961 a year on meat.
Fresh fruits and vegetables may make less of a dent in your grocery spending than meat does. But if produce is costly where you live, opt for frozen versions of your veggies. They’re about as nutritious as fresh vegetables — sometimes even more so — and typically cost less.
Spending less money on meat means that you might be able to branch out on your next grocery trip, too. You could use the extra cash to try some new-to-you fruits or unusual vegetables.
By trying a vegetarian diet, you might be able to free up space in your budget so you can build your savings, increase your charitable donations or have more funds available for the things you really want in life.
Tips for Getting Started with a Plant Based Diet
If you’re now convinced to up your plant intake and reduce your meat consumption, it’s time to make a plan. There’s more to a smart vegetarian diet than just cutting out meat.
Pick what sort of vegetarian you want to be.
Plant-based diets come in different varieties. Being meat-free isn’t a one-size-fits-all lifestyle, so you’ll need to pick the approach that best suits you.
- Lacto vegetarians: Eat dairy products but stay away from eggs
- Ovo vegetarians: Enjoy eggs but avoid milk
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians: Consume eggs and dairy
- Vegans: Eat no animal products, including eggs, milk, honey and gelatin (among other stuff)
Keep in mind that you don’t have to give up meat entirely to benefit. Even just a few meat-free days each week might help you save money and lower your intake of saturated fat.
You could even adopt a vegetarian diet on weekdays and take a “flexitarian” approach on the weekends. Flexitarians primarily eat plant-based diets but incorporate meat on occasion.
Strive for a balanced diet.
As we mentioned earlier, dropping pounds on a vegetarian diet isn’t a sure thing. You still have to be conscious of the food choices that you’re making.
There are many processed vegan food products on the market, and some of them are high in sugar, sodium or calories.
Whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and grains, are best.
If you eat a wide variety of plant-based foods each day, you should be able to meet most of your nutritional needs. Some people worry about vegetarians’ protein intake, but adequate levels can be achieved by eating foods like tofu, peanuts, peas and lentils.
Supplement as needed.
Some nutrients are hard to get enough of from plants alone. Unless you don’t mind eating seaweed, for instance, then you may need to take an iron supplement.
Many people depend on milk for calcium, zinc and vitamins D and B12. If you cut out dairy, fortified breakfast cereals can help you replace some of those nutrients.
Still, your doctor may recommend taking a daily multivitamin.
In fact, it’s always a good idea to talk to a doctor or a dietitian before making a major dietary change. With your healthcare provider’s guidance, you can increase your plant intake and set yourself on the road to better health.