Going green isn't just good for the environment: reducing your meat consumption benefits your whole body. "The average American who switches to a healthy reduced-meat or vegetarian diet will lose weight, see improvements in their cholesterol profiles and blood sugar levels, reduce cardiovascular risk, and look healthier," said Dr. Steven Masley, nutritionist and author of The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up: A Breakthrough Medical Plan to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. Here are 10 ways following a vegetarian eating plan (or close to it) can do your body good.
You may lose weight
A large, five-year study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2013 revealed that people who don't eat meat have a lower average BMI than meat-eaters, and that vegans have a significantly lower obesity rate than omnivores (9.4 percent versus 33.3 percent). Plus, a new study presented at The Obesity Society's 2013 meeting found that overweight/obese people following a vegan or vegetarian diet lost more weight than those who consumed meat—even though both groups took in the same number of calories.
Consuming saturated fats—which primarily come from meat and dairy—raises the level of cholesterol in your blood, and high levels of blood cholesterol increase your risk of heart disease. Ditching meat automatically lowers the amount of saturated fat in your diet, in turn reducing your cardiovascular disease risk, Masley said.
You may lower your blood pressure
Vegetarians and vegans have less hypertension than meat-eaters, according to findings published in the journal Public Health Nutrition. Researchers say it's due to their lower average weight and higher intakes of fruits and vegetables.
You'll reduce your diabetes risk
An American Diabetes Association study found that people following a vegetarian diet had a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors linked to type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. Study subjects who avoided meat and poultry products tended to have lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides, as well as smaller waists, than those who regularly consumed those foods.
Your cancer risk may drop
In 2002, researchers at Loma Linda University began a 10-year study of nearly 70,000 Seventh Day Adventists, whose religious doctrine advises them against eating meat. Their research found an association between a vegan diet and a decreased risk for all cancer types. Researchers also discovered that vegetarians experienced less gastrointestinal cancer, such as colorectal cancer, and that vegan women experienced fewer female-specific cancers, such as breast cancer.
You'll feel better in tight pants
Eating more veggies and legumes means your fiber intake will go up, and more fiber means less constipation and improved digestion overall. "I find that many women have purses stocked with digestive aids and over-the-counter products to help them get more bowel regularity, but a vegetarian diet can certainly help with that," said Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, author of The Flexitarian Diet. When you have regular digestion and are not bloated, you'll feel thinner, energized, and possibly even sexier, she said.
Your skin will glow
Vegetarianism is one of the best diets for your skin. Eating more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains loads you up with antioxidants, which neutralize the free radicals that can bring on wrinkles, brown spots, and other signs of aging.
You might smell better to your significant other
Following a meatless diet could make you smell more attractive and pleasant to the opposite sex, according to research published in the journal Chemical Senses. In the study, men followed "meat" or "meatless" diets for two weeks, and wore pads under their armpits to collect body odor during the final 24 hours of the diet. (We agree—it's gross.) Women assessed the odor samples for pleasantness, attractiveness, masculinity, and intensity. Then the men switched diets and women sampled the scents again. Women judged scents from the meat-free diet as "significantly more attractive, more pleasant, and less intense."
You might be happier
Adding more fruits and veggies to your diet is a natural mood-booster. Economists and public health researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College studied the eating habits of 80,000 people in Great Britain and found that mental well-being appeared to increase with the number of daily portions of fruit and vegetables, and hit an overall peak at seven servings. The average American gets less than three servings daily.
Your energy levels might increase
Eating more spinach, kale, beans, and other foods high in dietary nitrates may help you feel more energized over time. Research has found that dietary nitrates have vascular benefits, reduce blood pressure, and may even enhance exercise performance in healthy people. "These foods open up blood vessels, allow more oxygen in, and have the ability to energize us in a deep way," Blatner said.