More and more people are discovering the benefits of a plant-based diet. Even some of those who once couldn’t imagine a day without meat are getting curious and are making this transition. It’s no wonder why — with proper knowledge and planning, the benefits are undeniable and may occur sooner than you’d expect.
What exactly happens to your body when you go plant based?
Here are a few things to expect when switching to a plant-based diet.
Healthier Blood Sugar Levels
After a meal, blood sugar levels rise and then drop back down to normal. This is completely natural, normal, and healthy. There is a common misconception that normal rises in blood sugar are problematic in people without diabetes, but that has not been demonstrated in the research to date.
When blood sugar rises, insulin, the hormone that helps lower blood sugar levels, is released. Problems begin for people when there is insufficient insulin production (ie. type 1 diabetes) or an inability of insulin to perform its function (ie. insulin resistance/type 2 diabetes).
Insulin resistance occurs when there is a build up of stored fat — either excess body fat or from a diet high in saturated fat — in the muscle and/or liver cells.1,2,3 This stored fat and its breakdown products prevent insulin from doing its job by blocking the message that insulin sends to the cells. Think of it like this: insulin is the key that unlocks the door to the cells, but fat is gumming up the lock.
A plant-based diet high in green leafy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruit, and healthy fats sources like avocados, nuts, and seeds can help to better regulate blood sugar levels and reduce risk of the conditions mentioned above.7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15
Cholesterol plays an important role in the body to produce hormones, but research shows that our bodies will make all the hormones we need, even if a person has very little cholesterol in their bloodstream.16,17 Maintaining lower levels reduces the risk of heart disease and promotes longevity.18,19
Foods like okra, eggplant, oatmeal, barley, beans, nuts and seeds, and fruit are great sources of soluble fiber and/or polyunsaturated fats, which help to keep cholesterol at levels that reduce long term disease risk.20
Speaking of fiber, increased intake also helps a person become regular, correcting conditions like constipation as well as reducing the risk of other digestive issues.21,22 Gut ailments can have repercussions throughout the body that may affect mental and physical health, which is an area of research that is currently being done.23,24
However, it’s good to be aware that temporary gut discomfort may occur if fibre intake is ramped up too quickly, but that should subside with time. This can be avoided or minimized by introducing fibre in moderation, giving one’s body an adjustment period before further increasing.
A balanced plant-based diet often results in weight loss.25,26,27,28,29,30,31 Despite those who claim they could never be satisfied by plant-based meals and would always be hungry, plant foods can be very filling, while typically having low caloric density due to high fibre and water content. So, a person may be able to eat full meals comprised of a wide variety of plant foods while achieving long term and sustainable weight loss.32
There are many diseases and conditions that may warrant transitioning to a plant-based diet.33,34,35 As mentioned, this includes type 2 diabetes, which is on the rise across populations in North America.35,36 Studies strongly suggest that a diet high in plant based foods and low in animal products can help prevent several chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, in people who are at risk, and may help with disease treatment as well.33,34,35,36,37
Of course, replacing meat with highly processed plant-based foods high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fat may not improve overall health to the same degree as choosing more fibre-rich, low saturated fat options, especially for those who are at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, but they can be a part of a healthy plant-based diet as transition foods and occasional indulgences. Overall, a plant-based diet can easily be full of variety, flavour, and new inspiring eating experiences, along with many health benefits.
The idea of converting to a plant-based diet might at first seem overwhelming. But millions of people have successfully done it, and it’s all the easier with the correct knowledge and support. If you’d like to transition to this type of diet, it is worth a trip to a naturopathic doctor, such as Dr. Nagra, who has knowledge about plant-based diets to ensure that you are getting the nutrients needed.
Matthew Nagra is a Naturopathic Doctor and is a passionate advocate for evidence-based nutrition as medicine. I have a particular passion for plant-based/vegan nutrition, physical medicine, and chronic disease. With additional training in nutrition, I hold a Plant-Based Nutrition Certification from Cornell University and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies where I’ve authored multiple articles on the subject.