Here’s What Happens to Your Body When Switching to a Plant-Based Diet
Whenever you adopt a new healthy habit, you want immediate results. The trouble is, change generally happens slowly – with one exception: When you switch to a plant-based diet for optimal health and wellbeing, your body starts seeing results almost instantly. Every time you eat a whole food plant-based meal, instead of an animal-based meal, it turns out, you’ll be benefiting your health on a cellular level for the better.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is one that is focused on vegetables, fruit, whole grains (that are minimally processed such as quinoa, oats, brown rice), and legumes, along with nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. When you adopt a plant-based diet, you not only eat more plant foods but you avoid meat, dairy, poultry, eggs, and fish. The benefits of a plant-based diet range from helping you lower your markers for heart disease to losing weight. Plant-based diets are scientifically proven to help you lower your risk of heart disease, including stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer, as well as Alzheimer's and dementia.
There is no right way to start a plant-based diet. Some people cut out dairy first, then meat, and continue from there, while others go meatless on Mondays, or a single day of the week and expand by adding days until they are mostly or fully plant-based. If you want to start a plant-based diet, you can try it for a set amount of time, such as three weeks, and see how you feel and what works for you. Plant-based diets range from vegan to vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian, and everything in between. The more plant-based you go, the more health benefits you will experience. Here’s what you can expect when you switch to a plant-based diet:
Timeline of the physical benefits of going plant-based
1 Hour Results: Diabetes symptoms will be easier to manage
Every time you eat, your gut secretes hormones that not only make you feel full but also increase insulin, to signal to your body that it needs to get ready to properly handle the calories coming in, and use these as fuel or store them as fat. When you switch to a plant-based diet, it helps keep your blood sugar in check, due to all the fiber in vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains, which helps your body burn fuel steadily rather than cause insulin to spike, which leads to storing calories as fat.
Switching to a plant-based diet can help the body to make healthy amounts of insulin, for most people. If you have type 2 diabetes, within a few days of starting a whole-food, plant-based diet, "you may be able to significantly reduce your insulin dose or medication,” says Hana Kahleova, M.D., Ph.D., director of clinical research for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). Of course, only do this under a doctor’s supervision and talk to your doctor before you try to treat your symptoms with diet.
For people with prediabetes, who may have no diabetes symptoms, switching to a whole food plant-based diet may help reverse the markers such as insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. Diabetes symptoms are slow to show up, but millions of people with prediabetes may not know they have it.
2-3 Days Results: Go to the bathroom more regularly
One side effect of the Standard American Diet is a lack of fiber, which may explain why so many people report struggling with constipation and other gut ailments. Fiber is essential for digestive wellness, among other things, and because only plants contain fiber, you’ll notice that your bowel movements become more regular after eating a whole plant-based diet. “By adding fruits, veggies, and whole grains, you’re altering the bacteria in your gut, giving them the food they love, which will decrease constipation and keep you regular,” says Jennifer Mimkha, M.P.H., R.D., plant-based dietitian and owner of Prana Nutrition in Tampa, Fla.
1-Week Results: Your cholesterol and blood pressure will stabilize
If you’ve seen The Game Changers documentary, you know that after just one week of eating only plants, a group of firefighters celebrated a drop in their cholesterol. Why? “Plant foods have zero cholesterol and generally have a much lower saturated fat content, except for palm and coconut oils, which should be avoided if your goal is to lower cholesterol,” says Joel Kahn, M.D., founder of the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity in Bingham Farms, Mich., and author of The Plant-Based Solution.
Total immersion into a whole-food plant diet can result in a rapid drop in your total cholesterol as much as 100 mg/dl, which Kahn calls a massive shift. As a result, you may be able to stop taking a statin or avoid starting a cholesterol medication in the first place. Don't try this without your doctor’s approval. And The Beet encourages you to see your practitioner before you make any changes to your diet or medications.
10 Day Results: Your blood pressure may drop
Just ten days of eating a plant-based diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can reduce blood pressure by 10 mmHg or more and allow medications to be reduced, Kahn says. Some people might even be able to cut their meds within a few days, or weeks, under doctor supervision. If, however, you take more time gradually ramping up to 100 percent plant-based approach, changes will take longer. The one caveat? “If you eat a diet of processed ‘junk’ food, even if it's vegan, your blood pressure may not respond at all,” he says. Add in regular exercises such as walking, swimming or biking, and you'll see your results kick in even faster.
2 Week Results: You'll get slimmer, especially if you avoid sugar
In studies published by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), average weight loss after switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet is about a pound a week. Some people may lose more, like two or three pounds a week, if they also stay off simple carbs like white bread, pasta, and rice, along with sweets. "Plant-based does not mean eating Twizzlers and sugary drinks, but focusing on whole foods and high-fiber foods. If you stick to the veggies and nutrition-dense meals, you can jump-start your weight loss and ramp up metabolism, by increasing the "afterburn" of meals by keeping blood sugar stable.
Along with eating a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, make sure you’re avoiding added sugar, vegetable oil, and salt. “They cause you to have cravings and systematically overeat,” says Chef AJ, Los Angeles-based vegan chef who lost 100 pounds on a plant-based diet, and is the best-selling author of The Secrets to Ultimate Weight Loss. Chef AJ recommends eating foods lower in calorie density, or calories per pound of food, to lose weight. Fill up on foods with less than 600 calories per pound, which includes non-starchy veggies, fruit, unrefined complex carbohydrates, potatoes, whole grains, and legumes.
3 Week Results: Chest pain will diminish and your taste buds will change
Serious heart disease brings on angina, or chest pain or discomfort in your chest area. (If you ever feel this, run to call your doctor, since it could be signs of worsening heart disease, a blockage, or even a heart attack.) Some patients have alleviated chest pain by switching to an oil-free healthy plant-based diet, according to doctors who say patients have dramatically reversed symptoms of heart disease in as little as three weeks, just by eating only healthy plant-based foods. You can experience rapid, profound changes, with this kind of dietary 180 reversal, including angina symptoms dropping by as much as 90 percent, Kahn says.
Plant foods probably won’t taste as good at first, especially if you have a cheese habit. But by week three you won't miss your favorite Jarlsburg or brie. When you consider that most foods in the American diet are laden with sugar, salt, and fat, those often make your tastebuds water, just by inhaling the scent of a Cinnabon at a food court. As a result, foods without these ingredients aren’t that appealing –at first. Just give it a couple of weeks and “your tastebuds will adjust to the delicious flavors of whole natural foods,” Chef AJ says. You will begin to crave roasted vegetables, clean protein sources like chickpeas and beans, enjoy your plant-based diet, and may even get grossed out by the look of steak or meat. Bonus? The longer you eat only whole plant foods, the more you’ll like them.
3-4 Week Results: Feel more energized
Adopting a whole-food, plant-based diet may mean that you no longer have to rely on coffee or other caffeinated drinks to get you through a hectic day, largely because of the nutrient density of the foods you’re eating. “When you stop fueling yourself with quick-burning, simple carbohydrates, and fat-laden animal products and start nourishing yourself with plants, your body will have the nutrients to fuel you properly, giving you lasting energy,” Mimkha says.
1 Month Results: Clearer skin and better heart health
By one month, all systems in your body will be feeling different, less inflamed, and less achy. Less inflammation can help everything from boosting clear skin health to lowering markers for heart disease.
For one thing, eating red meat and egg yolks or foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol can lead to a spike in unhealthy gut molecules and these get mixed with oxygen in the blood to create Trimethylamine N -oxide, or TMAO. Research now shows a strong connection between your TMAO levels and hardening of the arteries, and ultimately how likely you are to get heart disease.
“TMAO promotes clogged arteries, organ scarring, and blood clotting and predicts a worrisome outcome in many disease states,” says Dr. Kahn, who’s drawn more TMAO levels in patients than any other doctor in the United States. Yet when you stop eating red meat and egg yolks (research is still teasing out whether eliminating other animal products will have the same effect), abnormal TMAO levels can return to normal in just four weeks. Ask your doctor to check your TMAO with a simple blood test, since this is a predictor of atherosclerosis specifically, and cardiovascular disease in general.
Clearer skin is another byproduct of going plant-based
One of the most significant changes among people who adopt a plant-only diet experience is a clearer complexion. “When you eliminate animal products, especially dairy, you’re reducing your intake of pro-inflammatory foods, which tend to cause acne,” Mimkha says. Cut out the inflammation in the body, and your skin and pores can stay cleaner, unclogged, and allow naturally cell turnover without looking dull or red, she explains.
Within 6 weeks (or sooner): Your sex life will improve
The documentary The Game Changers showed what happened to three male college athletes who ate different meals and then underwent a nocturnal-sex-function test. One a plant-based burrito, one ate a meat burrito and one at a chicken burrito and then all three were measured for sexual function as they slept. The next day they were shocked to see the results of the study, which monitored the size, duration, and frequency of their erections during sleep.
The athlete who ate the plant-based dinner had the highest performance in terms of sexual function (stronger, longer and more frequent erections) compared to his counterparts who had eaten meat. Compared to heart disease patients, these results are much more immediate, explains Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, because of their relatively healthy circulation to start with.
How long does it take most people to see sexual performance improve? Anywhere from three to six weeks, Esselstyn explained. Often, when a patient diligently follows a plant-based diet and then stays on it for up to six weeks, Dr. Esselstyn told The Beet, they see a dramatic improvement in their circulation and their ED is reversed, even without the benefit of a pill.
The reason, he says, is that the same circulatory system that impacts your arteries and heart disease can also improve the smaller vascularity below the waist. So if lack of performance in the bedroom is an issue, going plant-based can clear it up, since according to Esselstyn, the healthier you are overall, the healthier your sex life will be.
Within 1 year: Better blood circulation
Circulation is the term for how well your blood moves through your blood vessels and delivers oxygen and nutrients to the body. Clogged arteries or hardened, narrowed blood vessel walls have major consequences, in the form of heart attacks and strokes. Yet if you’re strict about eating a whole-food, plant-based diet, the effects will stop clogging and hardening in their tracks and improve circulation overall. Just by switching to a whole-food plant-based diet, it's possible to stop and even reverse symptoms of heart disease.
The longer you stay plant-based, the more your blood vessels can recover. What was once narrowing and constricting healthy blood flow begins to open up, even partly, so year after year, your heart disease symptoms can actually be reversed. After five years, your body acts younger than the day you gave up meat. So if you are hooked on seeing the results of a plant-based diet, keep it up, since eating a whole-food plant-based diet continues to have improvements for five years and more, Kahn says.
Bottom Line: You can see results quickly when you switch to a plant-based diet
Here's what to expect when you switch to a plant-based diet. After just a few days, the health benefits of eating a whole-food, plant-based diet become clear. Your heart health improves, your skin clears up and the more you stay away from simple carbs and sugar, you can experience healthy weight loss. Keep it up to reduce your long-term risk of heart disease.
If you’re looking for more reasons to incorporate a healthy, plant-based diet into your day-to-day life, check out The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles. For one week of recipes and tips to get started, Check out the free Beginner’s Guide to a Plant-Based Diet.