What Happens to Your Body When You Eat a Vegan Diet?

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Sabine Gempel, DPT, PT, believes the human body is resilient.

"It is amazing how our body can recover from the damage we inflict on it, even later in life. I tell my patients, 'You are never too old to improve your health.'" A board-certified cardiovascular and pulmonary specialist and physical therapist, Dr. Gempel works at the University of Miami Health System's Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation program.

A vegan herself, she advises patients to eat lots of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, while limiting or eliminating meat, fish, and dairy. Many studies show that plant-based eating benefits our bodies; three, in particular, demonstrate how fast the changes take place:

  1. After seven days on a low-fat, high-carbohydrate vegan diet and eating as much as they liked, participants in one study showed significant drops in blood pressure, and most were able to reduce or stop taking medication.
  2. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition stated that after 16 days on a high-fiber, high-carbohydrate diet that was primarily plant-based, 11 out of 20 insulin-dependent male diabetics were able to stop taking insulin and significantly decreased their cholesterol.
  3. After three months of following a whole food plant-based diet, study participants with obesity, ischemic heart disease, or diabetes lost an average of 18 pounds without exercising. By six months, they had lost an average of 26 pounds. By 12 months, they continued to maintain their weight loss without exercise.

Baby steps toward better eating

Impressed, but doubtful? If you consider yourself a carnivore, don't give up. Small, simple changes add up to big, meaningful results. Dr. Gempel tells patients, "Think of veganism as an experiment you'll try for three to four weeks versus thinking you will never again eat your favorite meals. Even if you eat 80 to 90% plant-based, you will see a huge difference."

vegan dietHere are some ways that 80 to 90% shift benefits your body:

  • Diets high in fruit, vegetables, and grains can lower triglycerides and cholesterol, which reduces your risk of heart disease.
  • Plant-based proteins (tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts) have zero cholesterol. Protein is found in all plant foods, and if you consume enough calories, you get enough protein on a plant-based diet.
  • Vegan diets typically contain less sodium; since salt increases blood pressure levels, eating vegan can improve cardiovascular health.
  • Plants contain antioxidants and phytonutrients; both lower the risk of cancer.
  • While not vegan, the Mediterranean Diet minimizes animal products and helps control blood sugar, and lowers insulin resistance.
  • Plant-based diets result in weight loss, which relieves pressure on arthritic joints. The phytonutrients in plants also help reduce joint pain, swelling, and tenderness.
  • High fiber diets improve regularity and gut health.
How do you go from bacon to broccoli?

Dr. Gempel breaks down the transition, week-by-week:

Week 1: Take a week to think about it. "What vegan foods are you already eating? If you have oatmeal for breakfast, use plant-based milk instead of cow's milk. What meals can you easily switch to plant-based? Make a list of those meals, then plan and prepare for week two." Stock up on plant-based, whole-food ingredients, including some "healthy go-to meals" like veggie burgers. Read the labels, even on vegan foods. The healthiest foods are minimally processed, contain a few simple ingredients, and are low in fat, salt, and sugar.
Week 2: Strive for one plant-based meal a day.
Week 3: Eat two plant-based meals per day.
Week 4: Make all three of your daily meals plant-based.

Replacing meat with plants is simpler than it sounds.

Eat pasta with red sauce and skip the parmesan or replace the meat sauce with diced portabella mushrooms, onions, and zucchini. Try avocado toast without the egg or blend breakfast smoothies with spinach, frozen fruit, nut milk, and a spoonful of peanut butter. Missing snacks? "Use an air fryer to create crispy snacks without fat and salt. You could also try high-fiber seed crackers, unsalted nuts, or baked chickpeas." And eat more fruit. "Living in Miami makes it easy to sample different tropical fruits," Dr. Gempel says.

To satisfy a sweet tooth, mix a frozen banana with a small amount of almond milk and vanilla extract in the blender. Bake oil-free cookies and fruit bars, replacing oil and butter with apple sauce and using chopped dates as a sweetener. "I provide patients with plant-based recipes to make sure the food tastes delicious," Dr. Gempel says.

Rethinking restaurant meals

When ordering off the menu, replace meat- and dairy-based dishes with vegan options:

  • American: a veggie burger with roasted sweet potato fries
  • Cuban: a bowl of rice, beans, lettuce, plantains, tomato, avocado
  • Italian: pasta with red sauce and veggies
  • Japanese: miso soup, salad, veggie sushi roll
  • Mexican: bean burrito with grilled onions and peppers
  • Thai food: veggie and rice stir fry

A boost of B-12

As you modify your diet, don't overlook an essential ingredient. "Anyone following a plant-based diet needs a B-12 supplement. Many adults – not just vegans, are deficient in B-12, so it's a good idea to get your B-12 levels checked. B-12 is not made by plants or animals. It comes from microbes in healthy soil, passed on to animals when they eat grass. Most farm animals today are injected with B-12."

Managing social expectations

How will friends and family react to your plant-based lifestyle? "When we change our diets, some people might feel we are judging their food choices," Dr. Gempel says. Counteract potential pushback by being proactive. "Tell your friends and family, 'I'm trying to eat this way for my health and would appreciate your support.' Make it about you. When I am invited to get-togethers, I always offer to bring a dish. That way, there's something I can eat, and I teach others how delicious healthy eating can be." If your family's cultural traditions focus on food, keep the tradition alive with a plant-based version.

As your meals include more plants and fewer animals, your body will benefit. "Every step in that direction is a step towards better health," Dr. Gempel says.


Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.


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