What Does 6 Months as a Vegetarian do to the Body?

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In some ways, it was inevitable: after a year living in San Francisco, I finally took the plunge and became a vegetarian. It wasn’t as drastic of a lifestyle change as I expected. At first, I was concerned that I would be unable to get sufficient protein for weight lifting and muscle gain, or that my options at restaurants would be severely limited. Instead, I found that after 6 months I was in the best shape of my life, my blood work was excellent, and I felt better than ever.




Why Vegetarianism?


To be honest, I don’t have some overarching reason that compelled me to become a vegetarian. Nor am I a crusader trying to spread the gospel of a meatless lifestyle. Rather, I found the existing reasons, combined with the relative ease of a vegetarian lifestyle in San Francisco, to be compelling. Here are the key points that influenced my decisions:


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  1. It is more sustainable (less environmental impact, especially when you choose from locally grown and seasonally available foods). Put simply, meat is a very inefficient way to nourish the human body. Not only does raising livestock take up lots of space and cost a lot to transport, but there are many surprising “hidden costs” – like the fact that flatulence of cows releases as much CO2 as cars!
  2. Animals feel pain. I’m no bleeding heart, but as an avid student of neuroscience I can’t deny this fact in light of new evidence.
  3. Anecdotally speaking, I find it very easy to overeat meat, and had been noticing for some time that I felt better when I cut down on my meat intake.
  4. I have friends and roommates who are vegetarians; again, it is not a difficult lifestyle to maintain in a city like San Francisco simply because most restaurants and grocery stores have adapted for it




My Approach


Homemade Seitan (fake meat)

As I said in the intro, one of the biggest fears of many males who consider vegetarianism is eating sufficient protein. Because protein is the key building block for muscle and it is much easier to get protein from meat, many bodybuilders recoil at vegetarianism. One easy solution to this problem is to be a pescatarian (a vegetarian who eats fish). White fishes like tuna, tilapia, etc. are some of the leanest and most protein-rich meats on the planet.


Though I do occasionally eat fish when there are no good options at a restaurant, I’ve mainly kept within pure vegetarianism. When cooking for myself, I’ve even gone so far as to purchase only vegan foods (no dairy or eggs). To combat the “protein problem” I was glad to discover seitan, which is a little-known fake meat which can be just about as protein dense as fish or chicken (it is much more protein dense than tofu, tempeh, etc. though these are also good alternatives). Even better, it’s easy to make seitan at home, and costs only a fraction of the price of meat. By making it at home, you can spice it to your tastes and cook it in different was (baking vs. boiling, for example) so that the flavors do not get boring.


The main other ingredients I now cook with are black beans, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, kale, broccoli, sprouts, cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, avocados, yams and occasionally some vegan cheese (staying away from bread, carbs and just about anything processed). Followers of Tim Ferris will notice that this is slow-carb compliant, as well as paleo compliant, aside from being rich in protein. There are a huge number of delicious dishes that can be cooked starting with these base ingredients; check out vegetarian/vegan cookbooks like Veganomicon or Meatless for ideas.




Results (Blood Work)


It’s one thing to say that I feel great and am in good shape, but what does that actually mean?


Some people have the impression that vegetarianism will cause them to loose weight. This depends on your previous lifestyle. If you’re coming from eating McDonalds every day, you’ll probably lose weight (like Bill Clinton did). Likewise, cutting out bread and sweets can have a positive impact. However, if you were already a relatively healthy eater and you continue to consume the same amount of calories per day while a vegetarian, you’ll probably maintain about the same weight.


My Bloodwork after 6 Months as a vegetarian

My Bloodwork after 6 Months as a vegetarian

But the question remains: will vegetarianism lead to health (setting aside weight-loss as a different topic)? For my purposes, the most impartial way I could think of to judge this was by having blood work done. Hopefully the screenshot to the right, from, speaks for itself. Compared to a non-vegetarian friend who lives a similar lifestyle (who also had his blood work done), my numbers appear “better” in every category. My white blood cell count is also low (not surprising, given that I have not recently been sick). My glucose was a bit high (91) and TSH a bit low (1.4), though my understanding is that these two statistics are more genetic than environmental.


Of course, even blood work cannot paint an entire picture. Furthermore, I live an active lifestyle, exercising ~6 times per week on top of walking ~1 hour per day. Combined with my anecdotal perception of how I feel as a vegetarian, though, I can confidently say that it has improved my overall lifestyle and that I will be sticking with it into the foreseeable future.

  • Ali

    Here are some problems:
    1)Vitamin B12 is almost strictly in animal products so if even if we go veggie we need the milk and eggs and fish. (you could take supplements but to live naturally without any meat products is not how your body was designed)

    2) With all the pollution that is going into our oceans Fish aren’t as safe to eat anymore. There is a continuous increase of mercury and other toxins that are extremely harmful for your body.

    • Zane Claes

      1) Vegetarians eat milk and eggs, so this is only a problem if you’re vegan (not vegetarian). That said, I do have a bottle of B12 which I take when I’m cooking for myself more frequently, just for good measure.

      2) Toxic metals are something to be concerned about, sure, but you need to eat a *lot* of fish before it really becomes an issue (this was something I was curious about, too, and read up on it). Notice that I only eat fish occasionally when I’m out at restaurants which I trust.

      • Aya

        lol touché..

  • Clay Hebert

    Curious. Did you do your WellnessFX / blood work before going vegetarian? Your own before + after would be a more interesting and valid data test than comparing to a similar friend.

    • Zane Claes

      Not having recent bloodwork done (immediately) before becoming a vegetarian is my biggest regret with this experiment. The last time I had blood work done was about 18 months ago, and it was from a different service. Though the previous blood work had higher cholesterol and fat, in those 18 months I had lost ~10 lbs (before becoming vegetarian) and made some other life changes (which is why I chose not to post the older blood work). That said, I still think that the post-vegetarian blood work has value as stand-alone data, since it illustrates overall health, though not quantitative change.

      • Clay Hebert

        Makes sense. Thanks, Zane. It’s definitely useful as stand-alone data. I signed up for WellnessFX waitlist a while back but some smart people told me NY state is the last state they’ll get approved in (if they ever do). Apparently some ridiculous laws around personal health testing in NY State, so I’m just going to go get a test somewhere else.

        • Zane Claes

          Interesting! I have some friends who are social workers and have heard that NY has some… interesting health care laws. Surprising to hear that this extends to something as simple as blood tests paid out-of-pocket, though.

      • caoimhin

        As evidence of effect it is irrelevant. If you didn’t show a change or the changes are within expected error rates then you can’t make any judgement whatsoever about becoming vegetarian. Well, you *can* make a judgement just not a validated judgement with any sort of reasoning behind it.

        It is very probable that you were healthy beforehand. It’s even probable that your health worsened. Without a previous measurement we don’t know. My numbers are better than yours and I’m a big carnivore. Cross comparisons don’t work. Ask yourself if you’d like your doctor to treat you based upon the bloodwork of a similar individual.

        • Zane Claes

          Thanks for the comment, and you’re entirely right that data without a “before and after” is far less meaningful. I’ve actually re-engineered my diet to include meat, and am doing a somewhat more exhaustive look at before-and-after effects this time around. Hopefully the data will be to your satisfaction! Please let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to track.

          • caoimhin

            All individual data is anecdotal. That being said, I think if you report / record weekly dietary composition (percentage of protein, protein from meat, carbs, etc.) that would be interesting and sufficient. It wouldn’t satisfy any test for rigor but it would be interesting.

          • Zane Claes

            Perhaps I should add a link in my N=1 experiments in order to clarify that they are not meant for extrapolation. I make no claims that you can apply inductive logic to my experiments; you’ll never hear me say that “because this happened TO ME, it will happen to you.” Rather, my goal is to show what my results were, and hopefully to inspire others to conduct their own N=1 experiments.

            I have a blog post coming out next week explaining the situations in which tiny data is actually more useful than wide studies (namely, when the union between N=1 and N=All allows tiny data to become big data). Generally, I hope to clearly delineate which experiments are mine (N=1) as opposed to the many studies I link to throughout this blog (which I do my best to skeptically examine for good practices).

  • Steve Weick

    About 5 years ago, I got frustrated about the fact that I had increasing attacks of gout (despite regular doses of Allopurinol, high cholesterol (being managed by doses of Lovastatin), and blood glucose at the pre-diabetic level. All of this while being physically fit (running marathons) and at a normal body weight. I decided to go vegan (with my doctor’s encouragement). Within 6 months all of my blood levels moved back to normal. As a bonus, my endurance and speed increased to the point that I started to win some medals (in my age group). I then started deleting the drugs and found that they were no longer necessary. I do take B12 to compensate for the vegan diet, but that is a very small price to pay.

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