By Kate Harveston — I began incorporating more fruits and veggies into my life for several reasons. One reason is I am a big-time animal lover, and while I’m not a vegan, I try to follow a vegetarian lifestyle as much as possible. The other reason is, as I’ve gotten further into my 20s, I started to notice I didn’t have the energy I once did. More troubling, my hair was starting to look limp and my skin wasn’t doing so hot, either.
I knew I needed to make a change, not only to improve my health but also to protect the well-being of the planet. I headed out to the farmers’ market to stock up, and I spent a pleasant Sunday prepping salads and bases for other dishes to throw together quickly during the workweek.
Here’s what I’ve learned since I started incorporating more fruits and veggies into my life, and how you can benefit from doing the same.
1. My Nails Got Stronger
My fingernails had gotten to the point where they were peeling, brittle and constantly breaking. No matter how many strengthening products I’d buy from the salon, nothing seemed to work. I couldn’t afford weekly manicures to keep my fingers looking decent, and it started to bother me to the point I’d try to keep my hands hidden much of the time.
Once I incorporated more fruits and vegetables into my diet, I noticed my nails started growing stronger. Plus, some of the ridgings I had begun developing started to disappear. In about one month, my nails were healthy once more, and I was able to grow them past the tips of my fingers without them breaking instantly.
It turns out, if you have certain nutritional deficiencies, your nails will suffer. For example, those deficient in biotin, a type of vitamin B, tend to have brittle, peeling nails. Vitamin B deficiencies can also result in strange curvature of the fingernails. Those lacking sufficient iron intake tend to develop ridges as well as pale, discolored nails.
2. My Hair Got Thicker
Not only can poor nutrition do a number on your nails, but it also wreaks havoc on your hair. My hair has always been dry, but before improving my diet, it started breaking easily — and my ends looked split and ragged a week or two after having a trim.
Lack of adequate protein, iron, and zinc are primary causes of hair woes due to inadequate nutrition. Eating tons of deep, leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and arugula, even dandelion leaves, provides protein and a good source of these minerals. Getting different phytonutrients by eating plants in various colors also helps keep hair silky and soft.
I ate a ton of sweet potatoes, too, as they’re filling and high in fiber. They’re also great sources of beta carotene, the building block of vitamin A. Just one sweet potato contains four times your recommended daily allowance, and some research indicates vitamin A may encourage the growth of thicker hair.
Did you know one sweet pepper has more vitamin C than an orange? Vitamin C promotes collagen production. Collagen is a vital structural protein, and increased production can strengthen hair fibers to prevent breakage.
3. My Acne Cleared Up
As it turns out, the miracle mineral zinc is essential for more than just healthy hair. My skin always has tended to be dry, but I still experience acne, typically on my chin and along the sides of my nose.
Eating more spinach may help resolve cases of mild acne. In particular, zinc supplementation — or emulating Popeye more often — helps clear up pimples.
Another dietary factor that may influence acne is hormones. Today, most factory farmers feed animals massive amounts of growth supplements to make the livestock grow more quickly and resist disease. However, when these hormones enter the human body, they can result in imbalances, leading to excess sebum production. Since eating more veggies and fruits left me with less stomach space to eat meat even if I wanted to, I’m sure the reductions in hormone intake helped, too.
4. My Energy Went Through the Roof
Getting the right vitamin and mineral intake is critical to having enough energy. For a while there before improving my diet, I wasn’t only suffering the 3 p.m. doldrums — I also felt exhausted all the time.
I’ve always enjoyed exercise, but I was finding it difficult to make it through a half-hour dance class, let alone run a few miles. It distressed me I was no longer able to do the things I used to do with ease.
Once I started eating a variety of vegetables, like these colorful veggie stir-fry recipes you can prep on the weekend and toss in the wok for a quick and easy dinner, my energy levels began to return to normal. Before long, I was back to running regular 5k races, and it felt so good.
5. My Blood Pressure Went Down
One of the leading risks of cardiovascular disease is eating red meat. I never ate much to begin with, but occasionally, I would indulge. Conversely, diets high in fruits and vegetables have shown to be effective against many cancers.
I didn’t suffer from hypertension, but my blood pressure did tend toward the high end of normal. Now, it’s at the lower end of the normal range, and my primary care physician couldn’t be happier.
If you do have high blood pressure, I cannot recommend adding more fruits and veggies strongly enough. Hypertension can lead to a host of health woes, from heart attack to brain aneurysm. You can also suffer total heart failure or stroke.
Even if the risk of a painful death doesn’t convince you to start eating your broccoli and kohlrabi, the threat of going blind may frighten you into doing so. High blood pressure can damage the blood vessels of the eyes, as well as the nerves, and lead to fluid buildup. Anyone or a combination can prove fatal.
Finally, circulation problems can cause difficulty with maintaining an erection in men and can lead to lowered desire in women. It can also lead to kidney problems and failure, which can keep you locked to a dialysis machine for a long time until your medical team finds a donor.
If you can prevent all this by eating a few more salads, why not include more of the good stuff? It’s not as if you have to give up meat entirely— although you may choose to after noticing how much better you feel!
6. My Cholesterol Got Lower
High cholesterol is another risk factor for developing heart disease, especially if your LDLs are high. Cholesterol comes in two types: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol. As the nickname implies, high levels of LDL increase risks.
I didn’t have high cholesterol, either, but I did notice my LDL levels have decreased and my HDL levels increased slightly since switching to a primarily plant-based diet. Why settle for good when you can have better?
Your body needs some cholesterol to function properly, but too little good cholesterol and too much bad can cause serious health problems. You can form blood clots which can travel to the heart, causing an attack. This condition impacts those who travel by airplane frequently, as flights over eight to 10 hours pose the risk of deep vein thrombosis from remaining inactive at high altitudes.
The best part? You don’t even need to give up cooking for the family. Whip up these oven-roasted veggie fajitas, for example, and let your spouse and kids add chicken or beef to theirs if they wish. You, on the other hand, can take a pass and get your cholesterol under better control — your doctor will thank you.
7. I Lost a Few Pounds
I’ve never been overweight, but like many people, I keep an eye on how my pants fit. Since switching to eating primarily fruits and veggies, I haven’t had to worry much about dieting or even cutting back to keep my weight under control.
Vegetables contain relatively few calories per serving, which is why vegans may need to eat more often throughout the day to keep their weight up. Some veggies are a bit higher in calorie count, like avocados. However, the fats they contain are the heart-healthy variety. Omega-3s, found in avocados, also help preserve neural function and stave off stroke.
Insulin resistance occurs when the body’s cells no longer process the substance properly. This condition can serve as a precursor to Type II diabetes, and it can render weight loss difficult, if not impossible.
If you fear you may suffer from insulin resistance, you can benefit from added fruits and veggies in your life, too. Try eliminating all sources of simple sugar for at least two weeks. That means cutting out white flour, sugar, alcohol, processed foods and starchy vegetables like potatoes. Instead, stick to eating nothing but fruits, veggies and lean protein and dairy if you indulge in meat and cheese.
Need additional inspiration? You can turn to the keto diet, which strives to force your body to create ketones by restricting carbs to no more than 20 grams per day. This diet does rely on high-fat foods like meat in unlimited quantities. However, it is possible to eat keto even if you are a vegan.
Those who are vegans thinking of going keto to bust through a weight-loss plateau do well to stock up on avocados, which are high in fats, as well as nuts and seeds. Some beans contain fat, and they also provide a protein boost. When you do begin adding grains back into your diet, stick with ancient ones such as quinoa, which is also high in protein.
8. My Athletic Performance Improved
Talk to many of the hulky guys pumping the heaviest iron at the gym, and plenty of them will tell you they live on a diet consisting primarily of meat for protein. I hate to say this, fellas, but reducing meat intake and consuming more fruit and vegetables can boost, not harm performance.
One reason is that fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, which prevent the formation of free radicals, substances that can prematurely age cells. Aged cells don’t perform at their athletic best.
Additionally, researchers found athletes following a Mediterranean diet high in fruits, veggies, healthy whole grains, oils and minimal lean proteins, such as fish, improved their performance. Eating more produce has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. When the body is inflamed, performance suffers as people feel sluggish and may also experience digestive problems.
If you think vegans and vegetarians can’t be great athletes, think again! Hello, have you ever heard of Venus and Serena Williams, by chance? Give eating more veggies a try, and you may be as stunned as I was with your results in the gym.
9. My Period Became More Regular
One delightful effect I experienced after switching to a plant-based diet was my period became regular. It used to be fairly erratic — one month, I’d have few, if any, symptoms, while the next, I’d feel miserable for a week.
I now believe my hormonal fluctuations correlated directly to my meat consumption. While I didn’t keep as careful track as I should have to be scientific, subjectively, I noticed going plant-based made my periods relatively light across the board. I also stopped getting the painful breasts and bloated lower stomach that would accompany a particularly bad cycle.
While science remains unclear as to how hormones used in meat production affect humans, some do believe the U.S. obsession with meat consumption may influence everything from certain reproductive disorders to the age at which girls reach menarche. Girls in this nation have been getting their first periods at younger and younger ages, but researchers have yet to confirm why.
Additionally, researchers found a connection between anemia and uterine fibroids. Specifically, fibroids, which cause unusually heavy menstrual bleeding, may lead to the development of the disease as the hemorrhaging drain iron stores. The bone marrow manufactures blood, and when insufficient iron stores exist in the body, anemia results.
Granted, those who make the switch to vegan and vegetarian eating run the highest risk of anemia, as many people get their iron by eating red meat. As someone who follows a primarily vegan diet, this concerns me — especially as, when donating blood, I’ve gotten disqualified in the past due to possessing inadequate iron levels. However, going plant-based does not mean you will develop anemia or the related menstrual issues if you’re female.
Different forms of anemia exist, not all stemming from iron deficiency. Some forms occur when the body fails to produce adequate intrinsic factor to bind with vitamin B12 in the small intestine. B12 naturally occurs in meat and dairy, causing another problem for vegans in particular. Other types of anemia cause blood cells to destruct too soon or impact the white blood cells and platelets instead of the red ones.
Fortunately, it is possible through supplementation, and, primarily, eating the right combination of fruits and vegetables to avoid deficiency. Dark, leafy greens like collard greens and Swiss chard provide a ton of iron. Fortified orange juice and cereals can replace stores of B vitamins like vitamin B12. Vegans can round their diet out with beans, seeds, and nuts to prevent anemia.
All I know is, eating more veggies and less meat meant less menstrual misery for me. I’m not going to complain!
10. My Concentration Improved
Finally, I noticed my ability to focus and concentrate improved tremendously after switching to a plant-based diet. Eating veggies and fruits in a variety of colors helped me consume all the phytonutrients I needed. Phytonutrients are substances in foods that do anything from increasing UV ray resistance to healing inflammation. Each color of food contains a different range of phytonutrients, so eating plants in every spectrum of the rainbow ensures you get a blend of them all.
When it comes to your brain, there’s no substitute for eating your fruits and veggies. Berries, for example, are one of the best brain foods out there because they increase brain plasticity, which allows the brain to form new connections and improves memory function. Berries also improve communication between brain cells, helping keep mood stable. Who can concentrate when they’re a nervous wreck or feeling down?
Avocados aren’t just delicious, they’re high in omega-3 fatty acids, so go ahead and indulge in that toast. Your brain needs omega-3s to prevent memory loss and even depression.
Dark, leafy greens are high in Vitamin K, which is vital for regulating calcium levels in the brain. Too much calcium in the brain can lead to a condition called hypercalcemia, symptoms of which include fatigue and inability to concentrate.
Plant-Based Eating for Your Best Life
My life has changed for the better since switching to plant-based eating. The list above represents only a few of the benefits switching to such a diet can make. You can lose weight, combat various health woes and even perform better when you work out.
Make sure you’re handling your fruits and vegetables safely! The CDC provides an excellent infographic on how to properly evaluate, wash and store fruits and vegetables:
Did you know fruits and vegetables should take up half your plate in a standard meal according to Choose My Plate? Are you getting your full serving? Check it out visualized at ChooseMyPlate.gov/infographics or below:
Summer is here, and the farmers’ markets are in full swing. There’s no better time than the present to stock up and make the switch. Get started on your path of eating more fruits and veggies today for a healthier and happier tomorrow.
Kate Harveston is a health and wellness writer from Pennsylvania. She is passionate about teaching people how to live more all-natural and sustainable lives. You can find more of her work at sites like Greatist, Care2 and the Environmental News Network, as well as at her blog, So Well, So Woman.