A dietary intervention involving plant-based food can help people with medical conditions, including liver disease and kidney disorders. But, for people who are used to eating meat all through their lives, making a drastic dietary change and sticking to it can be difficult.

Here's some good news: going meatless for just one meal a day could benefit people with advanced liver disease such as cirrhosis, a new study has revealed.

Adults with permanent liver damage can lower the levels of harmful ammonia by substituting one meal with a vegan or vegetarian option, according to the latest study published in the journal Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology.

Patients with cirrhosis typically have high levels of ammonia as their liver fails to remove these toxins from the body. These toxins travel to the brain, impair cognitive function, and cause confusion or delirium. This can lead to hepatic encephalopathy, a complication that can be fatal if not treated.

Western diet generally involves meals that are high in carbohydrates and red meat and low in fiber, which is known to increase levels of ammonia. Earlier studies indicate that switching to a vegetarian diet could lower ammonia levels for those with cognitive problems caused by cirrhosis.

In the latest study, researchers examined if a temporary dietary change involving one single meal a day could make a significant impact on ammonia levels in patients with cirrhosis.

"It can be so hard to make long-term dietary and behavioral changes. We wondered if making an occasional change could be an option for these patients. Liver patients with cirrhosis should know that making positive changes in their diet doesn't have to be overwhelming or difficult," Dr. Jasmohan Bajaj, corresponding author of the study, said in a news release.

The trial involved 30 cirrhosis patients at the Richmond VA Medical Center who are meat eaters. They were divided into three groups, and each group was given one of the three kinds of burgers: one made with pork or beef, one with a vegan meat substitute, and a vegetarian bean burger.

Each burger contained 20 grams of protein to match the typical protein content of a Western meal. Participants were also provided low-fat potato chips, a whole-grain bun, and water, but without condiments or toppings.

The patients had similar gut bacteria profiles initially. The blood and urine samples taken before and after meals showed that ammonia levels varied depending on the type of burger each group had.

Amino acid levels of the meat burger group were higher than those in the non-meat burger groups. Higher levels of amino acids were linked to greater ammonia production and risk of hepatic encephalopathy.

"The main take-home message was that occasionally skipping meat from just a single meal can have benefits for patients with cirrhosis. A simple change to a patient's diet or substituting some parts of it could be a simple and accessible method to reduce ammonia generation," Dr. Bajaj said.

"It was exciting to see that even small changes in your diet, like having one meal without meat once in a while, could benefit your liver by lowering harmful ammonia levels in patients with cirrhosis. We now need more research to learn if consuming meals without meat goes beyond reducing ammonia to preventing problems in brain function and liver disease progression," Dr. Bajaj added.