You can enjoy a nutrient dense, filling, and healthy meal without red meat or poultry. Meat can be a great source of iron, vitamin B and protein, but it’s becoming clear with more research and studies that meat, like with most foods, should be enjoyed in moderation. The USDA recommends 3.3 ounces of meat per day, which is about a deck of playing cards sizewise. How many of those do you eat in a day?
Benefits of Eating Less Meat
Eating less meat and swapping it out with meatless alternatives has a lot of benefits, some that have larger effects outside your health and fitness goals.
Better for the environment: Livestock production has a big impact on our natural resources. It takes 6 times the amount of water to produce beef per gram of protein than it does for bean production. If you were to work your way up to cutting out half of the meat in your diet, you could reduce the food-related water usage by 30%! Livestock production also contributes to 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, which affects climate change and global warming.
Reduces your risk for disease: Eating less meat (especially red and processed meat) can reduce your risks for certain cancers, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes. It can also help your lower your cholesterol levels.
Easier on your Grocery Budget: Meatless sources of protein are more affordable. Certain sources, like beans or eggs, also have a much longer shelf life than meat. Organic, humanely-raised meat can be pricey, so shifting to more meatless meals could make the move to less, but higher quality meat more doable.
There are several different foods to swap out meat as a main part of your dish that will bring great flavor and nutrients to your diet.
Tofu: Made with thickened and strained soy milk pressed into molds, tofu is a versatile vegetarian option. It comes in a variety of consistencies, from silken (which is very soft) to extra firm. Use silken varieties for smoothies, baking or desserts, and use firmer varieties for pan frying, baking or using in soups. A half cup of tofu has 10 grams of protein and is high in iron, manganese, and calcium. When buying tofu, look for an organic, non-GMO variety.
Beans: A classic meat alternative, the amount of beans you can enjoy are endless. Beans are high in fiber and protein. They’re also very inexpensive, even more so if you buy the dried variety and cook them yourself.
Tempeh: Tempeh is made from a traditional Indonesian method of fermenting whole soybeans in small blocks. It has a slightly nutty taste and has more texture than tofu. Tempeh is higher in protein and fiber than tofu. You can find this in the refrigerated section in your grocery store. Like with tofu, look for an organic, non-GMO variety.
Seitan: Seitan (pronounced say-tahn) is wheat gluten, which makes up the protein in wheat. It’s made by adding water to wheat gluten and forming that into a dough, which is then cooked. If you’re gluten-free, choose another meatless option. Seitan is extremely high in protein, but not in fiber or vitamins. You can find it in a refrigerated section of the grocery store near the tempeh.
Nuts: High in fiber, healthy fats, and protein, nuts are a great addition to a meatless meal. In addition to eating them raw and sprinkled on top of a dish, you can also soak most nuts in water and blend them into a milk to use as a thickener, sauce, or dressing. You can also pulse them in your food processor into a coarse meal with seasonings and beans or other vegetables to make a taco meat or burger patty.
Eggs: A perfect package of protein, adding an egg to your meal is a great meatless alternative. Though egg prices have been rising, the cost of one egg (usually under 50 cents) trumps any meat worth eating. When buying, look for organic eggs that have been fed with non-GMO feed.
Feeling Full without Meat
A common complaint about meatless meals from meat eaters is they never feel full. Legumes and produce are usually more nutrient-dense and calorie-light in comparison to meat. You’re going to have to eat a lot more vegetables to feel full than you would with one serving of meat. That doesn’t mean you need to eat a mountain of salad to feel full. Fullness comes from a combination of protein and fiber. The higher in protein and fiber your meal has, the longer you’re going to feel full and feel less tempted to eat out of hunger so soon.
In addition to a meatless protein from the list above, incorporate high fiber vegetables to your meal like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, acorn squash, sweet potatoes, kale, green peas, artichokes, eggplant and carrots. If you’re making a dish with fruit, boost the fiber with raspberries, oranges, bananas, pears or apples.
You can also add some high fiber whole grains to your meal as well like brown rice, barley, and oats.
You can also add some healthy fats like organic full-fat yogurt, avocado, coconut milk, or grass-fed cheese or butter. Fat can help with fullness, and these options are also high in protein as well. If you’re looking to lose weight, add these in moderation.
Quality Meat Matters
As you continue to eat meat in your diet on your non-meatless days, look at the quality of the meat you’re eating. Like with produce, the quality of your meat can make a difference. Overly processed, lower quality meats can increase your risk of cancer, your mortality rate, and can affect your heart health. Livestock injected with antibiotics can create antibiotic resistant-bacteria that can be transferred to the consumer and result in antibiotic-resistant infections.
Choosing organic meat will decrease your exposure to pesticides, which can affect reproductive health, disrupt your endocrine system (which regulates your hormones and thyroid), and could increase cancer risks.
Grass fed meat is high-quality meat where the animal only eats grass and it may have been given access to the outdoors and a pasture. The improved environment also results in a more nutrient-dense meat that’s higher in omega-3s, vitamin A and E, as well as a lower in fat.
Making last changes starts with small steps. Keeping a food journal will give you a better idea of how much meat you eat in a week. Start replacing one meat meal a week with a meatless one. Meatless Monday is a popular movement that calls for having just one meatless meal a week. Try a different plant-based protein each week to see which one you like the best. As you feel more comfortable making filling, meatless meals, try adding in a few more each week. If you were eating lower-quality meat, look at how you can start to buy higher quality meat that’s better for you. Add in a variety of meat and also look into quality seafood you can add as well.
Healthy Eating 101 will be back with tips on how to keep on track with healthy eating and cooking when your schedule is crazy.
Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
Second Photo Credit: Dora Zett/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Arif Relano Oba/shutterstock.com; Fourth Photo Credit: Gam1983/shutterstock.com; Fifth Photo Credit: Yuliya Gontar/shutterstock.com; Sixth Photo Credit: siamionau pavel/shutterstock.com