Whether you’re considering eating less meat or giving it up entirely, the benefits are clear: less risk of disease and improved health and well-being. Specifically, less meat decreases the risk of:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Many cancers
Meat is often loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat, which have starring roles in poor heart health. And processed meats like deli meat, bacon and sausage often have too much sodium as well. On the other hand, lean meats, skinless poultry, and fish can be good sources of protein.
Figuring out how to manage these pros and cons takes a little homework.
First, let’s define the terms:
- A vegan diet is entirely plant-based. It excludes meat, fish, dairy and eggs – basically anything that comes from an animal.
- Vegetarians also eat a plant-based diet, but their menu may include dairy and eggs.
- A flexitarian is a vegetarian that sometimes indulges in meat or fish but mostly sticks to plant foods.
- Plant-forward is a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes plant-based foods but is not strictly limited to them. Meat may be included but it’s usually not the main feature of the meal.
Lean, mean and green protein
Whichever diet you choose, just remember that removing meat doesn’t have to mean removing protein. There are plenty of foods that can fill the bill, like tofu, quinoa, mushrooms, lentils, chickpeas and most beans and legumes. And did you know there are many good vegetable sources of protein? That’s right, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, corn, potatoes, peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes and turnip greens all provide a good amount of protein. In fact, every plant we eat has some protein in it. So you may be getting enough protein without meat.
Not all plant-based diets are healthy
Just make sure you’re not replacing meat with a bunch of highly processed meat substitutes or “vegan junk food.” You know, the French fry diet! The key is adding high-quality, nutrient-dense plant-based foods. In fact, a recent study showed that eating primarily high-quality plant foods (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts) was associated with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular diseases than eating primarily lower-quality plant foods (such as fruit juices, refined grains, potatoes and sweets). The researchers concluded that even if you’ve eaten a poor diet for half your life, adding more healthy plant foods as an adult can help reduce your risk.
Making the switch
Going plant-forward is easier than ever these days. Start by searching out some enticing vegetarian recipes that are easy to prepare. Choose ingredients and flavors you know your family will enjoy. Experiment with a meatless meal once a week, then add more days as you get used to it. Odds are good that you will get used to it! Your heart health and your waistline might get used to it, too. Bon appetite.