Walking Guide

Meatless Meals Benefit Your Health

"What do you eat?!” may be the question most often heard by vegetarians, as if meat is the only food group available. Obviously, as the five million thriving vegetarians in America have shown, there’s a lot to eat, without choosing meat—and they’re healthier as a result.

According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, vegetarians have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and asthma. While simple recipes abound for tasty meatless fare, vegetarianism is a leap that many aren’t prepared to take. But you can still have many of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet without trading your turkey for Tofurkey by trying "flexitarianism" on for size. Flexitarians, or semi-vegetarians, are “sometimes" vegetarians, meaning people who reduce some of their meat consumption and fill the gap with other plant-based food groups—eating a mostly vegetarian diet, yet remaining flexible.

Although the name is new, the idea is not. In fact, a few generations ago, meat was most often eaten in side-dish portions, while other food groups took center stage. Beans, vegetables, and grains supplied the bulk of a meal, while the meat supplied the flavor. This might sound backward, but many nutrition experts agree that our health would benefit if we took this “old-fashioned” approach to eating.

Eating less meat and more grains, beans, fruits and veggies means you’ll be consuming fewer calories, less saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. And that adds up to a lot of health benefits. On average, people who eat less meat are leaner, less apt to weight gain than people who eat the most meat, less prone to cancer, especially colorectal cancer, and suffer from fewer heart problems.

Another benefit is that you’ll save money. Meat costs more per pound than most foods. You can use that extra cash you save to get a gym membership, new running shoes, or an iPod for your workouts.

Committing to a 100% vegetarian diet isn’t necessary to achieve the health benefits that vegetarians enjoy. There aren’t specific guidelines to exactly how much meat to cut out to achieve these benefits, but cutting back even slightly is a positive change. A national health campaign known as Meatless Monday promotes cutting out meat one day each week, but you could try meatless lunches during the week for the same effect.

Now, replacing a sirloin steak with a can of pinto beans might not appeal to you. But how does roasted tomato-eggplant ratatouille with rice, or spicy black bean chili and cheesy cornbread sound? There are many meals like these that taste so good you won’t even think to ask “where’s the beef?” Eggplant parmesan, pasta salad, bean burritos, and vegetable fajitas are some good examples. Admittedly, a flexitarian diet will call on your creativity. Here are some tips to get you started:
  • Stock up on vegetarian cookbooks. Some good ones to try include Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison and The New Moosewood Cookbook, by Molly Katzen. These and many other titles are available at your local library, so you can check them out before you commit. Also visit SparkRecipes.com for a wide selection of vegetarian recipes.
  • If you’re cooking at home, make your main course meatless and serve meat on the side. You could have vegetarian lasagna and a salad topped with cubed chicken, roasted eggplant and zucchini sandwiches with antipasto, or spinach frittata and a side of organic sausage.
  • Pick a meatless day each week. Or go vegetarian during the week and omnivore on the weekends. This will give your body a break from processing all that cholesterol and saturated fat, and balance your overall caloric and fat intake.
  • Try some meat substitutes. Most vegetarians enjoy cold-cuts as much as anyone, but theirs are made from soy, and are lower in fat and cholesterol-free.
  • When dining-out, scour the menu for vegetarian options—restaurants usually offer at least one. If not, choose an entrée that is served with veggies and grains—like pasta, or stir-fry.
  • Fill up in the garden. Imagine your dinner plate is divided in quarters. Fill two quarters with veggies, one quarter with grains, and the last quarter with meat.
  • Eat your veggies first. Along with vitamins, they’re also loaded with fiber, which will begin to satiate you before you dig in to the meat.
  • Bank your meals for the future. If you go to a restaurant and order a steak, order a take-away container along with it. Cut off a section about the size of a deck of playing cards, and that’s your dinner. The rest will make a great lunch tomorrow and maybe even more—all for the price of one meal.
  • Skimp on cheese. There is a common pitfall for anyone attempting a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet—substituting one saturated fat (meat) for another (cheese). Remember that cheese is high in saturated fat too, and can contribute to health problems if over-consumed. Rely on vegetables and whole grains to fill in the gap instead.
  • Check out www.MeatlessMonday.com for more ideas and recipes.

What it all boils down to is balance and moderation. Although moderation never sounds exciting, the benefits to your health, your waistline, and your wallet can be very exciting indeed!

Want to learn more about going meatless? Check out SparkPeople's first e-book! It's packed with over 120 delicious meat-free recipes, plus tips and tricks for going meatless. Get it on Amazon for $2.99 and start cooking easy, wholesome veg-centric meals the whole family will love!
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Member Comments

I do a lot of meatless meals. It isn't something that I plan. It just happens. Report
Thank you! Report
Good read. Excellent need-to-know information, thanks! Report
Great article, thanks for the tips. Report
good ideas cant spell at night Report
goof ideas Report
By the way, check the labels on processed vegan/vegetarian protein and other foods and you will indeed find some with a very acceptable list of ingredients. They aren't all made the same way. And as with all processed foods - you can make versions for yourself, loads of recipes online now that you can freeze for handy availability. Report
ETHELMERZ- Actually, raising animals for food uses up far more land and other resources than planting and growing food crops. That's been calculated many times, a little googling can come up with the figures. That's actually one argument for moving toward a more plant-based diet, we can feed many more people that way with the same resources. Also factory farms have a lot of problems both from an animal cruelty standpoint and spread of disease. The infamous bird flu, for example, was actually mostly a factory farm problem although that wasn't emphasized in most media accounts.

But you're very right about current prices for fruit and veg. Need to take out a bank loan to buy produce these days. I had such sticker shock when I went to buy fresh lemons the other day that I looked online for good-tasting lemon juice (don't like the tasteless or worse options in the local grocery store). Found a nice one that tastes really good (Lakewood, just from organic lemons, no preservatives) that will last in the fridge long enough for me to get through it (1qt lasts about two months and it's also available as 1pt). And it's hugely cheaper than buying lemons right now. Same for another recommended lemon juice, something called Volcano from Italy, although I haven't tried it yet. I imagine looking for organic juice is the key to good taste.

Canned veg don't often taste very good, but frozen veg usually are quite good from a decent brand. Their prices are much higher now also, so I stock up during sales. Report
By cold cuts I assume they mean what are often also called deli slices, and today there are a tremendous variety of vegan/vegetarian versions as well as veggie burgers and sausages etc. These are just convenient forms for food and they often have the familiar spices you see in the meat analogs. This is helpful for people dealing with carnivores or who grew up in a meat-based culture, but isn't essential. Some brands are very good, others not so much. Tofurky deli slices are very nice for sandwiches, for example (many other brands as well). Field Harvest has slices based on beans that are not intended to mimic meat. Louisville Vegan has wonderful soy-based soft jerky in many flavors that can be used also in sandwiches or casseroles. I've always liked some of the Loma Linda line. They all typically do have a lot of sodium, as is true for many processed foods. But only a fraction of the population is actually salt-sensitive (I'm not) and also the key point is how much sodium you get over the course of the day. Even though I eat some of these products fairly often, my sodium intake is well within current guidelines. Just track sodium if you're sensitive (or just curious, like me).

By the way - although some veggie meat-like products may have a taste reminiscent of the meat analogs, they definitely do not have the bad parts of meat texture that I hated as a kid. (Not even Gardein products, which taste so much like their carnivore analogs that allegedly some vegetarians don't want to eat them... but they are entirely plant-based and so I can eat them with no trouble despite my dairy and egg allergies). So anyone bothered by the texture of meat might want to give the vegetarian/vegan analogs a try.

Anyway - such processed veggie foods are not essential for eating vegetarian or vegan (and neither is soy), but can still be useful for some of us including carnivores trying to reduce their meat consumption. We also don't need to become master chefs -- I am kitchen-challenge
d but eat very simply, so it really isn't hard to eat mostly or entirel... Report
An excellent article. Report
If you hang out with eagles, you're going to fly. - Steve Maraboli ~ 3/5/18 Report
Great piece -- also great that you cited Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. They're a fantastic resource for research and options to reduce cancer and heart disease through plant-based diets.

Check out their site! www.pcrm.org Report
Good information. I'm eating less beef and eating more meals with beans, soy etc.
great information Report
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About The Author

Liza Barnes
Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.