Considering a vegetarian diet: Is meat-free really better?
Eating a vegetarian diet changes mealtime focus from one hunk of protein to a mix of proteins and fats. Get creative, and have fun with your menu.
More evidence that plant-based diets can help you stay healthy.
Surveys in the United States have estimated that nearly 30 million people eat diets that are largely or entirely meat-free. Many do so because they have ethical concerns about killing animals: they follow the principle of “not eating anything with eyes.” Others do so because they feel better—more energetic, more focused—on meat-free, plant-based diets.
For at least 30 years, evidence has emerged that such diets also may improve long-term health. “For a while now, the emphasis in research and healthy eating has been on more plant-based diets, such as the Mediterranean diet,” says registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Recent studies of the long-term health effects of meat-free, plant-based diets have provided further evidence of their benefits. A study published in December 2013 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dieteticsfound that vegetarians have the lowest average body mass index (BMI) and meat eaters have the highest BMIs. People with BMIs above 30 are obese, and obesity is associated with a higher risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, diverticulitis, heart disease, and other illnesses.
Several other recent studies provide more direct evidence of health benefits:
- A study published in the March 9, 2015, issue of JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that a meat-free diet can reduce the risk of developing colon cancer.
- A study published Feb. 22, 2013, in Cancer Epidemiology found that eating a vegetarian diet reduced the overall risk of all cancers compared with eating a non-vegetarian diet.
- A study published June 3, 2013, in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that vegetarian diets were associated with a 12% lower risk of death from all causes—not just cancer. The benefits were especially strong for men.
These studies were not randomized trials and therefore cannot prove that vegetarian diets have health benefits. However, previous randomized trials of the Mediterranean diet have demonstrated such benefits, making these study results more plausible.
In 2015, the advisory committee for the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans highlighted three worthwhile dietary approaches: the Mediterranean diet pattern, the healthy American-style pattern (such as the DASH diet), and the vegetarian diet pattern. “All of these patterns have common themes: they are plant-based; higher in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; lower in red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened food and drinks, and refined grains; and moderate in alcohol,” says McManus.
Making the switch
If the evidence is making you think twice about your dinner, then it’s time to consider switching to a meat-free diet, or at least reducing your meat intake.
While the idea of ditching all meat from your diet is daunting, you do have options about what to include in your diet. For example, some vegetarians continue to eat eggs and dairy (called a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet). Others include seafood in their diets (called a pesco-vegetarian diet). And there is considerable evidence that regular intake of fish (if not other seafood) offers many health benefits.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Start slowly. “What’s popular these days is Meatless Mondays, when you deliberately make a vegetarian meal. Then move to a few meatless meals per week. In between, make sure your plate is at least half full of vegetables,” suggests McManus.
- Be realistic. “It’s hard to go vegetarian if you don’t like fruits and vegetables. That is the basis of the diet, and it’s critical because fruits and vegetables offer a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients,” explains McManus.
- Change your thinking. “You won’t be focusing on a large chunk of meat for your protein and fat. Vegetarian meals mix proteins, fats, and vegetables together, such as stews, soups, and one-pot meals with beans and whole grains and vegetables,” says McManus (see “Where to find plant protein and fats”).
Where to find plant protein and fats
|FOOD||SERVING SIZE||PROTEIN (GRAMS)||FAT (GRAMS)|
|Olive oil||1 tablespoon||0||13|
|Smooth peanut butter||2 tablespoons||7||16|
|Dry-roasted almonds||1 ounce (22 nuts)||6||15|
|Shelled walnuts||1 ounce (14 halves||4||18|
|Dry-roasted sunflower seeds||¼ cup||6||16|
|Black beans||1 cup, cooked||15||1|
|Quinoa||1 cup, cooked||8||3|
|Kidney beans||1 cup, canned||13||1|
|Lentils||1 cup, cooked||18||1|
|Low-fat milk (1%)||1 cup||8||2|
|Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.|
What to eat
Your go-to foods will include vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Rely on spices and lemon juice for flavoring. What does that look like at meal time? “You might start with a breakfast of whole grains and add some nuts or seeds to it, with a little bit of fruit, or maybe have a slice of whole-grain toast with some avocado or peanut butter on it,” says McManus.
Lunch could be a black bean burger on a whole-grain roll, some hummus, and vegetables, or a quinoa salad with nuts and vegetables.
At dinnertime, sprinkle nuts and seeds onto salads, and substitute beans and lentils in stews and chili. Or try whole-grain pasta with roasted vegetables.
Looking for more variety? “You’ll have more options if you include eggs and dairy,” says McManus. That could mean omelets with vegetables, fruit shakes, and smoothies. If you choose to include dairy, make sure you use low-fat milk and milk products. Whole milk is rich in saturated fats, which increase LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
The key is to get creative and mix foods together for complete meals that are delicious, filling, and healthy.
Harvard Health Publication, Harvard Medical School