Part-Time Vegetarian: Consider the Benefits

If you long for sirloin, can't pass up a juicy burger, and indulge in chicken and pork on a regular basis, you may be harming your health.

Red meat gets an especially bad rap and the results of an increasing number of studies seem to explain why. Aside from the problems associated with conventional farming methods—meat today is lower in nutrients including iron—eating too much red meat has also been linked with more deaths from heart disease and cancer.  "The overconsumption of meat in the diet elevates cholesterol and blood lipids, and crowds out the healthy components supplied by fruits and vegetables," says Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA past president of the American Nutrition Association.

Ruth Frechman, MA, RD, CPT agrees. "Eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week increases the risk of cancer (Note: three ounces is approximately the size of a deck of cards)," explains the author of the Food Is My Friend Diet. "Many of my clients don't consume enough fruit and veggies.  A 180-pound man should aim for two and a half cups of fruit and veggies a day. Plants contain antioxidants, fiber, and nutrients not found in meat."

The American Heart Association serves up another set of reasons why eating more plants makes sense. According to the AHA, vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes, and some forms of cancer. Plus, vegetarians weigh an average of 15 percent less than their carnivore-eating counterparts.

Still not convinced?  Just changing the way you think about meat can go a long way toward improving your diet. "It's not necessary to become a vegetarian (defined as eating no food derived from animals)," Levin says. "But meat should be a side dish—rather than the main course. Adding healthy plant-based foods is the key for health." Here are some other ideas to help you cut down your meat consumption and incorporate more plant food into your diet:

Eat meat once a day.

If you have a turkey sandwich for lunch, eat a vegetarian dish for supper.

Change your diet gradually.

You don't have to go cold turkey overnight. "Devoting one day a week can be a place to start. Try having a Meatless Monday, for example, and see how it goes," says Frechman. "You may find you don't miss it as much as you think you will. If that's the case, add two meat-free days to your week."

Use online tools to help you understand how to have the right food portions.

If eating less meat seems radical to you, visit, the USDA's easy-to-follow, healthy eating guidelines designed to simplify the process. Frechman describes the concept: "Picture your plate having four sections. Fill up two sections (half the plate) with fruits and vegetables. Meat should take up no more than a quarter of the dish."

Add beans to your dinner.

Kidney, garbanzo, pinto, navy, and soy beans are all good for your health. For a complete protein (containing all the essential amino acids), serve them with rice. Canned beans are convenient and can be effortlessly added to stews, salads, or a variety of casseroles. They play a starring role in many ethnic dishes that can be replicated at home. Bagged lentils don't have to be soaked over night, cook in about 30 minutes and use it instead of meat for a delicious chili.

Reap the health benefits of soy.

Tofu, or soy bean curd, is also a good source of protein and can be served in a variety of ways. Cut into cubes and marinated with soy sauce and rice vinegar, it completes a delicious vegetable stir fry and can be used in dips, spreads, or served with pasta. Soy contains isoflavones which inhibit tumor growth, lower blood cholesterol levels, decrease the risk of blood clots, and may even guard against bone loss.

Enjoy the right cut of steak.

According to Frechman, a registered dietician, there are 29 cuts of red meat that are considered as lean as white meat including flank steak, t-bone steak, eye round, chuck, top loin, and filet mignon. "Pretty much any piece of meat that includes the word "loin"-as in sirloin—indicates—a less-fatty cut of meat.

Decipher meat labels.

Beef labeled "prime" (rather than choice or select) typically has more fat. Ground breast meat is the leanest choice but beware of ground chicken. If the skin and dark meat have been included, ground chicken can have more fat than ground beef.

Choose the right ground meat.

Ground beef that is at least 90 percent lean contains just a few grams of saturated fat per three ounce serving. Ground turkey breast is always a safe bet.

Experiment with new recipes.

Go online for inspiration and get cooking!
Celery still not at the top of your favorite foods list? Give it time. If you keep an open mind you may just discover a whole new world of healthier food options.



Interview with Neil Levin, CCN, DANLA past president of the American Nutrition Association and Ruth Frechman, MA, RD, CPT, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The American Nutrition Association

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

National Institutes of Health