Thursday Thoughts: Meatless

It's Thursday, so you know what that means...

Thursday Thoughts

If you are new to my blog, or haven't been reading on Thursdays, this is a segment where I post my thoughts about various nutrition and health related topics, or maybe even something else if it is really an intriguing topic.  Most of my current views and opinions come from experience working as a dietitian and as college instructor in nutrition courses.  Most of that learning is science based or observational from the clinical setting.  In general, I hate over-generalizations, so for many of the things I post, I expect there is one or two exceptions because broad sweeping generalizations are always bound to miss out on something. 

I know what you are thinking with my choice of topic today.  Nope, I am not trying to convert everyone to a vegetarian diet.  There is more to this, and while not everyone was cut out to be a vegetarian or vegan, there are some plus sides to going meatless.  Here are my thoughts...

1) Having a meatless meal does not make you a vegetarian.  While all vegetarians do meatless meals, not everyone who eats a meatless meal considers themselves a vegetarian.  It is not an all or nothing type of thing.  Everyone is welcome to eat a meal without meat from time to time.  There is no need to label yourself.  Maybe you like to have the occasional hamburger or chicken breast, but the rest of the time really just enjoy meatless meals.  So someone told you that doesn't make you a vegetarian, and if going by textbook definitions, it doesn't, but who says you need a label.  I eat fish, eggs and dairy, but I label myself a vegetarian.  Part of the reason is that I was a stricter vegetarian for years, so it is a habit from earlier times where people understood that to mean no meat and I was therefore not served meat.  The other reason being I find that people understand the term and I have better success not getting served a meal with meat in it or near it.  Yes, I am that picky, I will  not just eat around the meat on a plate.  But this is my preference.  I personally believe there is no need to label if the label makes you nervous.  If you feel like calling yourself a vegetarian means giving up all meat forever or risk being called a phony, fake or hypocrite, skip the label and eat what you want at your meals an snacks.  Eat mostly meatless and don't worry if you want to eat something "un-vegetarian".  Don't let others judge you for your personal choices, especially when it comes to food habits.

2) For all you meat eaters out there, don't overlook a delicious meatless meal.  You can eat a meatless meal and not risk being called a *gasp* vegetarian, or even worse, thought of as "less of a man".  There is no nutritional law out there that states you must eat meat with all meals everyday.  In fact, quite the contrary, and I will reserve that for later in this post.  Eating a meal without meat means little more than you just didn't include meat in your meal.  There are plenty of tasty non meat entrees out there and plenty of ways to get your protein in without the meat.  The key is variety, which you can't get as well with having beef at every meal or chicken at every meal.  Mix it up and don't worry about what people thing about meatless meals.

3) The health benefits support incorporating more meatless meals.  Animal products contain saturated fats, and while a we can have some, sticking to less than 10% for fat daily, less is better in this case.  Now, there are animal products that are lower in fat, so when choosing meats, those are the ones you want to select.  By cutting back on meats and focusing on a more plant based diet, you naturally decrease saturated fat while increasing things like heart healthy fats, fiber and nutrients.  Things like nuts and avocado have those heart health fats and often make their way into vegetarian dishes.  Plant based diets high in fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains will increase your fiber intake.  So when you choose meals based on these items you are going to get an increase in dietary fiber.  Also, by default, you will increase your nutrient intake because of the greater intake of fruits and vegetables that might otherwise be left out from a meal that is based around meat.  I know you are thinking that without the meat you will lose out on some nutrients while increasing the others from your produce, but keep in mind I am only suggesting more meatless meals, so you will still get those nutrients if you are not giving up meat all together.  When you do eliminate those animal based foods, you may have a harder time getting in some nutrients, like iron and B12, but they are not completing missing from a well planned vegetarian diet.  Many foods these days are fortified with those nutrients and often are not lacking in a vegetarian diet.  Someone who eats pizza and French fries and calls that a vegetarian diet will be missing out on key nutrients the same as anyone else who follows the same dietary intake.  

4) More meatless meals mean more fiber, unsaturated fats and nutrients (see above), which means a benefit to your health, especially obesity and heart disease.  Eating meals that promote satiety will help to keep your weight in check.  Changing the types of fats you are eating can improve your risk for developing heart disease, and if you have already been diagnosed with heart disease you will find this helps to improve your condition.  Many vegetarian meals are lower in fat, which helps to keep calories down.  It makes for more nutrients rich choices in your diet, both of which are beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight or promoting weight loss.  Fruits and veggies are packed with antioxidants, and there is some support for vegetarian diets reducing the risk of the development of some cancers.  Even if you are not eating meatless meals 100% of the time, doing it part time still reduces risk.  It does not have to be an all or nothing thing.  You can enjoy meatless meals, improve your health and not have to give up meat forever.

5) You might be concerned about protein intake, and you have a right to be.  So much misinformation out there may lead you to believe that you need a lot more of this than you actually do.  The RDA is only 0.8 grams/kg body weight (that's pounds divided by 2.2 to get kg).  We may need a little more just to help us meet our energy needs for the day, but huge increases does not provide us with better nutrition.  There are many ways to get protein in without having it come from an animal source.  It is possible that you have dairy or eggs at the meatless meal (since this falls into the category of a type of vegetarian), but if not, things like beans, nuts, meat substitutes (many products on the market), and even tofu.  There are so many ways to incorporate these into the diet that it makes for endless possibilities.  These meat substitutes have as much protein in them per ounce as meat would (in most cases).  But, there is a concern over the quality of the protein, to an extent.  As with any meal or diet (not the kind to lose weight) variety and balance are key, so this applies no matter what we are talking about.  By eating a variety of foods you can get a variety of the amino acids in from the protein. Meat we consider complete, in that it contains all the essential (must be obtained through the diet, the body can't make them on it's own) amino acids, but plant sources are are incomplete because they are missing one or more of the essential amino acids.  The exceptions being soy and quinoa.  You may have heard the term complementary proteins in the past where proteins were paired to get all essential amino acids in at the same time.  Now, just getting in a variety of plant foods and meat alternatives will likely do the trick.  Many times using a combination of at least 2 of the following: vegetable, legume (bean) and grain, will get those essential amino acids in.  The typical combo that gets brought up a lot is rice and beans.  You can see why grains are an important basis for a vegetarian diet, not to mention everyone else as well.  I could not even imagine a vegetarian trying out a low carb diet! If your otherwise meatless meal includes dairy or eggs, you will get all those essential amino acids from those foods.  In the end, as with anything, variety will make all the difference in the world...and a little planning.  A meatless meal can provide just as much protein as one with meat.  Even athletes can incorporate vegetarian meals into their diet.

There you have my thoughts on meatless.  My overall encouragement with this post is for you to add more meatless meals to your diet without having to go vegetarian 100% of the time.  The health benefits, plus some environmental benefits, make this an easy way to work towards a healthier lifestyle.

QUESTION:  What are your thoughts on meatless meals?


Emily said...

I think meatless meals are a great idea..we eat way too much meat in America, and it would be a good idea to displace some of that with vegetables to make up for our poor intake. I also think that it's quite easy to get enough protein on a veg diet (or flex diet)...and it is actually less expensive if you are ok with cooking from scratch. I just read a book called "eating animals," and it shed a lot of light on the whole factory farm industry and implications on eating meat. I think that 50 years ago, eating meat was a lot more healthful than it is today simply due to better and more sanitary farming practices. It's unfortunate that the food/farming industry is causing us to have to make different choices.

Gina; The Candid RD said...

I'll be honest, it's VERY rare that I eat a meatless meal (unless you aren't considering salmon "meat", but I do). I just have to have a little animal protein in my meals, but usually it's only about 2-3 ounces. For lunch, however, I eat zero meat, mainly because I graze for lunch. So really the only meat I eat is at dinner, and it's really not much (most of the time).
Did you happen to see the article about the company (can't remember who...) who is "suing" the USDA because the MyPyramid is too supportive of a non-vegetarian diet? I read it briefly, and tweeted it, it was...interesting...

Cher Rockwell said...

Some great thoughts here.
One of my very recent goals has been to deliberately eat meat free at least two days a week. Now that I am paying attention to this, it has become a fun challenge to find different ways to feel like I am getting a "full meal" on the table for everyone without the obligatory side of chicken or beef. Plus, it has the added benefit of exposing everyone to a whole world of new foods that we might not have tried if we only stuck to the old "stand-bys".

Special K said...

I only cook meat about three times a week, and probably eat "meat" every 5 days or so. I love tofu, soy crumbles, veggie dogs, and BEANS...and DAIRY....and protein powder. then fish (shrimp is easy for me) then lean white meats...I think this is the way we'll eat in 50 years with the population boom....weird to consider, huh?

You should consider doing a weekly post for Stars and Stripes or something!

Beth said...

Great thoughts! I only eat meat at one meal a day, and we don't always have meat then either. It's harder to be totally meat free now that I can't have soy, but I want to try quinoa!

Also, I should be around the end of Feb! Email me!

Kristen (swanky dietitian) said...

This is a great post! I definitely do mainly meatless meals. Now with that being said, I do still eat chicken. I rarely eat pork or beef but its not to say I won't have it once and a while. I think there are many benefits to eating less animal proteins and I also have issues with the treatment of animals.

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