America eats more meat now than ever. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted at the beginning of 2018 that Americans would eat a record 222.2 pounds per person this year.
But at the same time, more and more Americans are turning to a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diet.
Flexitarians are semi-vegetarian, meaning their diet is largely plant-based but occasionally includes meat. Vegetarians do not eat meat, including poultry or fish. Vegans eat no animal products at all, which means no eggs, no dairy and nothing that uses any part of an animal (an example is gelatin).
If you love a big, juicy cheeseburger, you may wonder why anyone would choose to go meat-free.
“There is a lot of evidence showing that moving away from an animal-based diet toward a plant-based one has tremendous health benefits,” said C.J. Duhon, R.D., a clinical dietitian on Carilion Clinic’s Nutrition Services team. “Making the mindful and conscientious decision to change your eating habits can go a long way toward preventing or even reversing major killers like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.”
Some people also choose to limit or eliminate meat from their life for animal protection or environmental sustainability reasons. The way that the meat industry raises and slaughters animals can be disturbing for some, and according to the Worldwatch Institute, agriculture and livestock are some of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the most important things for a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diet is for it to be balanced.
“Replacing meat with high-carbohydrate foods or high-sugar foods won’t provide you with the health benefits of a meat-free lifestyle,” said Duhon. “Eat plenty of good carbs, vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and nuts for protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber you need.”
If you’re interested in starting to eat less meat, here are some easy ways:
1. Eat more fruits and vegetables.
For breakfast, try oatmeal with berries, or even sauté vegetables and top with eggs. Fruits and vegetables make great snacks, too!
2. Let the meat play a supporting role.
Think differently about your meals by keeping any meat portions small and letting the plant-based food on your plate be the star.
3. Load up on beans and legumes.
They are great ways to get protein you need and are also filling so you won’t need to eat as much or as often. Try bean chili or hummus or top your salad with beans instead of meat.
4. Don’t forget the grains.
Whole grains like brown rice and quinoa are nutritional powerhouses and pair well with all kinds of meals.
“Even if you don’t go all the way to an animal-free diet, just moving toward that will help your health,” said Duhon.
There are also some great tips in our article about vegetarian eating on the road as well as plenty of meat-free recipes here.