As I write, I am munching on a favorite Southwest-flavored quinoa dish (pictured above), full of vitamins, minerals, carbs, protein, fat, and fiber. I'm reminded of my S.I's question as he consumed the same dish over the weekend: "where's the chicken?" Well, duh! You are getting plenty of protein through the quinoa, black beans, and pumpkin seeds that make up your plate. No need for chicken, I explain. He knows this, of course, but the reality is - many of us don't consider a meal "a meal", without the meat.
I am here to tell you that that's okay! Adding more plants to your diet is highly recommend, but from a health perspective, there's no reason to completely give up meat or animal products just for the sake of doing so.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is full of refined carbohydrates and added sugars (aka: white flours/cereals, processed foods like chips, cakes and cookies), traditionally low in whole grains (complex carbs like 100% wheat, quinoa, etc.), low in fruits and veggies, and high in saturated and trans fats, including large portions of animal products like red meat. Studies have shown that the SAD, in combination with a lack of exercise, can lead to short and long-term health concerns, like diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, and cancers, among others.
We also know that plant-based foods, like legumes (beans, lentils), fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are health-promoting and decrease the risk of diseases like diabetes, atherosclerosis, cancer, and all-cause mortality. Individuals that consume these foods on a regular basis tend to have healthier lifestyles overall (more active and health conscious) and are generally healthier on the whole.
So, is the answer to ditch the meat and go vegetarian or vegan - cold turkey?
Not so fast.
The choice to reduce or eliminate meats/animal products from one's routine may happen for one of many reasons: animal welfare, environmental worries, sustainability, cost, and others. Those can all be great reasons to give up meat, but remember, if your reason for doing so is based just on health concerns, don't feel you have to give it all up.
The Problem: Often, when animal products are consumed regularly and in large amounts, they become the centerpiece of the meal, and replace other nutrient-providing foods.
Rather than cutting meats and animal products out completely, try working on ways to add in other health-promoting foods. Many studies show that animal products can fit into a healthy lifestyle, and in fact, can lower the risk of diseases like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and cardio-metabolic health. It's a matter of fitting animal products into your routine in moderation, rather than as a focal point. By now you know I believe all foods can fit into your healthy routine. But you know the saying: too much of one thing is never a good thing!
The goal here is moderation and balance. Remember to look at your diet from a broad lens- on the whole, rather than defining your health based on a single food, a single meal, or a single day.
Enter: a "plant forward" mindset.
When you turn your attention to consuming variety of nutrients throughout the day, you begin to realize that a well-balanced plate can make all the difference in meeting this goal. 'Plant forward' is just a new term for the apparently passe fancy term "Flexitarian" - simply put: some meat, mostly plants. Incorporating more plant-based foods will ensure more fiber, more nutrients, and more healthy energy.
The Action Point:
Take a look at your plate at your next meal. What is it made of?
Try out these tips for creating a balanced plate:
1. Include a fruit or veggie with each meal. And make half of your plate veggies at dinner.
1/2 plate: non-starchy veggies: asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, peppers, etc.
1/4 plate: lean meat/protein: chicken, fish, or lean cut beef | beans, tofu, tempeh, eggs, nuts
1/4 plate: complex carbohydrate: sweet/white potato, quinoa, whole grain pasta, farro, etc.
2. Lean meats make the cut, but shoot for about 3 ounces.
3 oz. is the recommended portion for meats, which is about the size of a deck of cards.
Lean cuts that will have lower amounts of saturated fats.
White meat poultry.
Lean cuts of beef (like sirloin), lean ground beef (90% lean or higher)
Fish & Seafood - at least twice per week!
3. Get Creative - Try a new recipe or variation on an old favorite to add in more plant-based foods.
Try a mushroom (or veggie) blended burger: add to your normal ground beef for added nutrients.
Trade off a traditional meat entree for a vegetarian one like bean burger, lentil soup, whole grain noodles and zoodles, or stuffed peppers.
Take on a Meatless Monday routine: Try making some or all of your meals meatless one day per week.
Swap your snacks: Add nuts or seeds to your normal snacking routine in combination with a piece of fruit.
Consuming animal products in the recommend amounts, in combination with a dietary pattern rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and dairy is perfectly acceptable and recommended.
The best plan is the one that meets your goals and works best for you. Let's do it together!
Weigh in with your thoughts!