Meatless meals: The benefits of eating less meat

Plant-based proteins offer many health benefits and can be less expensive than meat. One way to get these benefits is to choose a meatless meal once or twice a week.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

People decide to eat less meat for many reasons. You may want to cut out meat for health, ethical, religious, cultural or environmental reasons. But it can be hard to make changes to your diet and still serve healthy meals.

Why not start by serving meatless meals once or twice a week?

Meatless meals are built around beans, lentils, vegetables and whole grains. Plant-based proteins offer many health benefits. Eating more plant-based proteins can help your budget too. They tend to be less pricy than meat.

The health factor

A plant-based diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, peas, lentils and nuts. It's rich in fiber, vitamins and other nutrients. And people who don't eat meat, called vegetarians, generally eat fewer calories and less fat. They also tend to weigh less. And they have a lower risk of heart disease than nonvegetarians do.

Research shows that people who eat red meat are at a higher risk of death from heart disease, stroke or diabetes. Processed meats also make the risk of death from these diseases go up.

And what you don't eat also can harm your health. Diets low in nuts, seeds, seafood, fruits and vegetables can also make your health risks go up. The good news is that even eating less red and processed meat has a positive effect on health.

How much protein do you need?

Most Americans get enough protein in their diets. The recommended daily intake of protein for adults is about 50 grams.

Of course, your protein needs will vary with age, weight, health, pregnancy, activity level and other factors. Adults need about 5 to 7 ounces of protein-rich foods a day. And keep in mind, you can choose from more than one protein source.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends choosing a variety of proteins. These include eggs, low-fat milk and products made from it, beans, peas, lentils, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.

If you're eating a higher calorie protein source, stick to smaller portions. For example, enjoy just 1/2 ounce of nuts, or 1 to 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.

The guidelines also suggest replacing protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories. The fats in meat, poultry, eggs and high-fat dairy products such as cheese are called solid fats. The fats in seafood, nuts and seeds are called oils.

Try meatless meals once or twice a week

You don't have to get rid of all meat all at once. Instead, try easing into meatless meals. Think about going meatless one day a week. You may find you'll want to add more days.

If you don't like the idea of a whole day without meat, start with a couple of meatless dinners each week. Plan meals that use your favorite recipes that are typically meatless, such as lasagna, soup, pasta and vegetable salad. Or try substituting the following protein-rich foods for meat in your favorite recipes:

  • Beans, peas and lentils can be added to casseroles, soups and salads.
  • Vegetarian refried beans can be used instead of meat in burritos and tacos.
  • Tofu can be added tostir-fry dishes.

When meat is on the menu

When your meals include meat, don't overeat. Choose lean cuts and stay away from oversized portions. A serving of protein is 3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.

An easy guide to balance your meal is to divide your plate. Proteins should take up no more than one-fourth of your plate. Vegetables and fruits should cover half your plate. Whole grains make up the rest.

Flexing for your health

The term "flexitarian" describes someone who eats mostly plant-based foods. But the person occasionally eats meat, poultry and fish.

Plant-forward is a style of eating that includes meat. But meat is not the star of the meal. This kind of healthy eating is key to the Mediterranean diet. It's also key to other cuisines, such as some Asian, Ethiopian, Indian and Middle Eastern diets. These diets limit red meat. And they focus on fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, whole grains and healthy fat. This type of diet has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions. Why not work on your flexibility and start enjoying some healthy benefits?

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Dec. 09, 2022 See more In-depth