The main components of a healthy, balanced meal are protein, carbohydrates and some fat. Protein is often the star of the dish, while the carbohydrates and fat are eaten as sides. Think about your average dinner plate: the main attraction is often chicken, beef, pork or turkey with veggies and pasta, rice or some other grain on the side. A healthy diet can certainly include lean cuts of chicken, turkey, beef or pork, but there are also many plant-based ways to meet your protein needs. In fact, plant-based proteins provide an abundance of additional health benefits that the meat does not, while also eliminating the properties of meat that can be detrimental to our health.
The USDA reports that the average consumer will eat a total of 222 pounds of meat in 2018. This record-breaking number comes at a time when many Americans are rejecting carbohydrates in favor of protein while following popular fad diets, such as the Keto or Paleo Diet. Unfortunately there can definitely be too much of a good thing. Consuming too many servings of animal-based proteins, like chicken, beef, pork or turkey, has been linked to numerous health problems, including heart disease, cancer, and obesity.
Most animal-based proteins contain large amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol. Consuming an excess amount of saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. High levels of this type of “bad cholesterol” increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that individuals consume no more than 5-6% of calories from saturated fat. For example, if you consume 2000 calories each day, no more than 120 calories (or about 13g) should come from saturated fats. To put this in perspective, just one 4-oz portion of ground beef (80% lean, 20% fat) contains 7.5g of saturated fat, while one 4-oz portion of skin-on chicken thighs contains about 5g. Most of us consume some sort of animal meat at every meal. Even if we are mindful of our portion sizes, we are still likely to be over the limit, even without including other sources of saturated fat (i.e. dairy, oils, and processed foods).
Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) is another substance found in meat that can lead to the development of heart disease. TMAO has been found to injure the lining of our blood vessels, which causes our body to initiate an inflammatory response. Such a response facilitates the formation of cholesterol-based plaque in our blood vessels. This is a major contributor to the development of cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, processed meats, such as ham, bacon, sausage and some deli meats, are classified by the World Health Organization as carcinogens, or cancer-causing substances. During processing, nitrates and sugar are often added to the the meat in order to preserve it and add flavor. Different processing techniques include salting, curing, fermenting and smoking. Through processing, cancer promoting substances are formed in the meat. Studies have shown that excess consumption of processed meats raises your risk for colon cancer, and potentially other cancers as well. Because of this, the American Cancer Society recommends limiting the intake of processed meat as much as possible.
In case you needed another reason to cut back on meat, many animal-based proteins are also naturally high in calories and fat. Research has shown that heavy meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of obesity. In fact, individuals who consume diets high in meat take in as much as 700 more calories per day compared to those who consumed diets lower in meat.
Eating a diet that is rich in plants, and lower in animal-based proteins, can help to lessen or even eliminate these health risks!
Plant-based diets are defined as eating patterns that emphasize foods derived from plants, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes with the addition of limited or no animal products. Studies have shown that plant-based diets are a cost-effective way of eating and can help prevent and fight chronic disease.
Following a plant-based diet has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, including heart failure and coronary artery disease. Plant foods contain a ton of healthy-for-you nutrients, including mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber and plant protein. Consuming plant-based foods in adequate amounts is associated with decreased LDL levels, and therefore, a decreased incidence of atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in the arteries). Specific substances in plant-based foods, such as polyphenols, have even been found to disrupt the pathway by which LDL is formed. This means lower cholesterol levels.. Furthermore, plant-based foods do not contain any TMAO, thereby eliminating this cause of cardiovascular disease altogether.
Diabetes, characterized by abnormally high levels of blood sugar, is a common condition that accompanies cardiovascular disease. A plant-based diet has been shown to be an effective treatment for type two diabetes and can help prevent complications, including renal disease and neuropathy. Research has shown a significant reduction in hemoglobin A1c among individuals who adhere to plant-based diets. Hemoglobin A1c serves as a marker for diabetes management, as it is an average blood glucose level over 3 months time. In fact, a plant-based diet has been shown to decrease hemoglobin A1c almost as much as some medications. Some individuals who adhere to a plant-based diet are even able to forgo medication completely. If you have diabetes, make sure to check-in with you health-care provider before changing your diet.
A plant-based diet has also shown benefits in regards to cancer prevention. As stated above, processed meats contain carcinogens. By eating more plants and less meat, you eliminate the majority of these carcinogens. Additionally, the nutrients found in plant-based foods, including vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber, are known to reduce cancer risk.
Similarly, individuals who eat less meat are often found to be of a healthier weight! Replacing some animal-based proteins with plant foods can eliminate a lot of extra fat and calories. In fact, studies have shown that vegetarian diets can help promote weight loss! On average across many studies, dieters following a vegetarian plan lost about 5 pounds more than their meat-eating counterparts.
It’s important to remember that eating a plant-based diet is certainly not an all or nothing type of change. Just incorporating more fruits and vegetables and eating less meat can make all the difference in your health and help you to reap the benefits!
Chocked-full of protein and fiber, beans are an amazing plant-protein. Just one cup of pinto beans contains 41 grams of protein and 30 grams of fiber. Kidney beans are even better, with one cup containing 43 grams of protein and 46 grams of fiber.
The best part about adding beans to your diet is the sheer variety. The most popular types of beans include lima, black, black-eyed peas, soybean, kidney, garbanzo, navy, pinto and red. Changing up the type of bean you eat can add a diversity of flavors and nutrients to your diet!
A complete protein contains all 9 essential amino acids, the amino acids our bodies need but cannot create and must obtain from food. Out of all types of beans, only soybeans are a complete protein. However, we’re not out of luck. Combining any type of bean with a whole grain, such as brown rice or whole wheat pasta, creates a complete protein. This relationship between beans and whole grains makes for the perfect basis for any meal. Just add some veggies and you’re set to go!
As an extremely versatile ingredient, beans can be used to make classic recipes, such as Spanish black beans and rice and chili, or creative, modern meals, such as black bean burgers, spaghetti squash bean bowls and bean meatballs! Check out this site to see some original ways to incorporate beans into your diet.
Nuts, including almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, and pine nuts among many others, are a healthy addition to any meal or snack–either whole or ground into nut butter(think peanut or almond butter). Nuts and nut butters are high in monounsaturated fats and protein, meaning they’ll keep us feeling full all day long. Just one ounce of mixed nuts contains 5 grams of protein! Nut butters contain about 8 grams of protein in just two tablespoons. Nuts and nut butters are also full of fiber and nutrients, including magnesium, phosphorus and copper.
Nuts are portable, convenient, and can be eaten as a tasty snack all on their own. Nut butter can be spread on a slice of whole grain bread or alongside apples for an easy snack. And just like beans, peanut butter and whole grain bread make a complete protein source. Just make sure to look for unsalted varieties, avoid nut butters with added sugar, and watch your portion size. Since nuts are high in fat, they are also high in calories. A normal portion size is one ounce (about a handful, of nuts and two tablespoons of nut butter).
But nuts are not just for snacking. Nuts can also be added to meals in addition to or in place of animal-based proteins. Nuts are commonly used in Thai cooking to add crunch and flavor! Check out this healthy Rainbow Vegetarian Pad Thai recipe for some inspiration. Nuts can also be added to salads and vegetable dishes to create meatless meals. This spinach salad utilizes pecans, while this spicy broccoli rabe dish includes walnuts. Nut butters can add a delicious savoriness to many dishes as well. Use peanut butter to make this tasty peanut sauce to pour on top of noodles, veggies or tofu.
Tofu is a popular food derived from soy. As a complete protein, tofu provides all 9 essential amino acids. 100 grams of tofu, a little less than half a cup, contains a whopping 8 grams of protein along with iron, calcium, manganese, copper, zinc and vitamin B1.
As a staple ingredient in Thai and Chinese cooking, tofu is incredibly versatile, as it can be cooked in different ways to change its texture from smooth and soft to crispy and crunchy. Tofu by itself has a very mild flavor. Therefore, it tends to take on the flavor of the sauce it’s being served with. Tofu can be used in any dish in place of a plant-based protein, like chicken, beef or pork. Tofu can even be used as a substitute for eggs – check out this recipe to try it. Tofu can also be added to dishes to up their protein content and increase your feeling of fullness. In this snack, tofu is added to a blueberry smoothie to give you the long-lasting fuel you need throughout the day. Check out this site for even more creative tofu recipes.
Tofu can be purchased in bulk or individual packages in the refrigerator section of your grocery store. Some tofu is also stored at room temperature and does not need to be refrigerated until opened. Extra-firm tofu is best for baking, grilling and stir-frys, while soft tofu, including silken tofu, is suitable for sauces, desserts, shakes and salad dressings. Before cooking with tofu, make sure to rinse it off. If you don’t use the entire package, tofu can be stored in water and then placed in the fridge for up to a week. It can also be kept frozen for up to five months.
Plenty of veggies are rich in protein too! For example, 1 stalk of broccoli, 1 ear of corn, and a medium potato contain about 5 grams each, while just 1 cup of edamame contains a whopping 18 grams!
Most of us tend to eat more than enough protein. Therefore, there’s no need to get hung up on how much protein we’re eating. In fact, we could all use some more meatless meals. Meals comprised of veggies and whole grains will contain some protein, but more importantly, they are rich in fiber and nutrients to keep us healthy.
There are tons of ways to use veggies in place of animal-based proteins. Let’s look at cauliflower as an example. The stalks can be turned into roasted steaks, florets can become buffalo bites and riced cauliflower can become tots.
It’s time to think outside the box when it comes to our meals and think of veggies as more than just a boring side. Here’s an article that includes even more ways to make veggies the star of your next meatless meal.
Not ready to give up meat completely? That’s no problem! A balanced diet can certainly contain both animal-based proteins and plant-based foods. Just follow the tips below to ensure your diet is as healthy as it can be!
1) Choose healthy meats including lean proteins: choose skinless poultry and the least fatty meats you can find. For example, try 90% lean, 10% fat ground beef over varieties higher in fat. Additionally, remove all visible fat before cooking. Avoid processed meats whenever possible.
2) Keep your portion size in check: eat no more than 5.5 oz of meat per day. Remember, one serving size of meat is just 3 oz (about the size of a deck of cards).
3) Cook healthy: bake, roast, steam or grill meat as opposed to frying. Additionally, avoid cooking meats in oils and butter that are high in saturated fat. Olive and canola oils are your best bet.
4) Start small: an easy way to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet is to try eating just one meatless meal a week.
With all that plant-based foods have to offer, it’s time to start rethinking your meals and incorporating more veggies. Get started tonight with an easy meatless dinner using one of the recipes above.
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