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Nutrition Articles  ›  Healthy Habits

Meatless Meals Benefit Your Health

A ''Flexitarian'' Diet Meets in the Middle

-- By Liza Barnes, Health Educator
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"What do you eat?!” may be the question most often heard by vegetarians, as if meat is the only food group available. Obviously, as the five million thriving vegetarians in America have shown, there’s a lot to eat, without choosing meat—and they’re healthier as a result.

According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, vegetarians have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and asthma. While simple recipes abound for tasty meatless fare, vegetarianism is a leap that many aren’t prepared to take. But you can still have many of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet without trading your turkey for Tofurkey by trying "flexitarianism" on for size. Flexitarians, or semi-vegetarians, are “sometimes" vegetarians, meaning people who reduce some of their meat consumption and fill the gap with other plant-based food groups—eating a mostly vegetarian diet, yet remaining flexible.

Although the name is new, the idea is not. In fact, a few generations ago, meat was most often eaten in side-dish portions, while other food groups took center stage. Beans, vegetables, and grains supplied the bulk of a meal, while the meat supplied the flavor. This might sound backward, but many nutrition experts agree that our health would benefit if we took this “old-fashioned” approach to eating.

Eating less meat and more grains, beans, fruits and veggies means you’ll be consuming fewer calories, less saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. And that adds up to a lot of health benefits. On average, people who eat less meat are leaner, less apt to weight gain than people who eat the most meat, less prone to cancer, especially colorectal cancer, and suffer from fewer heart problems.

Another benefit is that you’ll save money. Meat costs more per pound than most foods. You can use that extra cash you save to get a gym membership, new running shoes, or an iPod for your workouts.

Committing to a 100% vegetarian diet isn’t necessary to achieve the health benefits that vegetarians enjoy. There aren’t specific guidelines to exactly how much meat to cut out to achieve these benefits, but cutting back even slightly is a positive change. A national health campaign known as Meatless Monday promotes cutting out meat one day each week, but you could try meatless lunches during the week for the same effect.
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

Member Comments

  • This article felt more condescending toward meat and cheese than inclusive of vegetarian ideas. How about putting pears, eggplant, onion and other fruits/veggies on the grill? Pasta with garlic and olive oil? Why not? Then add a bit of mint. Fried rice with vegetables to give it flavor? Beans soup or vegetable stews? If done properly, a diet including meat can be just as healthy as a vegan diet, and meat-eaters can do both.

    I was once a vegetarian and there is a wonderful plethora of foods that kept me satisfied. I married a meat-eater, so now we eat meat, just as many animals do in the wild. I am thankful to these animals for giving their life and feel guilty only if the meat is wasted. Sadly, these animals do not know how to survive in the wild, only ranches. I also respect those like my best friend, nephew and cousin who are hunters and are incredibly in tune to nature and sit in a tree perch for hours. They eat everything that they hunt and have a love for their environment.

    Living in the full spectrum of the meat-eating scale, I really do not think it matters whether you eat meat or not; it is all fine as long as you are eating healthy meals. Even eating some cheese for protein and calcium is okay. Just respect different eating styles and embrace the diversity. - 4/11/2014 7:44:36 AM
  • ETHELMERZ,
    I have to disagree with your statement about not having enough land to grow vegetables. Not sure where you got your "facts".
    Think of all the land now being used to grow feed corn for animals who will be eaten for food. Not to mention all the land they occupy before being slaughtered.
    - 10/31/2013 6:00:45 AM
  • VERAMSW
    I am a vegetarian and have struggled with weight all my life. It can be healthier to avoid meat but it depends on how you eat overall. I don't eat meat for many reasons-- I do think meat is murder, but just as importantly I don't like the texture. The real reason I am commenting is that the statement about most vegetarians loving cold cuts twanged for me. It may be true that a lot of vegetarians eat veggie cold cuts (altho I personally don't know any) but I think it is false to say that most love them. I hate cold cuts and I agree that most of the veggie substitutes for cold cuts are laden with sodium. If I wanted something with the texture of meat, I would eat meat. - 3/3/2013 1:26:37 PM
  • ETHELMERZ
    I have known 11 people who are vegetarians, all of them have extra weight, too much grains, beans and cheesy foods, they enjoy alot of rice and veggie dishes. Two of them recently began to eat fish and chicken as side dishes, and lost weight, finally. It certainly isn't for everyone, and there is not enough land being used for growing vegetables to be enough if everyone suddenly became vegetarian or vegan, it would wear out the earth if that happened, saving nothing. - 2/19/2013 10:25:26 PM
  • I consciously choose not to eat meat as much as possible. I may buy some form of meat this year maybe five times. Some months, I may only eat two meat dishes. Others, like during the holidays, I eat more. However, I strive to not eat meat, and may someday just become a vegetarian. I consider myself flexitarian, and I'm proud of it. I strive to be what I feel is a consistent flexitarian: choosing to not eat meat whenever possible, but remaining flexible so that, for example, I can enjoy a Thanksgiving meal without having to fight with my family who wouldn't understand my viewpoints or enjoy freshly caught fish my dad was proud to have hooked. Some may see this labeling as pointless, most of which I've noted are people that sometimes don't eat meat, but on a more random or unintentional basis. That's fine with me if it's fine with you. However, the label isn't pointless to me, because I have labelled myself, and the label gives me more motivation to keep up with my goals. Just because you ate cheerios for breakfast and didn't throw hunks of sausage in the bowl but then chose a chicken quesadilla for lunch doesn't mean you are flexitarian, but it doesn't mean you need to criticize my (and other flexitarians') beliefs either. If you don't want to be labelled as flexitarian, then don't label yourself as it. - 1/3/2013 9:40:29 AM
  • I gave up meat for lent this year, and I did it completely the wrong way. I filled in the gaps with all the wrong food (cheese, cheese, and cheese), and (with school and everything) completely undid all of the hard work I'd done the previous summer. Maybe I'll take another go at this, but step by step. - 6/12/2012 2:10:46 AM
  • I'm living proof that not all vegetarians are lean and healthy. I've been strict vegetarian for YEARS and my weight has yo-yo'd like anyone else's would with an unhealthy diet. A lot of popular junk food is vegetarian; cake, cookies, etc. Not to mention, the soy meats are horribly processed junk with loads of sodium in them.

    I went VEGAN (no meat, dairy or eggs) for half a year once and lost over 30lbs with no exercise. I felt amazing too, but cheese and ranch dressing were my downfall. I should really try veganism again someday, maybe even raw vegan or fruitarianism. - 6/10/2012 12:27:48 AM
  • LOL at RAVENGIRL's comment. She knows what she's talking about.

    - 5/23/2012 4:26:36 PM
  • Tofurkey? Really? Not all vegetarians eat that processed garbage. This is why people react the way negatively to this particular lifestyle. I might as well eat fast food then eat that. UGH! Why not just promote a whole foods lifestyle instead? - 5/18/2012 10:35:30 AM
  • DEB_LEA
    Check our Mark Bittman's "Food Matters" book. He makes a good case for eating less meat and provides lots of great recipes. Michael Pollan has written several books that shed light on the food industry and has developed "Food Rules".... "Eat Food", "Mostly Plants" , "Not too much".

    - 4/24/2012 8:31:07 AM
  • There is no such thing as "humane" slaughtering. If I said that I was going to humanely murder you, would you be cool with that? My guess is probably not. There is no "eating in moderation" when it comes to meat either. Flesh is not a food group. - 4/6/2012 8:59:39 PM
  • "I love how whenever vegetarianism is brought up people who lack the willpower, discipline, care, or whatever to try it out get all up and arms and try to discredit the entire article. As if that changes the fact that this article is really just about incorporating more fruits and veggies into your diet. "

    Um, have to disagree with you on that... unless you call my 10 years meat-free as lacking willpower. No need to be condescending or rude about why people are attempting to discredit the article... have you thought that maybe the article is not accurate and relies on biased information? The article says a lot more than "eat more veggies"... if that's all it said, I would completely agree. Instead it talks of the benefits of avoiding meat, to which I do disagree and for good reason.

    In the end, I will also get a steak and big helping of veggies, so maybe we agree... although I may have more than 4 ounces of steak. :) - 4/6/2012 12:54:32 PM
  • I have two sister in laws who are vegetarian. When one came to visit I prepared in advance trying out vegan dishes on my family so I could cook food they could eat. We chose the tastiest meals and I practiced them. When my sister in law came she pushed the food around on her plate and several times went out to eat right after dinner. I was hurt that I tried so hard to please her and she didn't like my food. My other sister in law on the other side of the family did much the same thing, eating granola bars she had brought. The other members of the family loved the food so I wonder what the problem is. I used all foods that I either grew in my garden and organic seasonings and salt and stuff that was not animal based. Perhaps it would be easier just to let them eat their granola bars and go to McDonalds and not put so much effort into it. - 3/18/2012 11:51:04 PM
  • I love how whenever vegetarianism is brought up people who lack the willpower, discipline, care, or whatever to try it out get all up and arms and try to discredit the entire article. As if that changes the fact that this article is really just about incorporating more fruits and veggies into your diet.
    You can complain about the difference between a pescatarian, flexitarian and a vegetarian, I'll just worry about getting the 4 ounce steak instead of the 16 and add a big pile of vegetables on the side. - 3/14/2012 7:35:58 AM
  • On a related note - finding causation in any epidemiological study is fraught with problems. Epidemiology should only be used to look for correlations not causation. As a simple example - people with diabetes are generally overweight. Does diabetes cause people to be overweight or does being overweight cause diabetes? Making a health decision based on that data could very well be misdirected. Just sayin' - 3/2/2012 7:11:34 PM