Nutrition Articles

Meatless Meals Benefit Your Health

A ''Flexitarian'' Diet Meets in the Middle

"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.

Now, replacing a sirloin steak with a can of pinto beans might not appeal to you. But how does roasted tomato-eggplant ratatouille with rice, or spicy black bean chili and cheesy cornbread sound? There are many meals like these that taste so good you won’t even think to ask “where’s the beef?” Eggplant parmesan, pasta salad, bean burritos, and vegetable fajitas are some good examples. Admittedly, a flexitarian diet will call on your creativity. Here are some tips to get you started:
  • Stock up on vegetarian cookbooks. Some good ones to try include Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison and The New Moosewood Cookbook, by Molly Katzen. These and many other titles are available at your local library, so you can check them out before you commit. Also visit for a wide selection of vegetarian recipes.
  • If you’re cooking at home, make your main course meatless and serve meat on the side. You could have vegetarian lasagna and a salad topped with cubed chicken, roasted eggplant and zucchini sandwiches with antipasto, or spinach frittata and a side of organic sausage.
  • Pick a meatless day each week. Or go vegetarian during the week and omnivore on the weekends. This will give your body a break from processing all that cholesterol and saturated fat, and balance your overall caloric and fat intake.
  • Try some meat substitutes. Most vegetarians enjoy cold-cuts as much as anyone, but theirs are made from soy, and are lower in fat and cholesterol-free.
  • When dining-out, scour the menu for vegetarian options—restaurants usually offer at least one. If not, choose an entrée that is served with veggies and grains—like pasta, or stir-fry.
  • Fill up in the garden. Imagine your dinner plate is divided in quarters. Fill two quarters with veggies, one quarter with grains, and the last quarter with meat.
  • Eat your veggies first. Along with vitamins, they’re also loaded with fiber, which will begin to satiate you before you dig in to the meat.
  • Bank your meals for the future. If you go to a restaurant and order a steak, order a take-away container along with it. Cut off a section about the size of a deck of playing cards, and that’s your dinner. The rest will make a great lunch tomorrow and maybe even more—all for the price of one meal.
  • Skimp on cheese. There is a common pitfall for anyone attempting a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet—substituting one saturated fat (meat) for another (cheese). Remember that cheese is high in saturated fat too, and can contribute to health problems if over-consumed. Rely on vegetables and whole grains to fill in the gap instead.
  • Check out for more ideas and recipes.

What it all boils down to is balance and moderation. Although moderation never sounds exciting, the benefits to your health, your waistline, and your wallet can be very exciting indeed!

Want to learn more about going meatless? Check out SparkPeople's first e-book! It's packed with over 120 delicious meat-free recipes, plus tips and tricks for going meatless. Get it on Amazon for $2.99 and start cooking easy, wholesome veg-centric meals the whole family will love!

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Member Comments

  • I am not vegetarian, but most days of the week I don't eat meat. However, I do eat fish a few times a week and I always have lots of fruits and produce each day.
  • We have morphed to a focus on plants and feel much better! It's not that hard to day as they are so many options.
  • I've done both, low carb, high protein and high carb low protein. It depends on how much you eat. If you over eat too much you'll have weight gain. no matter what diet you choose. The real truth is not to over eat. Everyone is different in size, height metabolism, therefore, you need to figure out no matter what I choose to eat I need to figure out how much I can eat and what foods make me feel good. Look at the food portions in the restaurants or super sizing does a person of 5' 1' need a big mac meal or would a kids meal be really enough. In the 50's, 60's and 70's you didn't see many over weight people why now? I remember portions were not as large as they are now. I see children drinking fountain drinks and eating, candies and chips. That used to be a treat now it's their before ans after meal. We are so focused on diets we need to stop being gluttons.
    You don't save That much money, vegetables have become pricy, too, so don't think eating more veggies and less meat will help you make car payments. And all the vegetables being grown use up the earth same as cattle grazing, look how many fruits and veggies have to come from out of our country right now!! If everyone went vegan, there would be a shortage with even higher prices. Eat what pleases you, don't be fooled by fads....and constant naggers.
  • Lorna Sass has some excellent cookbooks, & I'll second the Deborah Madison ones being good.
  • You're way better off eating low carb (LIMIT THE GRAINS, guys; the guv'mint has been steering us wrong) and high protein, IMO. Or at least I am. The guv'mint and the American Heart Association has been basing their advice to eat low-fat high-grain on old heart attack studies that didn't control for smokers; until they admit this, I'm inclined not to pay them any mind.
    I can give up bread and sweets, but not meat and dairy. I like a nice slab of rare beef way too much.
  • Just go vegan! So worth it, regardless of how you were raised or what you are used to. I was raised to eat meals with meat at the center, from burgers to tacos to carne asada (Mexican household) to being able to eat Big Mac combo meals as a young child or footlong Subway subs piled with meat or Whoppers from BK on the regular. I ate plenty of meat growing up, and have been vegan for years now. You CAN cut out meat. I promise you, and you will feel so so SO much better.
  • Over the years I've moved to mostly vegetarian and feel great!!!
    Well over half of our meals are vegetarian and we started doing Meatless Monday. It starts with one step!
  • I started "Flexitarian" before I knew it was Flexitarian....wa
    nted a semi-vegetarian eating program for health.....combin
    ing that with SP's recommended calorie regimen and am losing, have abundant energy AND I'm eating delicious foods. No complaints here. I suspect that nutrition is not a "one size fits all" situation and that requirements actually vary greatly with individuals. So glad that I have finally learned to eat this way.
  • I started "Flexitarian" before I knew it was Flexitarian....wa
    nted a semi-vegetarian eating program for health.....combin
    ing that with SP's recommended calorie regimen and am losing, have abundant energy AND I'm eating delicious foods. No complaints here. I suspect that nutrition is not a "one size fits all" situation and that requirements actually vary greatly with individuals. So glad that I have finally learned to eat this way.
  • I like the article, I already eat this way mostly but it's good to get more tips and ideas for eating healthy.
    Interesting article. I never heard the term Flexitarian before. Not sure that I can be one--I like meat too much to ever give it up. My daughter was a vegetarian for years which caused me to modify some recipes, but I still ate meat.
  • My husband has been vegan for a year now. This man never exercised. Now he bikes and runs 6 days a week. And I'm not talking simple strolls he bikes almost 20 miles on his road bike and runs no less than a 3 miles, sometimes 10 miles. So to say that being vegan leaves you low energy is completely false.

    A good number of our meals are Indian cuisine inspired. I have made a gluten-free, soy-free, vegan lasagna. You can do a lot with cashews in your cooking. Ice cream and pudding made with avocado. Mushrooms, legumes, and hemp seeds for burgers. Dates used for "brownie bites". Vegan's are not at a loss for tasty food options or treats and they don't all have to be soy based.
    Thanks for that, I know for SURE I can't stand all those vegetables and soy products, so tiresome tasting, yucky after a few weeks. Vegan eating would be like going to PRISON!! Leaves a body feeling low energy, taking stupid supplements, eating horrid vegetables, trying to add stuff to make them palatable, it's a scam.
  • i think this is awesome!

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.

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