meat vs. meatless

Courtney Takabayashi
May 28, 2024

If you’re a tried-and-true carnivore, not including meat in a meal may seem unappealing. And while moderation is key, too much meat can have negative health consequences. But what about plant-based meat substitutes? Are they a good option for meat eaters? We talked to August Espinal, HMSA manager of Condition Care Programs and a registered dietitian, to find out.

A history of meat eating
Scientists estimate that early humans started eating meat two and a half million years ago. Today, meat is easier than ever to access. Whether you enjoy a juicy steak to celebrate a special occasion or pick up hamburgers after work for a quick dinner, meat has become a staple in many people’s diet. However, too much meat isn’t good for our bodies. According to Espinal, “Meat is a source of saturated fat, which can increase your risk of heart disease and high cholesterol if not eaten in moderation.”  

A good swap?
If you’ve been to the grocery store lately, you may have seen a variety of plant-based meat substitutes. Whether it’s a take on ground beef, chicken, or sausage, there are more choices than ever. But are they better for our health? “Plant-based meat substitutes can be higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat, help decrease your risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol, and may be lower in calories,” says Espinal. “They’re a good way to add diversity to your diet and may decrease the risk of food-borne illness.”

Environmentally friendly
Another benefit of cutting back on meat is that it reduces our carbon footprint. “Swapping plant-based alternatives for meat can be good for you and the environment,” Espinal says. The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the global food system, estimates the following about plant-based meats versus animal meat.

  • Uses 47%-99% less land.
  • Emits 30%-90% less greenhouse gas.
  • Uses 72%-99% less water.
  • Causes 51%-91% less aquatic pollution.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to cut all meat from your diet right now. The Mayo Clinic suggests trying meatless meals once or twice a week. And when you do eat meat, try not to go overboard. While you should discuss what meal pattern is best for you with your doctor or dietitian, Espinal has some general guidelines to keep in mind when preparing meals. “Include variety and color on your plate,” she says. “Half of your plate should be vegetables and fruit. On the other half, include a lean or low-fat protein, and whole grains and low-fat dairy or dairy alternative.”

Remember to read labels
Sometimes plant-based meat substitutes contain common allergens such as nuts, wheat, and soy. “Examine food labels to verify the ingredients especially if you have food allergies,” Espinal says. “Some meat alternative products are minimally processed and made with whole foods and others may be highly processed and contain additives and flavorings.” This can mean that the product is high in sodium or even saturated fat such as coconut or palm oil.

“If you’re trying to decide which meat alternative is best for you, it’s recommended that you choose whole food products,” Espinal says. “Read the food label and look for products that include ingredients such as beans, tofu, tempeh, or lentils and use herbs and spices for flavor.”

Meat-free and delicious
These recipes may be meatless, but they’re packed with flavor and nutrients.

bean burger
You won’t be asking, “Where’s the beef?” when you bite into these hearty, flavorful bean burgers.

black bean enchilada casserole
This Mexican-cuisine-inspired dish is delicious and easy to make. The nice thing about casseroles is that you’ll probably have leftovers to enjoy for lunch the next day.

cottage cheese loaf
Here’s a vegetarian meatless loaf made with the unlikely combination of cottage cheese, breakfast cereal, and pecans. This may be the best faux meatloaf you’ve ever had.

green shakshuka
This is a yummy way to add more dark, leafy greens on your plate. Green shakshuka is a variation of the traditional dish, which features eggs poached in a chunky tomato and red bell pepper sauce.

potato spinach frittata
Need to cook a quick meal? Go to your refrigerator and grab eggs and almost any leftovers and make a frittata. Here’s a basic recipe to use as a guideline.

vegan chickpea burgers
Combine mashed chickpeas, sauteed shiitake mushrooms, and spices to make delicious, tender patties. 

vegan kabocha and red lentil stew
This tasty and filling vegan stew includes kabocha, red lentils, carrots, and spinach.

vegetarian kimchi stew
Our kimchi soondubu jjigae is a simple stew for those who crave spicy. Enjoy it with a bowl of hot rice.

veggie fries
Change your plate up a bit with some oven-baked veggie “fries.” Root vegetables work the best. Results may be even crispier if you have an air fryer!

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