Lifestyle and health choices are very personal. Usually, ethics, environment or spirituality influence our choices. One common health choice is a meatless diet. And if that resonates with you, it’s important to inform yourself because it’s not enough to simply cut meat out in order to enjoy a better diet. And careful meal planning ensures that you get adequate nutrition.
But before we learn about meat substitutes and alternatives, let’s first have a look at the health benefits of meat.
The Evolution of Meat
Not all meat is made equal.
There is a big difference between grass-fed, organic beef and conventional, processed meats. Unfortunately, meat has drastically changed in the last two centuries, leaving people with something much different than what they’ve been accustomed to for millennia.
Dr. Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet reminds us that “only in the past 200 years or so have we ever consumed domesticated animals fed grains, injected with hormones, antibiotics, exposed to heavy metals and pesticides and sequestered in feedlots by the hundreds of thousands.”
This is the kind of meat everyone should avoid. But as long as we avoid the type of meat Dr. Cordain refers to, meat can be beneficial. Let’s look at what these benefits are.
Does Meat Have Health Benefits?
Let’s consider four common areas that vegetarians need to watch out for.
Meat is actually very nutrient dense, as long as it’s high quality and unprocessed. It’s a great source of vitamins B12, B6, and B3 (Niacin), as well as the minerals, zinc and iron. Even though you can obtain most of these vitamins and minerals from other food sources, you can only get B12 from animal products. Therefore, it’s really important to be sure your meatless diet includes vitamin B12.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Why are omega 3 fatty acids important? They are necessary for the health of the human body, but the body can’t make them. We have to get them from our diet. They play an important role in brain function and the body’s development. They are also thought to lower the risk of heart disease. Eating high quality and unprocessed meats gives you omega-3 fatty acids.
Animal proteins contain all the proteins that the human body needs. But not all plants contain the proteins we need. And it’s necessary for building muscle and bone. Meatless diets have to take this into consideration.
Red meat and organ meats are also an excellent source of iron, a necessary component to your red blood cells. Without enough iron, you can feel fatigue, dizzy, foggy and even become anemic.
Is Meatless Diet Healthy?
But it takes more than eliminating meat to live a healthy lifestyle. That’s because meat does contain some health benefits, as we’ve seen. So, it’s important to plan a smart diet and get these nutrients elsewhere.
Eliminating meat means making room from more fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, grains, nuts and eggs. Together, these create a balanced, nutritious diet.
Eliminating meat also makes room for too much processed foods, so be careful not to consume too much junk-food! These carbohydrate-dense snacks might be meat-free, but they sure aren’t nutrient dense!
How Can You Get the Same Nutritional Benefits without Meat?
How do meatless diets make up for crucial dietary needs? There are actually many yummy alternatives.
Vitamin B12 is something only found in animal products. Unfortunately, research shows that many vegetarians are deficient in this crucial vitamin. And if a vitamin B12 deficiency lasts too long, it can damage your nerves! B12 helps the production of red blood cells and prevents anemia.
You can get this vitamin from enriched and fortified cereals, along with fortified, fermented soy products. If you enjoy fish, dry fatty varieties, such as mackerel, salmon and sardines.
We all know that protein is a necessary building block for the body, and you can maintain your muscles, bones, and skin by consuming eggs and dairy products. If you prefer plant-based protein sources, there are many wonderful choices. You can choose from lentils, fermented soy products, chickpeas, peas, kidney beans, peanuts, nuts, seeds, quinoa and whole grains.
Just using this list alone, you can create amazing meals, such as lentil burgers, falafel, peanut butter sandwiches, meatless chili, and quinoa salad.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
In an effort to replace animal fats, manufacturers have come up with many different oil options. But not all oils are ideal for you!
Coconut oil is a wonderful option as is olive oil, organic butter and avocado oil.
What about omega-3 fatty acids? If you choose to include fish into your diet, tuna, halibut and salmon are great options, along with fish oil and fish roe (caviar). If you want to avoid fish, that’s okay, too. Eggs, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseed are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. If it’s difficult to find any of these foods, look for fortified foods to get enough of this necessary nutrient.
It is possible to obtain iron from plant-based sources, however it’s difficult for the body to absorb the plant form. So, it’s important that you eat foods containing vitamin C along with iron rich foods. Vitamin C helps your body absorb plant-based iron.
You can find iron in dark, leafy greens, lentils, dried beans, as well as enriched cereals and whole grains. Dried fruits, such as prunes and raisins also provide iron.
Whenever you eat those foods, be sure to include vitamin C rich foods. For example, you can try citrus fruits, broccoli, cabbage and tomatoes. You can make lots of delicious meals with these two complementary foods and support your body’s absorption of important vitamins and minerals.
As you can see, going meatless isn’t enough to create a healthy, balanced diet. But with a little knowledge and practice, you can eat well and feel great without meat, too.