Worry you won't feel satisfied without chicken, beef, or seafood on your plate? Even though plant-based foods are often packed with health benefits, many people still feel hesitant about going meatless.
With a little planning, though, you can create simple, vegetarian meals that are every bit as filling and delicious as meat-centered ones. I'm speaking from experience, as I've been a vegetarian for more than half my life! I like to include protein-rich ingredients like beans and Greek yogurt when I want to feel energized and full. Need some more high-protein tips for your next meat-free meal?
Myth: Tofu is Bad for You
Fact: Tofu can be very good for you.
While I could never become vegan—I have a huge love of dairy and eggs—I'm a vegetarian and don’t miss meat at all.
Becoming vegetarian is a very personal decision with a variety of factors, whereas eating more vegetarian meals is an easier change that can increase health in a variety of ways. Doing so could help reduce blood sugar levels and help lower calorie intake by decreasing consumption of fat and cholesterol while increasing fiber.
A study published in the journal Appetite shows that eating soy daily may help with weight loss. In the study, overweight and obese women were instructed to eat about 3 ounces of edamame (soy beans) daily. After three months, those women lost a significant amount of weight and waistline inches, while no significant changes were observed in a control group.
The study authors suggest that protein may control hunger very effectively, possibly more so than other macronutrients such as fat or carbs—and that eating protein sources that are low in saturated fat, such as soy, may boost weight loss.
Soy may be effective because it's a complete protein, which means that it contains all of the essential amino acids and is processed more easily by the body.
Myth: Not Eating Red Meat Has No Health Effect
Fact: Reducing intake of or avoiding red meat altogether can reduce disease risk.
I’m a vegetarian, so I don’t write a lot about meat. But it's a big part of many diets, and I can't just push red meat is too big to push aside.
Red meat includes beef, pork, veal, lamb, mutton, and goat. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization that includes 22 experts from ten countries, labeled red meat as a probable carcinogen and processed red meat (so hot dogs, sausages, jerkies, etc.) as a carcinogen.
The committee concluded that each 1.7-ounce daily portion of processed red meat (about the size of a regular hot dog) increases risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting intake of unprocessed red meat to 18 ounces per week (about four quarter-pounder hamburgers). Intake at or below this amount is not linked with increased cancer risk.
To better understand how red meat consumption affects cancer risk, I had a conversation with Amanda Bontempo, MS, RDN, an ambulatory oncology dietitian at New York University Langone Cancer Center. She was so kind to answer to answer the following questions.
Does red meat have any health benefits?
“Red meat contains heme iron, which is a type of iron that’s bonded with another molecule that’s only found in animals. Heme iron is better absorbed by the body, and this is one of the reasons why healthcare specialists recommend that people with low iron levels or anemia eat read meat.”
Is ground meat considered a processed meat? Do we need to avoid hamburgers?
“Ground meat is still a form of pure meat. Meat from a butcher’s counter, meat in a patty, ground meat, and meat that’s frozen are considered unprocessed meat.”
Is there a way to cook red meat to limit cancer risk?
“One of the best ways to cook any type of meat is braising. When you braise meat, you use a cooking liquid. Because of this, the temperature that you’re cooking at tends to be lower and when you’re cooking at a slower pace, you’ll limit some of the cancer-causing changes that happen with meat. This includes char from grilling, which can be carcinogenic.”
Myth: People with diabetes and other diseases need meat.
Fact: Eating a vegetarian diet can help people with diabetes be healthier.
Unfortunately, type 2 diabetes runs in my family: My dad has it and so do two of my three uncles on my dad’s side. The disease increases the risk of hypertension, heart problems, hearing impairment and even Alzheimer’s disease.
My strong—and scary—family history motivates me to eat well and keep my weight in check.
As it turns out, a healthy vegetarian diet could help keep people with diabetes healthy: A review study published in the journal Cardiovascular Diagnosis and Therapy shows that eating a vegetarian diet may significantly reduce blood sugar levels.
Researchers found that a vegetarian diet lowered hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) levels—the most effective way to measure blood sugar, averaging levels over the last three months—by 0.4% in study subjects.
In the study, eating a vegetarian diet decreased daily calorie count of subjects' diets by an average 140 calories—and also significantly decreased fat and cholesterol intake and increased fiber intake. Cutting calories is likely to result in weight loss, which helps control blood-sugar levels.
As well, research shows that lowering fat intake reduces accumulation of fat within the body’s cells, possibly leading to
better insulin sensitivity.
And eating a vegetarian diet could help prevent type 2 diabetes, too, says study co-author Susan Levin, MS, RD, director of nutrition education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). "The type of fiber that's found in plants and is lacking in the typical American diet helps keep blood-sugar levels steady," she says.
A vegetarian diet is typically richer in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, notes Cameron Wells, MPH, RD, a staff dietitian at the PCRM.
More Common Misconceptions About Going Vegetarian
Do carbs make you fat? How the heck do vegetarians get protein? If you feel confused about healthy-eating concerns like these, you're not alone.
Believe that dessert can't be healthy or that you can't get significant protein from non-meat dishes? As a dietitian, I love busting common nutrition myths like these ones. The good news? You don't need to suffer through a juice cleanse (or eliminate eggs or chocolate!) to feel your best. Ready for the whole truth?
Think vegetarian diets are boring? Wonder if you'll really get enough protein without meat? Don't be fooled by these nutrition myths! Along with help from my dietitian pals, I set the record straight in this EverydayHealth.com article.
Amy's Recipe to Try
Make this vegetarian appetizer: Southwestern Greek Yogurt Dip!
Who says all good party apps have to contain meat? Get your fill of protein (and flavor!) with this fiesta-worthy recipe. Hosting a crowd? Add homemade chips and salsa to your spread.
Want more vegetarian meal ideas? Meatless meals can be healthy and satisfying if you do them right. Looking for creative ways to go plant based? I share my favorite recipe to whip up when I want something filling and delicious in this Aaptiv.com post.
This blog post was updated in May 2020. A version of this content originally appeared on WeightWatchers.com.
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