Meals Without Meat

Updated:Feb 19,2014

Cartoon Cow Introducing Low-Fat FriendsGoing meatless at a meal every now and then can help you lower your cholesterol and may reduce your risk for cardiovascular diseases. And unlike a strict vegetarian diet, mixing in some meatless meals won’t require you to give up your carnivorous ways. You can still eat lean meat – just less of it.

“Most of the cholesterol-raising saturated fat Americans eat comes from meat and full-fat dairy products such as whole milk cheese,” said Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., a professor of nutrition at the USDA Human Nutrition Center at Tufts University in Boston and a member of the American Heart Association’s Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health.

“If you decrease your daily intake of animal fat, you’re going to decrease your intake of saturated fat,” she said.

So what’s for dinner when you take meat off the menu? You have more options than you might think. A burger makeover could feature a grilled portobello mushroom in place of a beef patty. Or fill a pot of chili with white beans and vegetables instead of ground chuck.

Many meatless meals are as simple as moving vegetables and fruits from a side dish to a starring role. You should also seek out high-fiber whole grains, beans and legumes, unsalted nuts and low-fat  and fat-free dairy foods. These tend to be high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and other important phytonutrients, said Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., a nutrition professor at the University of Vermont and vice chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee.

An easy way to get started is to eat one meatless meal a week, Johnson said. Sticking with it can quickly make you start feeling lighter and your wallet fatter: People who eat less meat tend to consume fewer calories, and foods such as beans are one of the most cost-effective sources of protein available. Meat typically costs more per pound than other protein sources.

You don’t have to go cold turkey on meat to reap the heart-healthy rewards. Whether you’re a fan of red meat, poultry or fish, choose lean and extra lean cuts and limit portion size to avoid excess saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends the average person eat no more than six ounces of cooked lean meat, skinless chicken and seafood per day, 4-5 servings per week.

But a meatless meal doesn’t automatically translate to less saturated fat. “You can drop meat, but if you substitute quiche for steak, you’re not going to get any advantage in terms of heart health,” said Lichtenstein, who also heads the Cardiovascular Nutrition Lab at Tufts.

Other tips for helping meat lovers go meatless:

  • Keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked with meatless alternatives, such as low-sodium canned beans, unsalted nuts, high-fiber whole grains and tofu.
  • Buy a cookbook filled with recipes for meatless meals. “The New American Heart Association Cookbook” offers more than 50 pages of meat-free entrees. Pick out several recipes you’d like to try and add the ingredients to your grocery shopping list.
  • Keep on hand a few convenient meatless foods you like, such as veggie burgers and vegetarian microwavable meals.

AHA Diet and Nutrition Recommendations

The amount of food you need depends on your personal calorie needs and health status. If you need 2,000 calories each day you should:

  • Eat 6 to 8 daily servings of grain products, with at least half as whole grains.
    • o 1 serving = 1 slice bread, 1oz. dry cereal, or  ½ cup cooked rice.
  • Eat 4 to 5 cups of fruits and vegetables each day, in a variety of colors and types.
  • Eat 2 to 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy products each day.
  • Eat 3 to 6 oz. (cooked) of lean meats, poultry or seafood per day.
    • 3 oz. of meat or poultry is about the size of a computer mouse; 3 oz. of fish is about the size of a checkbook.
    • Consume fish, especially oily fish at least 2 time per week.
  • Limit intake to 2 to 3 servings per day of fats and oils. Use liquid vegetable oils and soft margarines most often to reduce saturated and trans fats.
    • 1 serving = 1 teaspoon of soft margarine or 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise.
  • Eat 3 to 5 servings per week of nuts, seeds and legumes.
    • 1 serving = 1/3 cup nuts, 2 tablespoons peanut butter or ½ cup dry beans or peas.
  • Limit cholesterol intake to 300 mg per day for people with no heart disease risk factors or to 200 mg per day for those with heart disease risk factors.
    • Keep saturated fat to less than 7% of your energy intake.
  • Aim to eat less than 1,500 mg of sodium per day.
  • Limit added sugars to no more than half of your discretionary calories. For most women that is about 100 calories and for most men about 150 calories, or about 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men.

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