Going 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.