Strategic Diets: What to Eat When You’re Cutting Back on Meat

How to reduce our dependency on meat as a primary protein source—and keeping risk low when you do enjoy it.

Welcome to Strategic Diets, a deep dive into specific nutritional needs for your desired outcome—from fitness goals to personal aspirations. 

Some of our absolute favorite meals are centered around meat. (Hamburger with a side of chili fries anyone?) But the place of meat in a healthy diet is an ongoing debate.

Is it okay in moderation? Are certain options better than others? Or should we be weaning ourselves off it altogether?

Scientific evidence seems to point us towards the verdict that when it comes to processed and red meat we should be cutting back. The FDA has long discouraged the consumption of red and processed meats, and last years report from the World Health Organization placed processed meat into the Group 1 category, classifying it as a probable carcinogen (which means the panel found “sufficient evidence” that it could cause cancer). Red meat was placed in Group 2A, considered probably carcinogenic. Putting meat in the same category as alcohol, asbestos and tobacco smoke raised some eyebrows—and criticism. And while it is true that the cancer risk is much greater for these substances than red meat, the fact that it raises the risk of some cancers at all is reason enough to give pause before digging in to a plate of bacon or a sausage .

We know what you’re thinking, what about chicken and turkey? Where do they fit into this equation? The American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention recommends choosing fish, poultry, or beans instead of red and processed meat. But poultry may not be completely off the hook: A study published in the journal Cancer found that those who ate the most grilled meat—red meat and chicken alike—had a higher risk of kidney cancer. And many consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the public health concerns surrounding both the meat and poultry industry, including animal welfare issues and antibiotic use.

Obviously the jury is still out on just how much of a risk meat poses. And if it does in fact significantly increase cancer risk, the reason why is also still up for debate. Health experts and researchers hypothesize that several factors may play a role. Meat is higher in saturated fat, which has been linked to colon and breast cancer, as well as heart disease. And heme iron, the type of iron found in meat, may produce compounds that can damage cells, which leads to cancer. Plus, carcinogens formed when meat is cooked have also been linked to negative health outcomes.

Beyond Cancer Risk: Why We Should Cut Back 

In addition to cancer, “diets rich in high fat animal proteins have been linked to an increased risk of diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes,” said Erin Palinski Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. A large body of scientific evidence links excess meat consumption with increased risk of diseases, as well as obesity and earlier death.

new study found that eating less meat would improve human health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and decrease healthcare costs significantly. The research showed that transitioning toward a more plant-based diet could reduce global mortality by 6 to 10 percent and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29 to 70 percent.

When we take meat off the menu it opens up space on our plates for more of these plant-based foods, which come with innumerable health benefits, among them preventing and combatting the diseases that meat consumption seems to increase. “Incorporating more plant-based proteins on a regular basis may improve overall health and lower disease risk as well as improve body weight,” said Palinski-Wade.

Lowering Risk When You Do Eat Meat

While even the slight risk may scare some people straight into vegetarianism, we aren’t saying that you can never enjoy a burger or a piece of steak again. But, it is about moderation. The American Institute for Cancer Research suggested consuming no more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat per week, and they recommended avoiding all processed meats, like sausage, deli meats, ham, bacon, hot dogs, and sausages. When you do decide to add meat to the menu, here are some tips for doing it in the healthiest way possible:

  • Pick leaner cuts of meat to reduce saturated fats. When it comes to beef, eye of round roast or steak, sirloin tip side steak, top round roast and steak, bottom round roast and steak, and top sirloin steak are all considered extra lean cuts by USDA regulations. Be sure to trim off any visible fat from the meat to cut down even further on unhealthy saturated fats.
  • Don’t overcook it. “Well-done meat contains more of the cancer-causing compounds,” according to WebMD. “But make sure that meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature to kill bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. For steaks, cook to 145 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; for burgers, cook to 160 degrees.” And be sure to cook it on medium heat, not high, which can cause flare-ups that overcook or char meat, creating carcinogens that have been linked to cancer.
  • Try kabobs with meat, fruits and veggies instead of throwing steaks on the grill at your summer cookouts. This will automatically reduce your meat intake (without taking it off the menu completely) and increase your consumption of plant-based foods.

Replacing Key Nutrients in Your Diet

While scaling back your meat consumption may be a smart move, it’s important to realize what nutrients you’re also cutting out. Going cold turkey (pun intended) without making any other changes to your diet, can cause some issues in terms of nutrient intake. “If you cut out meat, you want to make sure your diet is still adequate in protein, B vitamins, and iron,” said Palinski-Wade. “Eating a variety of different colored fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats will help to ensure you are taking in the nutrients you need each day.”

Protein: “If you fail to take in enough protein, you may feel hungry more often and take in more calories, leading to weight gain,” said Palinski-Wade. “Dietary protein is also needed to build and maintain muscle tissue which helps to increase metabolism.” Make sure every meal contains a good source of protein whether it comes from an animal source such as an egg or fish or from a plant-based source such as lentils, chickpeas, or dried peas.

Vitamin B12: Animal proteins serve as a primary source of B12 in our diet. “B12 deficiency is linked with fatigue, anemia, and damage to the nervous system,” said Palinski-Wade. “For vegans, taking in plant-based foods that have been fortified with B12 (like nut milks) or taking a B12 supplement is essential to make sure you are meeting your dietary needs.”

Iron: “Plant-based foods such as beans and lentils along with dark leafy greens are an excellent way to meet your daily iron needs when reducing meat,” said Palinski-Wade.

Protein Tricks for a Low-Meat Diet

While meat can be a good source of protein and other essential nutrients, most of us are just eating too much of it. The majority of Americans eat more than 1.5 times the average daily protein requirement, most of it being red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and nearly a quarter of it being processed (like hot dogs, bacon, sausages, deli meats).

Reducing our dependency on meat as a primary protein source is a smart place to start, which requires getting creative with alternative protein sources. Palinski-Wade shares some of her favorite tricks for incorporating protein alternatives into meals:

  • Swap cooked lentils for half the meat in your favorite recipe filling (e.g. lasagna, chili, burgers) to lower the sodium and cholesterol content.
  • Sub in chickpea flour for up to half the wheat-based flour (including all-purpose flour) in any baked goods recipes to add iron, folate, fiber and protein. (Use a 1:1 ratio.)
  • Sub in one cup of black bean puree for one cup of flour in your favorite brownie recipe for a rich texture, along with healthy protein and fiber, to aid in weight loss.
  • Use socca (easy flatbread-style crust made with chickpea flour) for standard pizza crust, and enjoy a gluten-free pizza with all your favorite toppings.

Makeover your favorite meat-based meals using plant-based protein sources with these five recipes