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Monday, July 13, 2009

How much meat is too much?

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I stopped eating meat. I didn't become a vegetarian, per se, but I stopped eating red meat and pork, continuing to eat poultry and fish. I actually ate this way for many years, but partway through college I added red meat back to my diet. During the time red meat was off the menu, I focused my diet primarily on starchy carbs - pasta, potatoes, etc., and very few green vegetables, however, so I wasn't eating very healthy!

While there are a lot of people who tout the benefits of eating vegetarian, or even as a more strict vegan, it doesn't take that dramatic a commitment to improve your health. Just making a decision to cut back on how much read meat and pork you eat each week could reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer and extend your life. In other words, while a vegetarian diet can be great, you don't have to be a vegetarian to be healthy.

But if less red meat is better, just HOW much less should you eat? In a 2005, the National Cancer Institute took a 1995 survey by NIH-AARP and followed up on the health of 500,000 survey participants. In the survey, the researchers observed that the least healthy people ate 1.5 servings of red meat or pork PER DAY, while the most healthy people ate 1.5 servings PER WEEK. The people who at the most meat had a 30% greater risk of dying of heart disease or cancer over the people who ate the least meat. That's a huge change. The study also showed an uptick in health risks in people who ate large amounts of processed meats, like deli meat and hot dogs.

So what should you eat instead of red meat? Well, chicken and fish are a great start. The same study showed no difference between the heart disease and cancer risk of people who ate the most poultry and fish and people who ate the least poultry and fish. However, don't stop there! You can even go meat-free, occasionally. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when it comes to cutting back on meat is focusing on "meat replacements." They eat soy bacon, veggie burgers, and other products that use vegetarian items to create highly processed fake versions of meat products. And then there was my mistake from college - filling up on starchy foods.

The best thing you can do is to eat what Dr. John Berardi (of Precision Nutrition) calls a "plant-based diet." That means you focus your diet first on plants - vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans, and then add meat occasionally in small amounts as an accompaniment. This may sound difficult at first, so just start small! Think of a meal you often have with meat, and then remove the meat and add in roasted vegetables and beans. For instance, if you like having a southwestern chicken wrap, try having the same wrap with hummus, black beans, and roasted red peppers instead (one of my favorite meals). Let's say you like beef kabobs. Well, fill up your kabobs with red peppers, zucchini, onions, and two pieces of chicken instead. The possibilities are virtually endless!

Recently, I've been more aware of how frequently I eat meat, and tried to cut back. I typically have one day per week where I am completely vegetarian, not even eating chicken or fish. I find it helpful because it forces me to be more creative and sometimes develop neat meals that end up being new favorites. And on other days, I'll fill half my plate with veggies, and then drop on my 3-4oz chicken breast or fillet of fish. And yes, it's true, I do enjoy the occasional steak or hot roast beef sandwich.

There's an environmental benefit to cutting back on meat consumption as well. Pork and beef production uses more water, more energy, and provides more antibiotics than the production of other foods in our diet. The animals are huge consumers of farm output, as most cattle ranches feed their cows grain in order to fatten them fast before their sale (it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat). And, meat farming produces enormous amounts of green house gasses, with 18% of such gasses coming from livestock. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, an environmental scientist who was joint winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, suggested that if people ate vegetarian just one day per week, the environmental benefits would be greater than if they had reduced automobile use. (Producing one pound of beef creates the same amount of greenhouse gasses as driving 77 miles!)

Have I convinced you? If so, great! I'm going to keep track of my consumption of red meat (I still don't eat pork, so nothing to track there) in the coming week, and I encourage you to do the same. If you are close to the unhealthy average of 1.5 servings per day, I encourage you to swap out the meat, and swap in the chicken or fish, in one of your favorite dishes. If you are closer to the healthy average of 1.5 servings per week, why not try a vegetarian day, and see what you learn? Already a vegetarian? You can push yourself and try veganism for a day.

No matter how small your change is, if it's a step in the right direction then you are doing your part to make your body healthier, and to make our planet a better place. I know myself, and I know I won't be successful going 100% vegetarian or vegan. But I have been successful at having meat-free days, and I eat a TON more vegetables than I did when I was 100% meat-free back in college.


  1. Great post Liz! I probably eat red meat about 4 times per year and I will say that when I do have it I REALLY enjoy it! I love to try a variety of foods and recently tried a few "raw" meals. Ultimately, I don't think being vegetarian or vegan is for me but that doesn't stop me from eating a wide variety of plant foods.

  2. Thanks! Yes, I love dairy and eggs too much to go vegan, but I think the creativity that comes from not being able to rely on meat as your main dish is great! Some of my best meals came from that - and I can always throw a chicken breast on top if I want to!

    You should do a blog post about your raw meals. I'd love to read it!

  3. I did do daily posts on the 2 meals I tried. Here are the links. http://green-tea-girl.blogspot.com/2009/06/workout-and-meals-62909.html and http://green-tea-girl.blogspot.com/2009/06/workout-and-meals-62309.html

    I even posted pics. :)

  4. Dont forget about the iron though, women are known to have iron deficiency from avoiding red meat altogether. Having it once a week or so is all it takes to keep your iron levels up

  5. Good point about iron, but it's not necessary to eat red meat in order to boost iron levels. Iron is more easily absorbed from raw foods, and spinach is an ample source. Replacing iceberg lettuce in your salads with baby spinach will do wonders for iron levels.

    Also, hummus, tahini, collard greens, dried apricots, and many beans and lentils are rich sources of iron.