Today, our lives are often centered around doing more—exercising more, working more, calling our mothers more. But what if we could make a positive impact by doing less? Well, this is precisely the case with eating meat, which reached its pinnacle in 2018 after a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) concluded that the average American consumed over 220 pounds of meat that year (compare this to the average person in India, who consumes about 9 pounds per year).
All this meat has a real negative impact on both the health of the environment and our bodies. From clearing forests to raise livestock, dumping waste into our waterways, and the methane gas that’s produced by cows, sheep, and goats during their digestive process, our planet’s ecosystem is stretched thin. In relation to our physical health, research on the impact of reducing our meat consumption consistently results in a balance in weight, improved heart condition, and lowered risk for certain types of cancer.
That said, none of this is news. Movements like Meatless Mondays have been around since the early 2000s when Johns Hopkins and partners concluded it’s easiest for people to make a behavior change at the start of the week. It’s clear that even if motivated, it can be difficult to eat less meat. Though knowing just a few ways to tweak your plate can have an outsized impact. This article goes beyond the usual “eat more vegetables” narrative to help you go meatless.
A Note on Mindset
We said this article was going to go deep on the topic, so here we are. It is useful to know some science on behavior change, as it helps to both guide us and divert us from blaming ourselves when we inevitably slip up. First, there is evidence that the feeling of stress can actually be helpful when making a change, so improving your relationship to stress can be a great first step.
Figures like Carol Dweck promote a “growth mindset,” which explains that those who tie their sense of reward to the process and not the outcome actually have better success in the long run. Also, research has consistently shown that identifying with a group is a strong motivator, so if you’re able to find a partner who’s equally committed to the cause it will likely help you both out.
Prioritize the Meat You Do Eat
Yes, when it comes to both the environment and our health, there’s a distinct difference between the impacts that seafood, poultry, and red meat make. So if you’re nervous about cutting back by 40 percent on your meat all at once, try gradually swapping in better options first.
Wild-caught seafood generally fares well both environmentally and health-wise, but it’s a nuanced issue. Due to pollution, some seafood is contaminated with substances like mercury and should be limited. Also, many fisheries are either over-exploited or being fished at their maximum safe level so even if you’re buying pole-caught wild Alaskan salmon, it’s wise to limit it.
Poultry is often even less impactful on the environment than dairy and is far healthier than red meat, but the industry has come under considerable fire for its ethical practices. However, red meat poses the biggest problem both in relation to the environment and to our health, so view it as an occasional indulgence.
Explore Tofu, Tempeh, and a World of Meat Substitutes
As the plant-based food movement gains popularity, meat substitutes are becoming increasingly
refined in both quality and flavor. Seitan is a time-honored meat substitute that’s made from wheat gluten, so assuming you don’t have gluten sensitivity, it’s a great option for making mock meat tacos or vegan pho.
You can also get creative with textured vegetable protein (TVP), which is made from soy flour and easily blends into recipes that use ground meat, like sloppy joes. Then of course there’s tofu and tempeh, which we swear is delicious if prepared with a little savvy. More recently, jackfruit has gained traction as the shreddable pieces mimic pulled pork, chicken, or beef in texture. However, with scarcely any protein at all—about 3 grams per cup—it is not a preferred protein substitute.
Get Inspired By Different Cuisines
Many cuisines are vegetarian and vegan friendly, so they’re great to explore for inspiration on how to infuse your meals with the coveted umami flavor that meat usually brings. Take Indian food, which uses fragrant spices and punchy sauces to dress up its myriad meat-free dishes, like Gobhi chana tikka masala and potato-stuffed samosas. Or Israeli cuisine, which thanks to kosher food rules, often forgoes meat in its dishes. Start by making the popular falafel sandwich. Then move on to sprinkling za’atar on nearly everything—from baked butternut squash to roasted carrots.
Peel Back the Cover on Legumes
Most of what we see on our grocery shelves is curated, which makes sense given that suppliers don’t want to experiment with putting a new or niche product in front of consumers without knowing if it will sell. Regardless, if you’re reducing how much meat you eat, exploring some lesser-known varieties of legumes will help you fill that steak-sized hole in your heart. Ever tried fava beans, either dried or fresh? Or how about using black lentils in your dahl? The point being, you can eat refried beans over and over, but you don’t have to.
Up Your Grain Game
There are many grains out there and each offers a unique taste, texture, and nutritional profile. This means including a more diverse selection of grains on your plate will go a long way to keeping you satisfied, sans meat. If you’re big on a morning bowl of porridge, swap in sorghum or amaranth for oats. If you love using bread as your serving utensil, opt for a grain like teff to make injera, the delicious flatbread served with just about everything in Ethiopian cuisine. Though of course, that’s
not all—there’s cornmeal for making creamy polenta, buckwheat, millet, and several varieties of rice.
USDA. Economic Research Service. Per capita red meat and poultry disappearance: insights into its steady growth. Published June 04, 2018.
Our World in Data. Meat and dairy production. Updated November 2019.
Harvard Health Publishing. Becoming a vegetarian. Published April 15, 2020.
Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Healthy Monday: two literature reviews.
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Borek A.J., Abraham C. How do Small Groups Promote Behaviour Change? An Integrative Conceptual Review of Explanatory Mechanisms. Appl Psychol Health Well-Being. 2018;10: 30-61. doi:10.1111/aphw.12120
World Resources Institute. Creating a sustainable food future. Published July 2019.