Eat more plants, fewer animals

Monique Tello, MD, MPH

Contributing Editor

Science has shown us over and over again that the more meat we eat, the higher our risk of diabetes, heart disease, and strokes. Conversely, the more fruits and vegetables we eat, the lower our risk for these diseases, and the lower our body mass index.

Why is eating meat bad? High-quality research shows that red meats (like beef, lamb, pork) and processed meats (bacon, sausage, deli meats) are metabolized to toxins that cause damage to our blood vessels and other organs. This toxic process has been linked to heart disease and diabetes. (Want to know more? Read about how these animal proteins harm the body here and here).

Should we all become vegetarian or vegan?

Not necessarily. One can be 100% perfectly vegetarian or vegan and still have an unhealthy diet. Many foods that aren’t made with animals are still unhealthy. Think candy, soda, and pasta, and baked goods made with refined flour. Sugar-sweetened beverages and refined grains are also toxic to the body and associated with significant health risks.

A better approach is a plant-based diet. This means consuming mostly fruits and vegetables, including beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. A plant-based diet is well associated with a lower risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and death from any cause.

An estimated 90% of the population of the United States is omnivorous, and the vast majority of people aren’t going to give up meat. The good news is, they don’t need to. A 2017 study published in JAMA showed that consuming just 3% less animal protein and replacing it with plant protein was associated with up to a 19% lower risk of death from any cause.

Not only that, but a plant-based diet can protect us when we do occasionally eat meat. Fruits and vegetables contain special plant nutrients that neutralize toxins. These are antioxidants, and they are really good for us. But they cannot be isolated and packed into a capsule or pill — supplements don’t work. A balanced diet that includes a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables is what works. Just eat more plants that anything else, and minimize the meats, and you’ll be doing your body a huge favor.

Where will I get my protein?

Protein does not have to mean meat. As a matter of fact, many plant foods are excellent sources of protein. And no, it doesn’t have to be tofu. Think beans, lentils, peas, and edamame! Nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butter! Whole grains contain a fair amount of protein as well.

Having trouble envisioning meals without meat? You can enjoy the same classic meals, just substitute in plant protein. For example:

If you love tacos, replace the meat filling with spiced lentils. (Try my Easy Spiced Lentil Taco Filling recipe below.)

If you love shepherd’s pie, use finely diced mushrooms instead of ground meat.

If you love fajitas, switch out the steak or chicken for portabella mushrooms.

Classics like minestrone soup, chili, spaghetti, and lasagna are easily converted into healthier, animal-free meals. Use whole grain pasta where pasta is called for, and add extra veggies. Even if you prepare any of these dishes using animal protein, add extra veggies and you will be benefiting.

Going to a plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean eating plants exclusively. Just aiming to eat more healthful plant foods, focusing on overall nutrition, decreases health risks significantly. Even a little improvement can have big results.

Resources:

A Plant-Based Diet, Atherogenesis, and Coronary Artery Disease Prevention. The Permanente Journal, Winter 2015.

Healthy Dietary Patterns for Preventing Cardiometabolic Disease: The Role of Plant-Based Foods and Animal Products. Current Developments in Nutrition, December 2017.

Association Between Dietary Factors and Mortality From Heart Disease, Stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes in the United States. JAMA, March 7, 2017.

Animal and plant protein intake and all-cause and cause-specific mortality: results from two prospective US cohort studies. JAMA Internal Medicine, October 2016.

Intestinal microbiota metabolism of L-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nature Medicine, April 7, 2013.

Intestinal Microbial Metabolism of Phosphatidylcholine and Cardiovascular Risk. New England Journal of Medicine, April 25, 2013.

4.25 from 4 votes

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Easy Spiced Lentil Tacos

Serves: 4-6

This dish cooks up fast, faster than meat. Red lentils are cheap; I always keep several bags in our pantry for soups and taco filling. This hearty, satisfying, high-protein meal can be made from scratch in under 30 minutes.

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small yellow onion, grated or finely diced

3 cloves garlic, finely diced or pressed (or, 1 teaspoon of garlic paste from a tube)

2 cups of red lentils, dry

5 cups of water

4 tablespoons of taco/fajita seasoning (buy it ready-made, or make your own — see recipe below)

8 corn tortillas

1 jar low-sodium salsa (less than 90 mg sodium per 2 tablespoon serving; examples include Newman’s Own, Green Mountain Gringo)

Chopped lettuce, lime slices, chopped green onions, plain Greek yogurt and/or red pepper flakes for serving, if desired

Optional:

Homemade Taco/Fajita Seasoning:

3 tablespoons chili powder

3 tablespoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)

Easy Spiced Lentil Taco Filling

Pour the lentils into a colander and rinse under cool water, swishing around. This removes any debris that may be mixed in. Classically, red lentils are known to have debris mixed in, and so people often call for washing them prior to cooking. You can choose whether or not to rinse the lentils in a colander first. I’ll admit I often skip this step, and haven’t come across any rocks yet.

Heat a large sauté pan or medium saucepan (that has a cover) over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swish around for a couple of seconds. Add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant.

Add the lentils and water, and bring the water to just boiling, then turn down to a simmer. Simmer for five minutes, then add the fajita seasoning and stir. Cover the pan and turn off the heat. The lentils will absorb the rest of the water while you prep the rest of your meal.

Put the meal together

Wrap the tortillas in a clean towel or paper towel and microwave for thirty seconds to heat.

Chop some lettuce (romaine is a good choice here), slice a lime, and set out plain Greek yogurt and the salsa. Let people put together their own tacos. Enjoy!

Comments:

  1. HA926

    Thank you for sharing a useful information.
    One of my friends who has a skin problem tried a plant based diet for a month. He was surprised by the result. Not only his skin condition became better but also his mood also improved according to my friend. It is clear that processed meat is not good for us. However, if you could add some information about fish, that would be better since I prefer fish to meat.

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Thank you for reading. The data on fish consumption and human health is largely reassuring and seems to be associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Still, people who do not eat seafood are perfectly fine and there is no recommendation to start eating seafood. There is definitely plenty of research about red and processed meats and the association with diabetes as well as cardiovascular disease and increased risk of death.

  2. Elizabeth

    Excellent

  3. steve bryant

    Do you know please of even one study where eating meat less than 6 times a week adversely affects health? Meta-analysis data Ive come across indicates eating meat 7-10 times a week may lead to health issues for some people. Thanks

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Hi Steve, Thanks for reading. There is a list of resources at the bottom of the post, and these include multiple research studies and papers supporting a plant-based diet with limited red and processed meats as best for overall health.

  4. Suzanne

    This article doesn’t say a word about fish. How does fish fit in?

    • Apu

      Fish are animals.

      • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
        Monique Tello, MD, MPH

        Yes, and the data on fish consumption and human health is largely reassuring and seems to be associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular dsiease. Still, people who do not eat seafood are perfectly fine and there is no recommendation to go eating seafood. Avoiding red and processed meats is definitely recommended, however.

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      The data on fish, eggs, dairy, and chicken is mixed, and at this point I’d say if you enjoy these foods, try to obtain them from reputable sources, like local farms. The healthier the animals are and the less hormones or antibiotics they received, the better for you.

  5. Julio Henao

    Excellent:
    Well explained, clear and very simple to adopt. Many thanks

  6. Luc

    I wonder whether this article is really an information or if it is sort of propaganda for vegetables.
    Indeed, the article mentions that red meat and processed are detrimental. Ans without mentioning wite meat and fish (and eggs), it concludes that we have to eat plant based nutrition.
    Why not mentioning the halth interest of other animal proteins ?
    Why directly go to the common vegan conclusion : less animal proteins is better ?

    • Monique Tello, MD, MPH
      Monique Tello, MD, MPH

      Thanks for reading, Luc! There is a list of resources at the bottom of the post, and these include multiple research studies and papers supporting a plant-based diet for overall health. One does NOT have to be vegan to be plant-based. Just eating mostly fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds, and whole grains, all in the most unprocessed forms possible, is well-established as the healthiest approach. The data on fish, eggs, dairy, and chicken is mixed, and at this point I’d say if you enjoy these foods, try to obtain them from reputable sources, like local farms. The healthier the animals are and the less hormones or antibiotics they received, the better for you.

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