Meat is one of the five food groups, but researchers and dieticians are asking folks to rethink how meat plays a part in their nutritional intake.
“Meat is a very important part of our diet. Protein is essential for maintaining our muscle mass and cell growth, but most Americans eat too much meat,” said Sarah Muntel, registered dietician with Clarian Bariatrics.
According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, if people reduced their saturated fat intake from meat to about 15 percent, or one day a week, their health would greatly improve.
They also found that going meatless at least one day a week could reduce the risk of chronic preventable diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity among others.
For these reasons, Sid Lerner took a page from the U.S. Food Administration when it urged families to reduce consumption of meat and wheat during both world wars. In 2003, he founded Meatless Mondays, a non-profit and independent initiative that promotes healthy alternatives.
“We characterize Monday as the January of the week, sort of the day to start healthy after a weekend of indulgence,” said Chris Elam, program director for Meatless Mondays. Studies show that people are more likely to maintain behaviors begun on Monday throughout the week.
Much of today’s diet consists of processed and fatty meats, along with other unhealthy habits, that are aiding many of the health disparities today. Elam says that Meatless Mondays is not about being a vegetarian or vegan but instead urges people to think outside of their “icebox” by simply cutting back meat one day a week.
“This is a campaign of moderation,” added Elam. “You don’t have to eat like a rabbit either. There are many delicious ways to eat healthy.”
Muntel understands that meat has a reputation of making a meal appear complete, but said there are many other types of foods that provide much-needed protein that are just as filling such as beans, eggs, soy substitutes or cheese. Adding fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables and whole grain pasta or rice leads to a healthy and balanced diet. Meatless Mondays provides recipes for participants, but there are plenty of websites and recipes available online.
Whether one chooses to explore Meatless Mondays or not, health experts urge people to amp up their fruit, vegetable and whole grain intake and eat only about three ounces of lean meat per meal. Those who want to transition from Meatless Mondays to reducing meat several times a week should begin slowly and look for protein substitutes.
“Red meat is going to be higher in saturated fat. That’s why we don’t want you to eat red meat quite so often. Most people recommend eating red meat only a couple times a week and instead choose fish or white meat chicken,” said Muntel. Fatty meats are not only high in saturated fat, but also high in calories contributing to weight gain.
In addition to the health benefits of Meatless Mondays, Elam says that reducing meat also has environmental benefits. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, the meat industry generates nearly one-fifth of the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are accelerating climate change worldwide.
Studies also show that if all Americans cut back one day a week that would have the same impact as if every American drove a hybrid car.
Furthermore, it takes up to 2,500 gallons of water to make a single pound of beef. That includes irrigating the fields to feed the animals, giving the animals drinking water and using water to process the meat. Massive amounts of fuel are also used in getting the meat from the factory to the grocery store.
Meatless Mondays may seem like another food fad, but people are beginning to take notice. Elam said that the entire public school system in Baltimore, New Haven, Conn., and Oakland, Calif. have adopted Meatless Mondays in addition to restaurants and households around the globe.
“This is something that all populations can do. We just want people to improve their health and also help save the environment,” said Elam.
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