Reducing your intake of animal protein and increasing your consumption of fresh produce is one of the simplest steps you can take to dramatically improve your health, particularly if the meat you eat is from conventional sources. Right off the bat you will reduce your exposure to harmful hormones and antibiotics, and you also lower your intake of unhealthy fats and foods that are particularly inflammatory to your system.
Beyond your health, there are environmental benefits as well. According to a study by Environmental Science and Technology, going just one day a week without animal products has a more significant positive impact on the environment than if you bought all of your food from local sources. And since most conventional meat comes from incredibly inhumane and unsanitary factory farms that are only able to keep their animals alive by pumping them full of drugs, you’re also sending a message that you don’t approve of those practices.
For Kelli and me, meat is where we are absolutely the pickiest. There are definitely healthier sources if you’re going to eat meat. Organic and pasture-raised is simply a must when it comes to animal products. But even with the higher quality sources, there really is no need to eat nearly as much meat as what’s found in the standard American diet. While Kelli and I don’t avoid animal products entirely, a week with more than a couple of servings is unusual, and it is more than possible to get all the nutrients we need at that level. Cutting back on your meat should by no means equal a lack of nutrients in your diet.
That being said, if you do limit your intake of animal products to the occasional serving, there are a few nutrients that you need to be mindful of to make sure you don’t become nutrient deficient. Making a change to consume less meat should be more a matter of making an effort to improve your diet rather than just avoiding a food group. By seeking out more nutrient dense plant foods, you’ll do wonders for your health and be much more likely to avoid any nutrient deficiencies. Here are the ones you need to be aware of as well as sources where you can find them.
The first concern we hear about reducing meat consumption is always protein. We’ve been conditioned to think that meat is the best, and some people think the only, source of protein. However, there are plenty of plant-based sources that supply all the protein we need. Soybeans and quinoa are two notables because they are considered ‘complete proteins,’ containing all nine essential amino acids. For other plant protein sources, by eating a variety of them you’ll be able to get all the protein and aminos you need. Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds are very protein dense. If you feel you need more, brown rice, hemp, and pea protein powders can do the job.
When we tell people about the dangers of most dairy products (there are very few exceptions) and tell them that we don’t drink any milk, once the shock wears off, they’ll stammer out the question, “But, uhh, what about calcium?” The only reason our society tends to think milk is a good source of calcium is because of a great deal of money spent on fancy marketing campaigns. The truth is that it’s a very inefficient source of calcium and does far more harm than good, since most of the calcium in milk is not assimilated by the body and dairy consumption is associated with higher risks of developing certain types of cancer, like prostate and ovarian. And when you think about, drinking the breast milk from a cow is kinda gross, right? Much better calcium sources are dark green leafy vegetables like kale and collard greens, as well as sesame seeds, beans, and legumes.
As you’re reducing your meat intake, vitamin B12 is a nutrient that needs special attention. Its only commonly consumed source is meat from animals that eat foods contaminated with the bacteria that produces B12. B12 is critical for cell division and blood production and a B12 deficiency can lead to nerve damage and anemia. A deficiency can take many years to manifest and is very difficult to reverse, so it’s not one you want to take a chance on. Getting enough B12 may require special efforts because the best alternative source, nutritional yeast, is one that most people are not aware of and don’t eat regularly. Adding just a few servings of nutritional yeast each week – its cheesy flavor makes it great for sauces or sprinkling on organic popcorn – will supply all the B12 you need. Taking a high quality B-complex supplement may also be a good idea.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Mercury free, wild caught and sustainably harvested seafood is the best source of omega 3 fatty acids, which are critical to brain health. Since they’re such an efficient source, just a couple of servings of quality seafood like sardines or Vital Choice salmon each week is sufficient to get all the fatty acids you need. But if you’re not a seafood fan or have a hard time finding high quality sources that fit in your budget, there are plenty of plant sources to help you out.
Flaxseed is a great source, as well as walnuts, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. This includes these foods in their whole forms as well as their oils. These sources provide short chain fatty acids known as ALA that your body must convert to long-chain acids known as EPA, which is what provides the majority of the benefits to your brain. Since it’s a two-step, inefficient conversion process, consuming these foods on a daily basis is the way to go.
Try it out. Load up on an assortment of veggies, experiment with new ones, and reduce your meat intake to just a few servings of high quality sources each week. It won’t take long to feel the difference: more energy, better skin and hair, and regular bowels are just a few of the benefits you may notice. You’ll be doing wonders for your own body while contributing to improving the world at the same time.
“One farmer says to me, ‘You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make the bones with;’ and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying himself with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.”
-Henry David Thoreau