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Take It In: For health, less meat may be easier than none

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

You don’t have to become a vegetarian to enjoy the health benefits of eating less meat. This good news was the take-home message from several studies presented in May at the European Congress on Obesity in Vienna.

Obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and the risk of certain cancers can all be reduced by putting less animal-based protein on your plate, and researchers say that test subjects found it much easier to cut down rather than cut out meat eating.

Here are five tips on how to do it.

Rethink your plate. Meat-centric, meaning a large portion of meat surrounded by a few token sides, is the typical make-up of meals in many industrialized countries. Try reversing these proportions. The American Institute for Cancer Research, for example, has come up with its “New American Plate” that features two-thirds fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains, and one-third animal protein. A good example is a topsy-turvy take on an old favorite: beef stew made with more potatoes, carrots, mushrooms and kale than beef.

Consider meat a garnish. Think of Asian rice bowls topped with a few slivers of cooked beef or pork. Or Latin-style tacos, enchiladas, empanadas and quesadillas, where meat or poultry are mixed with vegetables and tucked into pancake-like breads. Or take a baked potato, put it center plate and top it with a heaping helping of cooked veggies,  seasoned with a few bite-sized pieces of sautéed chicken or beef.

Extend meat with veggies. Stir chopped, cooked vegetables into ground beef to make an extended meatloaf or meatballs. Per bite, there is less meat and more veggies – or in other words, less calories, fat and saturated fat in favor of more vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. One of the most on-trend ways of doing this today is using mushrooms as an extender for ground meat. It’s an idea first promoted by The Mushroom Council and taken up enthusiastically at places such as the Culinary Institute of America. A sensory study conducted by the institute  and published in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Food Science revealed that most people preferred the flavor, texture and taste of a beef taco blend with 50-80 percent ground mushrooms over a taco made of 100 percent beef.

Go meatless each week. Meat-Free Mondays, the practice of not eating meat one day a week, is a movement designed to sustain the planet as much as to attain and maintain health. Flexitarian, or semi-vegetarian, diets are those where meat isn’t eaten three days of the week. Whether one day or a couple, this practice is an excellent method to reduce overall intake of animal protein. Consider a hearty bean or lentil soup, pasta topped with a variety of roasted vegetables, or a veggie omelet.

Try vegetable proteins. The lowly little soybean often sounds as unappealing as cardboard to big meat eaters. However, the beauty of soy foods like tofu is that they have an almost magical ability to take on the flavor of  seasonings or other ingredients they are paired with. Try a dish at a restaurant known for this cuisine, or get tips from a friend who knows how to cook vegetarian.

You don’t have to go meat-free to get health benefits. Moderation is the key.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health/nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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