Room for Improvement is a weekly column written by freelance writer Sara Groves about her yearlong quest to improve her physical, mental and financial health.
My favorite foods include steak, bacon, cheeseburgers with bacon, ice cream (any flavor), cheese and chocolate, which is a problem. Because according to nearly every study of American eating habits ever published, our diets, which are heavy on meat, cheese, fat and sugar while being light on vegetables, fruits and whole grains, result in an alarming rate of preventable, chronic diseases ranging from diabetes to heart disease.
Enter Meatless Monday — an international initiative to promote starting each week with healthy, environmentally friendly, meat-free alternatives. The goal of the campaign is to help you reduce meat consumption by 15 percent in order to improve your personal health and the health of the planet.
In a state like Montana, where a significant chunk of the economy revolves around the production of animals for human consumption, going meatless seems slightly sacrilegious. Nonetheless, there are many reasons to consider doing so, even if it’s just one day a week.
First, there are the health benefits of going meatless. Research shows that eating lots of fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of cancer and that consuming red and processed meat increases your risk of colon cancer.
A recent Harvard University study also found that replacing foods rich in saturated fat (e.g., meat and full fat dairy) with foods that are rich in polyunsaturated fat (e.g., vegetable oils, nuts and seeds) reduces the risk of heart disease by 19 percent. Other studies suggest that low-meat or vegetarian diets result in such health benefits as significantly lower body weights, lower body mass indices, and decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
But it doesn’t stop there because going meatless is also good for our planet. 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. Additionally, it takes an estimated 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Cutting down on meat consumption, even if it’s just a personal, one-day-a-week thing, can help curb some of our world’s most pressing environmental concerns.
Regardless of these benefits, I love meat, so when I started thinking about eliminating animal products from my diet — even just once a week — I was perplexed about how to replace them. Nearly everything I eat, save for sides of vegetables and fruit, centers around some type of animal related substance: eggs, meat, and dairy. If I was going to go meatless, even one day a week, a substantial dietary shift was in order.
When I think of eating less meat, my mind naturally turns to tofu, a substance that I find completely repulsive. I’ve heard all of the arguments — tofu is good for you; it’s adaptable, inexpensive, and easy to prepare. But when I peel back the package cover, only to find a square white blob floating in some discolored water, I just get the willies. Would my one day a week of vegetarianism mean I had to spend it choking down tofu?
Looking for alternatives, I visited the Real Food Store, Helena’s natural foods supermarket, and was relieved to meet deli manager Dyan Walker. Dyan, a vegetarian herself, actually understood my aversion to tofu. She suggested that I try tempeh, which, like tofu, is a soybean product. But that’s where the similarities end.
In the package, tempeh is as repulsive as tofu, closely resembling suet bird feed. But Dyan had a batch of kung pao tempeh marinating in a delicious smelling sauce and it looked, um, not repulsive. It reminded me of lumps of chunky peanut butter — certainly not a bunch of glistening red sirloin, but also not a bunch of white, rubbery tofu floaters either.
Tempeh is less processed than tofu, which means that it has higher amounts of protein and dietary fiber, as well as vitamin content. It also has a chewier texture than tofu, and, I was pleased to discover, a nutty, almost meaty, taste. I actually had a second helping of kung pao tempeh with vegetables and brown basmati rice, and brought home a container for lunch the next day.
While I love meat way too much to become a full-fledged vegetarian any time soon, I’m going to try going meatless more often. Because of all of the health and environmental benefits of eating a little less meat, I will commit to eating zero animal products one day a week. And thanks to Dyan and the staff at the Real Food Store, I’m actually excited to incorporate some other types of non-animal protein, like tempeh, into my diet.
This Week’s Challenge
Make a list of the reasons you might consider going meatless. Is your cholesterol high? Are you looking for ways to reduce your carbon footprint? Did your doctor tell you to cut back on your saturated fat? Write it down and make a plan to incorporate a little less meat in your diet.
Commit to going meatless one day a week. It doesn’t have to be Monday, but by going meatless on what is the first day of the week for most Americans, you set yourself up for success the rest of the week.
If you can’t commit to going meatless one full day a week, try it for a handful of meals. Eat your morning cereal with soy or rice milk instead of cow’s milk. Exchange your ham sandwich for peanut butter. Change out chicken in a stir-fry for tempeh (or tofu if you’re so inclined).
Explore some meatless recipe options by visiting www.meatlessmonday.com or by typing in “vegetarian recipes” into Google.