healthy eating for healthy aging

How much meat in a plant-based diet?

How much meat in a plant-based diet?

Tonight I’m having grilled pork chops. Because my diet is sometimes vegetarian. Actually it’s most-of-the-time vegetarian; sometimes I eat meat. I got to thinking about my frequency of meat eating and decided it might be 2-4 meals per week, usually at the evening meal.

Contrary to popular opinion, plant-based does not mean no meat. It does not mean vegetarian and does not mean vegan. You can include eggs, dairy foods and meat in a diet that’s primarily plant-based. I advocate for a diet that’s sometimes vegetarian. But how much meat can you eat before your diet isn’t even sometimes vegetarian?

Meat, eggs and dairy foods are low volume/high quality protein foods. What do I mean by that? Consider this: 4 oz of cooked chicken breast (slightly less than one cup of diced pieces) has about 28 grams of protein. You’d have to eat 2-1/3 cups of cooked kidney beans to match that amount of protein. How will your stomach feel with after eating that amount of kidney beans? You’d have to eat high volumes of plant foods like kidney beans every single day to keep up with protein intake if you don’t include meat or dairy foods.

This is an important issue for older people, who have smaller appetites, but need to consume adequate quality protein every day to support muscle mass. Poor protein intake can accelerate the gradual loss of muscle mass due to aging, known as sarcopenia.

Of course, there are other compelling reasons to include these foods. Meat, eggs, fish and dairy foods have plenty of other nutrients that are critical for healthy aging, such as zinc, calcium and B12. Nutrients that are absent, or are poorly absorbed or in short supply from plant foods. That’s why I believe including meat is necessary, but not at every meal every day. Not even at one meal every day.

Ways to eat less meat

If you eat meat, I suggest a goal of 4 meals a week. Focus on other protein sources at your other meals. This means you’ll be diversifying your food intake, filling out your menus with plant-sourced foods like vegetables, grain foods (noodles, bread, cooked grains, cereals, etc), fruit, nuts and legumes, as well as dairy foods, eggs and soy foods like tofu or tempeh.

  • Smaller servings. Instead of a 6-8 oz (or bigger) steak, have a smaller piece, or split that steak with someone, and fill out your plates with vegetables. Keep burgers to 3-4 oz raw weight. Chicken breast halves are enormous; cut them in half, or purchase chicken tenders and have maybe 2.
  • Here’s a rule of thumb: have a meat-focused meal (chop, chicken breast, steak, burger) once a week at most. Have 2-3 other meals with meat added in smaller amounts to a sauce, burrito, chili, soup or stew.
  • Emphasize meatless meals. In other words, vegetarian meals. Include protein foods like beans, eggs, tofu, cheese, nuts or yogurt.

These days, eating less meat may also save you money, which isn’t a trivial concern. But don’t sacrifice quality. On a calorie for calorie basis, cheaper meat products like hot dogs and bologna don’t contribute much to protein intake. They do contribute to additive intake. Best to minimize those. Buy fresh unprocessed meat. Save money by eating smaller servings.

Take Away Message

I hope I’ve given you at least some clarity to the question of how much meat?

  • If you’re going to eat meat, include it at 3-4 meals per week. Fill out your plate with plant-sourced foods.
  • When you don’t have meat on the menu, include other high protein foods. Cheese, eggs, milk, yogurt, tofu, legumes and nuts.
  • Eating less meat means you eat more of other foods by default, hopefully things like vegetables, grain foods, fruit, nuts, and beans. End result: a healthier diet.