Westend61 / Getty Images
En español | While it's safe to say that meat hasn't been enjoying a lot of great press lately, if you're someone who loves the occasional turkey burger or chicken Caesar, there's a bit of other health news you might want to hear. Research is showing that you may not have to give up your favorite meat-based meals to reap the rewards of a plant-based diet.
Studies have long shown that eating a vegetarian diet may help prevent heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes, as well as keep weight in check. But recently, experts have been noticing that the health benefits of a plant-based diet may not hinge on making it an all-or-nothing proposition.
For instance, according to a recent Harvard University study, substituting one daily serving of red meat with a serving of nuts cut the risk of premature death by nearly 20 percent; replacing the meat with a serving of legumes decreased risk by 10 percent. The more you replace, say researchers, the greater the benefit.
Other studies similarly support the value of “semivegetarian” or “flexitarian” diets. Middle-aged adults who ate more plant-based foods and less meat had a lower risk of heart disease and of dying from any cause compared with those who ate more meat and less fruits and veggies, according to a 2019 study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The results show that “one does not have to be a full vegetarian or vegan,” says study lead author Hyunju Kim. “Consuming a diet that is higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods is helpful.”
The reasons may be as much about what you add to your diet as what you subtract. “When you choose nutrient-rich plant foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains and pulses, you'll be getting plenty of health-promoting phytonutrients and dietary fiber,” says Jackie Newgent, culinary nutritionist and author of The With or Without Meat Cookbook . And, there's an added bonus to doing so. “It leads to a more sustainable food system, improving the health of our environment."
Thankfully, there are plenty of easy ways to start eating less meat and more plants. Here are a few simple and delicious culinary tricks you can use to shift the balance of your diet without sacrificing flavor.
1. Relish savory seasonings
Meat contributes “umami,” one of the five chief taste profiles (along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter). There are a number of plant-based foods that contribute the same flavor and can add a “meaty” sensation to your meat-free meals such as soy sauce, miso, mushrooms and tomatoes (sundried tomatoes are an especially good source). Another option is to create depth and excitement in your meals by using earthy spices like cumin and coriander seeds, or working in a hot sauce, says Newgent. “And if you're trying to mimic the flavor of grilled meats or bacon, a dash of smoked paprika works like magic,” she adds.
2. Make room for mushrooms
These types of fungi have the double benefit of pairing savory umami flavor with a meaty texture. And there are lots of ways you can use mushrooms to cut back on meat — grill a portobello in place of a burger patty, use diced ‘shrooms in place of ground beef in chili, or replace half the ground beef in your meatball or burger recipe with sautéed chopped mushrooms, for instance. “Just keep in mind you won't be getting as much protein when you use mushrooms instead of meat,” says Newgent. If you're using mushrooms to replace the meat entirely, balance out your meal with a protein-rich side or appetizer like lentil soup or bean salad.
3. Embrace the bean
Rich in protein (like meat) with the added bonus of filling fiber, beans are a satisfying stand-in, nutrition-wise. And even though the flavor and texture of beans are pretty different from say, a steak or chicken breast, there are a lot of ways to make them work for you if you're used to meat being at the center of your plate. “In general, black beans, red kidney beans, or pinto beans are delicious in Mexican dishes in lieu of meat,” says Newgent, who recommends using part mashed and part whole beans in foods like burritos for a varied and more interesting texture. Since beans have a relatively plain flavor on their own, step up those savory spices and throw in a few peppers to add some excitement and depth.
4. Find a go-to frozen veggie burger
If you're trying to eat less meat, keep a plant-based choice on hand for the moments when you just don't know what to cook. This way, it's easy to default to a plant-based meal without having to work too hard. (Having frozen buns, and toppings like sliced cheese, guacamole and red onion on hand may help convince you to fry up a veggie burger.) There are lots of delicious options on the market now; the right one for you is a matter of taste. “First decide if you want to fully embrace plant-based goodness or you want something that's designed to mock the taste and texture of meat,” says Newgent. Often, the meatier-tasting burgers are more highly processed and less nutritious. Either way, she says, if it's going to be your main source of protein for the meal, look for at least 10 grams of protein per patty. If it's much lower than that, look for a protein-rich side or topping, like hummus or black bean dip, to pair it with.
5. Get to know tofu
The quintessential meat substitute often gets a bad reputation — but that's because many don't know how to work with it. For starters, it's helpful to know that there are several types of tofu that work best in different applications. “If you want to make a smoothie, use silken tofu,” says Newgent.
If you want the tofu to hold its shape during cooking, buy firm or extra firm. Firm tofu may come packaged in liquid; if this is the case your best bet is to press the excess liquid out so it will better absorb flavors and brown when you cook it. You can do this by placing the block of tofu on a plate lined with paper towels; top with another layer of paper towels and a cutting board weighed down with a heavy book or pot; let it rest for 30 minutes or more.
Tofu is a taste chameleon; it will soak up whatever sauces or seasonings you cook it with. Either marinate first, which works well when you're grilling or roasting, or stir fry until golden and then toss with a mouthwatering sauce such as Thai peanut (pair it with steamed broccoli and brown rice to soak up any extra flavor).