Triple Play: Eating Less Meat

The following guest post is from Mike.  Mike writes at The Oblivious Investor, where he reminds readers to ignore the day-to-day craziness in the market and focus instead on getting the investing basics right. Subscribe to his blog for daily updates.

“Eating less meat is another of those triple plays–something you can do that is good for your health, good for the environment, and good for your wallet.” -Amy Dacyczyn in The Complete Tightwad Gazette

I’ve been vegetarian for a little over a year now, and I love it. However, I’m not here to condemn or criticize people who eat meat. (How could I? My wife loves a good steak.) And I’m not trying to convince everybody to immediately go vegetarian.

Instead, I simply want to suggest that the meat eaters among us try eating less meat. As Amy says, it can be good for your health, good for the environment, and good for your wallet. And as you’ll see below, it’s not as hard as you might think.

It’s good for your body.

While cutting meat from your diet certainly isn’t a cure-all, it does have its benefits:

  • Vegetarians have been shown to have lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and prostate and colon cancer.
  • The average American consumes about 110 grams of protein per day, roughly twice the recommended amount. Cutting back on meat can bring you more in line with the recommended about.

It’s good for the planet.

  • Producing a pound of animal protein requires about 100 times as much water as producing a pound of grain protein.
  • Producing a pound of beef puts out as much carbon dioxide as driving a typical car for 70 miles.
  • Producing a pound of beef creates 11 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as a pound of chicken and 100 times more than a pound of carrots.

If you want to protect the environment, every little bit of meat you cut from your diet helps!

It’s good for your wallet.

The following prices are from our local market, though prices will of course vary depending upon where you live, where you shop, whether you buy organic, etc.

  • Cost of a pound of T-Bone steak: $6
  • Cost of a pound of chicken: $3
  • Cost of a pound of ground beef: $2
  • Cost of a pound of beans: $0.80

And guess what? Beans are delicious.

It’s not as hard as you might think

I hear two common concerns when talking with people about cutting back on meat:

  1. How will I make sure I get enough calories and protein? (Or, “I’ve tried going vegetarian before, and after about a week my energy level plummeted, and I felt like I was going to pass out.”)
  2. Most of my dinners are based around meat. What am I going to cook for my family?

To the first question: It’s essential that you maintain a proper level of protein in your diet. If you switch to eating salad for every meal, of course you’ll feel light headed all day long. There’s practically no protein and very few calories in a typical salad. (And who wants to eat salad all day anyway? Not me!)

If you only cut back slightly on the meat in your diet, lack of protein shouldn’t be a problem. If you decide to go completely vegetarian, the trick is to eat plenty of beans, whole grains, dairy, or eggs.

As to the “what will I make for dinner?” question, my answer is that Google Reader is your friend. Subscribe to a handful of vegetarian food blogs, and you’ll get meal suggestions in your Reader everyday. Surely one of them will look good.

And with that in mind, here are a few easy-to-make, inexpensive, delicious, healthy vegetarian meals (and blogs) to get you started. (Click on the pictures to see the recipes.)


Tomato Basil Cream Pasta from Vegan Yum Yum


Roman Beans and Polenta from WheatFreeMeatFree

Give any of them a try, and I think you’ll agree that meatless dinners don’t have to be seen as a sacrifice.

Comments

  1. We probably couldn’t go completely vegetarian, but we have been keeping our meat consumption to about two meals a week and one meal fish/seafood. We have been healthier, and it is cheaper.

  2. Cutting back on meat does seem healthier, and it is certainly not hard to do — we seem to have done it unconciously just because we’ve rotated in some things like homemade veggie pizza, soups, stirfrys, etc. that just happen to not call for meat. The next thing you know, you look back on your meals for the week and realize that several (or most) of them didn’t have meat and you didn’t really miss it. And meat is easy to leave out of a lot of meals that usually call for it (like stirfrys) and doing so does not affect the taste or overall “integrity” of the meal. Problems occur when you try to make a vegetarian version of a meal where meat is the main ingredient. If you are a meat eater, the vegetarian tricks for substituting pseudo-meat just won’t work for you. I mean come on, vegetarian Texas chili? No way Jose.

    A comment about saving money: it seems counter-intuitive, but for people who are just cutting back on meat and not eliminating it altogether, you will save more money by buying more meat in larger packages at places like Costco. I’ve compared the per pound prices of steaks, ground beef, and chicken between our local grocery stores and Costco, and the Costco meat costs on average 50% less per pound. I’ve also found it to be higher quality than most grocery chains. So we buy our meat in the larger bulk sizes, divide it up into meal-size portions, stick it in the freezer and eat it over several months. It doesn’t cause us to eat more meat, and in fact we’ve actually cut back on the amount of meat we eat, but it saves a lot of money overall. And with proper prep and packaging, the meat will last for several months and be perfectly fine.

  3. I’ve been a vegetarian for two years now. It’s not nearly as hard to get the protein you need on a daily basis as you think. The typical American diet eats way too much protein, as it is now.

    I still need to work on being much healthier overall. Just because you are a vegetarian does not mean you are fit and healthy. I view it as a step in the right direction on my way to leading a healthy lifestyle.

  4. Hmmm … you’ve got me thinking :) I appreciate this post. We’re big meat eaters – it’s in every meal. A vegetarian lifestyle isn’t for us, but I do think cutting back is a possibility. Maybe I could make 2 vegetarian meals per week? It’s definitely worth a try. Meat is pretty expensive. Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Baker: You’re quite right. Without regular exercise, there’s no way a person is going to be healthy.

    Nicki: Thank you for the kind words. Best of luck with your vegetarian meals. If you have any questions or want some other suggestions, please feel free to let me know. :)

  6. Sarah: Each of the three linked to above are pretty good. Another of my favorites is 101cookbooks.com.

    Also, veganyumyum appears to have a pretty lengthy blogroll of other vegetarian/vegan blogs. Though most of them don’t look familiar to me, so I can’t say much in the way of how good they are or aren’t.

  7. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1980 – when I was 13 years old. I do it for humanitarian reasons more than anything. I don’t like the idea of killing animals and the idea of eating their flesh grosses me out. Having said that, I think it is a big part of why I have been able to save a lot of money over the years. Food is just simply not too expensive for me. And when I eat out, the vegetarian dishes are among the cheapest. It has been a nice benefit of my diet.

    The rest of my family are not vegetarians, but they only eat meat/chicken/fish about 2-3 times per week so our food bill is relatively low compared to other families.

  8. My mom has been a vegetarian since I was born. While she did cook meat for us growing up, we weren’t used to it at every meal. I continue to only eat meat once or twice a week. It doesn’t seem like a deprivation or anything. I happen to really like pasta dishes so that’s what we have on other nights. Unfortunately the past dishes are probably just as bad for us as meat is (with all the cream we put in them and not using whole-wheat pasta)!

    An alternative to beef and chicken for those who are watching their weight is buffalo meat if you can get it.

  9. If you want to reduce your meat consumption and you have a lot of meat-centric recipes just cut back on the meat portion – if the recipe calls for a pound of chicken, use half a pound instead, for example. Also, you can think of meat as a side dish for your veggies, beans, and rice instead of the other way around.

  10. Great Post Mike! Althought I am not a vegetarian I agree with everything you stated above. I always try to plan three vegitarian dinners each week. Additionally I try to cook meals where the meat is really an accent rather then the focus, like casserols with lots of veggies and potatoes, with some meat, but much less then if I had served everyone a chicken breast, or something like that.

    Also, you brought up beans and pasta as alternative main courses, but don’t forget about lentels, and quinoa. Both are delicious and excellent sources of portine.

  11. I have been a vegetarian all my life (albeit someone who has tried all kind of meet and fish – beef, chicken, mutton, shark – even snake and frog). I’m an Indian (where majority are vegetarians) who has lived in USA for about 3 years before coming back to India and the constant question I had to face from my colleagues in the US was as to how I could survive just on salads !!. You just have to come to India to experience the mind boggling variety of our food – it immensely varies from region to region. You can get all the proteins you want from veg food and it is a fallacy that you have to eat meat or fish to get enough proteins.

  12. Good article, but for regular meat eaters you missed one obvious suggestion — just use half as much meat! Instead of spaghetti sauce made with a pound of hamburger, use half a pound (add some cubed veggies to “beef up” the sauce). Instead of whole chicken parts with mashed potatoes and gravy (and a veggie, I hope) cut the chicken up small and use half as much as part of the gravy. Stir fry? Cut the meat smaller and use half. Home grilled burgers? One thin patty with a stack of grilled veggies on top. Fish sticks (not that healthy, but a regular quick dinner in our house) — make half and have them in tortilla wraps with shredded cabbage, spinach, and tomatoes. Chicken soup? Use just chicken broth for rich flavor and add beans and grains to make it filling. Sausage? Slice small and mix with potatoes and kraut. Homemade pizza? A little ham and a lot more olives/peppers/mushrooms/whatever than usual.

    For people who are used to eating meat with every meal, vegetarian cooking can seem like voodoo at first. But often you can eat exactly what you did before… but with less meat in it. You still get the three benefits, but painlessly — and without a potential family revolt.

  13. Colby, Jen, Ivy, and Greg: Great suggestions. Those all seem like they’d be great ways of scaling back on meat consumption. :)

    Prasanth: So true! There’s a great deal of variety available in the realm of vegetarian meals. I have to say that since going vegetarian, I’ve actually increased the variety of my food intake dramatically.

  14. I’m not interested in being a vegetarian. I don’t care for beans more than once a week.

    I like some protein with every meal but we do not eat meat with each meal. We use eggs & cheese, and I add walnuts to yogurt or salads for a bit of protein.

    I have cut way back on meat consumption simply by having smaller servings of meat. 1/2 of a small boneless, skinless chicken breast is a serving for me or 1 small meatball with pasta. We have a large salad with every dinner.

    I do think its healthier & cheaper to eat less meat overall, balanced with increasing exercise, which is my focus.

  15. I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 10 years now and it’s second nature to me. I don’t criticize other people for eating meat–it’s a personal choice. I personally couldn’t consider eating meat considering the way it is raised and slaughtered these days, but I also don’t much like it.

    But being vegetarian in and of itself is not necessarily cheaper! I wrote a post called The Thrifty Vegetarian a while back about this topic.

  16. I have a side of buffalo in my freezer. I LOVE buffalo meat — very lean and very tasty. But it is not cheap — I get mine wholesale and it is still very much more than a side of beef would be. Grassfed beef is just as lean as buffalo meat and more economical.

    I think it is important for people to know where their meat comes from besides a package in the freezer case. We process a lot of our own food, wild game as well and yes, I have done goat meat when we needed to cull from the herd. Right now I am hatching turkeys to start a small flock. It is so not pretty when it comes time to butcher, but I like knowing we harvest all of our meat ourselves, know where the animals have come from, what they have eaten, etc. Yes, even the buffalo — we pick out the animal and harvest it ourselves. It’s all in how you approach it, I think.

  17. I am a vegetarian who feeds her children some meat–I’d prefer they make the choice on their own. Being vegetarian isn’t always convenient. I don’t know that my kids even notice that I don’t eat meat when they do. I just try to make sure to use whole grains or whole grain blends as starches and you can add puree’d tofu to just about anything for a lo-fat protein additon. If we really want a “meaty” item, we buy meat substitutes and they’re great.

  18. We are hunters that process our own meat. Talk about a huge savings and the meat is so much better for you. We live off our wild game during the year until the next hunting season. We do not have meat for every meal either and love salads and non-meat meals. It is extremely cost effective, good for us and good for wildlife management.

    JanB

  19. Thanks so much for posting this! Most people don’t really ever think about the consequences of eating so much meat – there are so many!! I can’t wait to check out the cooking blogs you’ve linked to – hoping for some yummy new recipes! :)

  20. Meat is easily the cheapest item in my larder. I’m talking elk, deer, clams, fish, nutria, ducks, geese. All pretty much free for the taking (well,there is that yearly hunting/fishing license) (rural NW coastal Oregon) and so low cal -low fat, etc. I process them myself and even pressure cook up all the bones when done for soup/stew/scrapple. This meat constitutes easily 90% of my meat intake, so I think there is a very small carbon footprint coming from my intake. That being said, the garden produces most of the rest of my veggie and fruit needs, along with a couple sacks of beans a year for my soups/stews, and some corn meal and flour. Extremely cost effective – and I’m always eating ‘in season’ fresh stuff. So much healthier for me :) and good for the environment also.

  21. I was a veggie for 15 years (starting when I was 16) until just a couple of years ago when my wife became pregnant. She couldn’t stomach beans so we began to eat some meat. We buy one whole chicken and a half a salmon a month, plus eat lots of eggs. One thing to consider when buying meat is the source. Buying meat from a local small farm is a great idea. A major benefit, especially in tough economic times, is that it helps keep your hard earned money in your local economy instead of going to some large CAFO and meat processor many miles away.

    So buy less meat and when you do buy it from a local farmer. A great place to find local sources of meat is from http://localharvest.org

  22. Hey for someone with debt (and consequently on a tight budget), what the top ten high protein foods that give the maximum bang for the buck?

  23. Anything self-harvested/processed.
    Eggs.
    Beans.
    Mushrooms.
    Nuts.

    In no particular order.
    Maybe someone else will fill in an exact listing?

  24. I am by no means vegetarian by any definition, however approximately 13 out of the 14 meals I eat per week are 100% vegetarian, not due to any health or environmental reason but simply because vegetarian is cheaper and more frugal. My opinion is people who eat meat more than once or twice a week are living luxurious lives of excessive self indulgence.

  25. Some of us pay NOTHING for meat/elk/deer/fish/clams/etc… therefore it is not luxury nor self-indulgence….it is simply the cheapest meal we can eat. For us, meat is cheaper and more frugal… but as I also grow a garden also, I enjoy both types of meals – whatever is cheapest works for me.

  26. We eat WAY too much eat.
    I’ve actually recently cut out red meat.
    It upsets my stomach anyways.
    Need to get more vegetables, though, but sometimes it’s hard to find the time.

  27. I eat a vegan diet and it’s got to be the cheapest, best food ever! And I eat all organic. We grow a huge garden and I also started a food co-op for about a dozen families and we buy from an organic distributor in a nearby city that delivers in season produce from farmers in my state as well as other states and Mexico in winter. It’s wholesale pricing and we all split the cases to get how much we want of an item. Good for our wallet and helps support organic farmers. We also get the dry goods like grains/beans/flour/nuts/dried fruits from another wholesale organic distributor and can share those large (25 – 50#) bags amongst ourselves as well. We get Organic Valley dairy and eggs thru the distributor, too. I just blogged about my co-op and it’s really the best way to buy – very fresh, all organic, supports small farms and so cheap!! http://naturedeva.net/?p=843

    I also preserve lots of food that we grow or buy in bulk from the co-op and eat lots of that in the colder months.

    There is a huge fallacy about protein. People eat way too much of it everyday and this can lead to many health problems as we age. Even vegetarians need to not eat so much dairy (still coming from a cow which is bad for the environment, goat dairy is better and easier on your body).

    Spinach is actually 50% protein. If you bought (or better, grew your own) spinach, you would be getting all bio-available protein that the body can use. Your body actually needs amino acids (it breaks down a complete protein we eat like meat into amino acids) and then forms protein molecules as needed from it’s pool of stored amino acids. All living plant foods (fruits, veggies, raw nuts, seeds, sprouts) have lots of enzymes in them which are made from amino acids so there is your protein – it’s in all plant food that’s not cooked over 118 degrees (enzymes die then). A salad gives you the building blocks of protein, an apple, an orange all loaded with amino acids in a form the body can immediately use. When eating cooked food, the body works harder to break down the food back into the amino acids it needs to store it in so you are always getting enough amino acids and don’t need to consume so many animal products. Lentils are very high in protein and have to be the cheapest legume sold. Only pennies per ounce.

    As for websites, a great one with so many amazing vegan recipes (even crock pot ones)is Fat Free Vegan.com. Her blog has so many recipes on there and they are not all fat free – even my husband, an omnivore, loves the recipes I make from there and his flesh food consumption has gone way down – maybe once a week now and he doesn’t miss it bec. these recipes, especially the ethnic ones are so hearty and good. Also vegcooking.com has great recipes, too.

  28. Gee, where do I begin.

    Industrial animal husbandry certainly is bad for the environment, just ask people in North Carolina who have to live near industrial pig farms and deal with the stench. To say nothing of what it does to the waterways. It’s just ugly. But I never see these comparisons made with small, humane farmers who raise animals on pasture. Actually, the stats for how much methane a cow puts off assume that the cow is corn-finished. You’re not supposed to feed corn to a cow. It hurts the cow and taints the meat.

    Another thing vegetarians seem to refuse to acknowledge is that *growing plants* is destructive to the environment. One, you have to cut a forest. Two, you have to dig in the dirt, causing erosion. Three, you have to apply all kinds of chemicals to keep the weeds and bugs away. Four, this kills lots and lots of animals. Just because you don’t eat those, doesn’t make them any less dead. And with the forest gone there’s that much less carbon sink for the CO2 you release by cultivating the earth, and then again when the leftover plants rot at the end of the season.

    Meanwhile, you can raise a pastured animal under tree cover. Even a cow. And animals can eat plants that humans can’t eat, making that food energy available to us when it wouldn’t have been otherwise.

    There is only so much arable land in the world. The fact is that animals tend to be raised on land which is unfit for any other purpose, especially climbing animals like sheep and goats. Chickens can be raised on a building rooftop; rabbits can be raised in your house. Try doing that with wheat.

    And while it is true that any living thing will have protein in it simply by virtue of its DNA (which is nothing but protein), the fact is that protein in plants is accompanied by starches. That’s bad news for people with a greater genetic tendency to diabetes. Well, the majority of us could get it, really, but it’s easier for some of us than others, to the tune of something like one-third of the population. That is nothing to play around with.

    The simple fact is that plants don’t tend to want to be eaten, but the problem is that plants are stationary. So they have to defend themselves chemically. Any part of the plant that has to survive to support the plant’s life is going to have chemicals in it that aren’t good for the animals eating it. Herbivores have developed some adaptations to these chemicals. We aren’t herbivores. We descend from insectivores which happened to pick up a mean fruit and salad habit along the way during our evolutionary timeline. We make some amylase for breaking down starch, but that’s all we’ve got going for us. Leaves tend to contain tannins and psychoactives; seeds contain phytates and protease inhibitors and other nasty stuff. You have to cook the heck out of most plant foods so that they don’t behave like anti-nutrients in the body. The one exception is fruit and those are high in sugar, particularly the ones we’ve bred for human cultivation.

    You say that meat-eaters are more likely to get diabetes, well, I wonder what your sources are. If it’s PETA then that automatically disqualifies your statement. I also rather doubt the studies you allegedly cite covered anything else but the meat consumption. For instance, someone who eats a lot of fast food is probably eating a lot of meat–but they’re also eating a lot of grain and drinking a lot of sugar. If you look at human populations that only recently were introduced to grains and sugars you will see a manyfold increase in diabetes cases. They were eating meat before the grain and sugar came along, with no attendant diabetes. That should tell you something.

    I think this is one of those areas of “frugality” where we need to think about future consequences of our actions now. You may think virtuously avoiding meat makes you healthy but if you’ve got chronic allergies, are infertile, have irregular periods, suffer from insomnia, get blood sugar highs and crashes or have any other chronic disease, or were born with a malformed face and/or crooked teeth, it doesn’t matter if you’re not fat or haven’t had a heart attack yet. Fatphobia has become an effective distraction from all sorts of health problems in this country and is a great way to distract people from healthier modes of living. Don’t let yourself be snookered.

  29. Couple other things. If you read that part about populations recently introduced to grains and sugar and you said, “But they had no way to test for diabetes before these foods came along,” allow me to point out that the ancient Greeks knew about diabetes. Once upon a time the only way to diagnose it was by tasting the person’s urine. When you have full-blown diabetes you get rid of excess sugar through your urinary output.

    Another thing they’ve noticed on the rise among indigenous groups who eat like us is an increase in cancer. And again, this is not something they needed special lab equipment to find. The kind of cancer that usually kills people becomes very obvious in its later stages. I read about a doctor in Africa, back before they had effective treatments for breast cancer, who watched a native woman be eaten away by the disease. And as we know, President Grant died of throat cancer from his longstanding cigar habit–and we didn’t even have x-ray machines yet at that time.

    I had a friend on LiveJournal who died of breast cancer a couple years ago. She decided to fight it with a macrobiotic diet. Rice, rice, veggies, and more rice. Guess what? Most cancer cells thrive on straight glucose. They get energy out of it by fermenting it rather than turning it into ATP. If you eat vegetarian you naturally eat more sugar; if you eat more sugar, especially as you get older, you put yourself at risk for cancer. The insulin you put out to deal with the sugar you eat (which also comes from starches–and you can’t avoid these if you’re vegetarian) encourages rogue cell growth; the sugar you’ve got around almost constantly then feeds the cancer and helps it get established.

    It haunts me that she might have been able to buy herself some time by dropping plant foods entirely for a while. I tried to drop hints about it in the time she had left, but I had to let her find her own way too. She could still be here. People need to get their noses out of ideology and start looking at science. Good science, not the bad-science-fair, twelve-year-old crap that some “researchers” are coming out with and cherry-picking the results to suit their funders’ agendas.

  30. Hi Dana. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    You asked about the source for the study about type 2 diabetes: It’s from the American Dietetic Association. It’s linked to above.

  31. Cutting back on meat is absolutely a great idea. It’s not necessary to become 100% vegetarian…just limiting your meat consumption will allow you to enjoy the three benefits mentioned in the post. An easy way to do this with any dish is to think of meat as an accent or side dish, not as the focus of the meal.

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