How to reduce your meat intake and embrace a plant-based diet

With experts lauding its benefits and bloggers, celebrities and even athletes hopping on board, is it time we reduced our meat intake and embraced plant-based diets?

Bowl of vegan food

Clean eating and paleo? They’re so last season. Right now, it’s all about the plant-based diet – a natural, more conscious approach to food consumption that celebrities, supermarkets and even us everyday civilians can’t get enough of.

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Plant-based foods are basically any foods that aren’t animal-derived, such as grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, tubers, vegetables and fruit.

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Unsplash/Bingyue Wei

A plant-based diet focuses on eating these as whole foods, or minimally processed versions of them, while cutting out refined foods like bleached flour, sugar and oil.

We’re not talking about an endless menu of uninspiring salad bowls filled with limp lettuce, though – think more along the lines of tasty, filling curries, risottos and chillis.

Or, if you do fancy that salad, try a protein-packed Buddha bowl with sweet potato, avocado, quinoa and heaps of fresh, colourful veg.

A bowl of noodles with stir-fried vegetables and chopsticks

What is a flexitarian diet and how do you get started?

There’s a growing trend in the UK for flexitarianism, where people reduce the amount of meat in their diet and eat a vegetarian diet for several days a week.

If you’re not sure where to start, it can be a good idea to begin with meat-free Mondays and go from there.

Reducing the amount of meat we eat can have benefits for our health – and for the planet. According to research by Poore and Nemecek in the journal Science, beef produces 105kg of green house gases per 100g of meat.

Eating red meat or processed meat is also linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, such as bowel cancer.

So there are lots of good reasons to cut down on our meat intake. If you’re not ready to become vegetarian or vegan right away, then flexitarianism could be the way to go.

Of course, trying to follow a plant-based diet can have benefits for bodies and the environment…

Cauliflower salad vegan dish
Unsplash/Jennifer Schmidt

Is a plant-based diet a healthy alternative?

At first glance, a plant-based diet might seem pretty similar to veganism, but while both ditch meat, dairy and eggs, they aren’t necessarily the same thing. As a general rule, being vegan tends to be an ethical lifestyle choice driven by a concern for animal welfare.

Plus there are plenty of vegans who don’t avoid processed foods. With a huge variety of vegan junk foods available which mimic their non-vegan counterparts, from burgers to freakshakes, living ethically doesn’t have to be healthy!

Ultimately, it’s the health aspect of plant-based eating that’s contributing to its huge rise in popularity. While cutting out processed, fatty and sugary foods will help you shift a few pounds, this diet isn’t intended as a quick-fix way to weight loss, but as a lifestyle choice to improve overall wellbeing.

In fact, research has shown that cutting your animal protein consumption not only helps prevent cancer and lower blood pressure, it can even reverse heart disease.

Forks Over Knives, a film documentary featuring American physician Caldwell Esselstyn and professor of nutritional biochemistry T. Colin Campbell, investigates and proves this particular claim. It also shows how a plant-based diet can control and reverse other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.

Don’t just take their word for it, though – there’s a host of studies out there by scientific bodies and universities proclaiming the vast health benefits of plant-based eating.

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How to start following a plant-based diet

If academic journals aren’t your thing, maybe you’ll be swayed by those putting it into practice, like actress Alicia Silverstone, who says her plant-based diet has improved her health. “Once I went vegan I lost the weight I wanted to lose, my nails were stronger, and my skin was glowing,” she’s said. “I feel great and I look better.”

Her Hollywood colleague Liam Hemsworth says there are “no negatives” to a plant-based diet – “I feel nothing but positive, mentally and physically,” he told Men’s Fitness. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen is another high-profile advocate, with her husband, Tom Brady, attributing his successful career as a New England Patriots quarterback to the couple’s diet.

Make lots of little changes, maybe one a week, which gradually add up to big differences.
Calgary Avansino

For those who are ready to go plant-based, you might be wondering how you actually make that switch. After all, most of us aren’t lucky enough to have a personal chef on speed dial.

Calgary Avansino, author of Keep It Real and contributing editor at British Vogue, tells us it’s much easier than you think. “It’s just about finding ways of adding more plants to your plate at every opportunity,” she says.

Calgary has plenty of recipes in her book and on her blog to get you started, from stuffed sweet potatoes and vegan lasagne to smashed avocado on toast – the ubiquitous brunch essential.

Calgary recommends easing into a plant-based diet gradually. “We really shouldn’t look at a healthy lifestyle as one huge overhaul that needs doing all at once,” she says. “The best approach is to make lots of little changes, maybe one a week, which gradually add up to big differences.”

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Campaigns such as Meat Free Monday, aimed at getting people to embrace vegetarian eating, are a great way to do this. “If you do eat meat regularly, it could become the ‘side dish’ rather than the focus,” suggests Calgary.

Even incorporating just a few plant-based meals into your current diet is enough to feel the results, explains Calgary. “Eating more ‘real’ food makes you feel more alive, more energetic and more in balance. When we eat the foods our bodies are meant to thrive on, we feel our best. It makes sense when you think about it.”

This heightened awareness of healthy eating has gathered such momentum, even supermarkets are promoting plant-based living, with Tesco appointing an executive chef-director of plant-based innovation.

Derek Sarno, co-founder of Wicked Healthy, was thrilled to team up with Tesco in this role, helping to make a plant-based diet more accessible to their shoppers. Inspiring people to eat less meat and be healthier, this self-proclaimed “culinary ninja” shows meat-free meals can still taste amazing. Pret A Manger has also recognised the growing demand for meat-free eats, opening vegetarian and vegan-only stores in London.

Help the environment by changing your diet

For many, though, switching to a plant-based diet isn’t just about health, it’s also about being environmentally conscious. This sentiment is echoed by writer and photographer Jessica Prescott. “Ultimately, I want every decision I make to be the one that causes the least harm,” she says.

For Jessica, it was “a growing awareness of the effects of animal agriculture on our planet, and its inhabitants” that made going plant-based the obvious choice for her. Jessica shares her recipes and journey on her blog, Wholy Goodness, in an effort to inspire others.

“Every day I marvel over this incredible planet and the beautiful and delicious things it grows. Look at the mountains, the plants and the animals – we’re all so lucky to be here.”

I want every decision I make to be the one that causes the least harm
Jessica Prescott

So how does a plant-based lifestyle help the planet? The animal-based agriculture industry takes a toll on the environment, with roughly 100 times more water needed to produce a pound of animal protein than a pound of grain protein.

Plus, almost a third of arable land is used for animal agriculture, making the meat industry a major contributor to deforestation as land is cleared to make way for grazing space. So by cutting your consumption of animal products and upping your plant intake, you’re conserving water, and saving animal and plant habitats.

Eating less meat can cut your carbon footprint, too. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates livestock production is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while the methane produced makes up a worrying 37% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

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Make it tasty

If you love the idea of helping the world while improving your own wellbeing, but can’t face the thought of giving up your favourite meals, there are plenty of chefs and bloggers out there paving the way for you. Eleanor Brown started her blog, Kind State of Mind, to show how easy and delicious plant-based eating can be. “My love of food and cooking motivated me to make vegan versions of old favourites, and I realised I could recreate many of the things I used to eat.”

I sleep so much better and my skin and digestion have both improved
Eleanor Brown

Eleanor’s motivation to change her diet was primarily for ethical reasons. “A good friend had gone vegan, and had been sharing information on the reality of animal agriculture,” she explains. “Initially, I felt good just knowing my eating habits were reflecting my values. But as the months have gone on I find I sleep so much better and my skin and digestion have both improved. I generally feel a lot healthier.”

Rather than being restrictive, a plant-based diet can encourage creativity in the kitchen. And by banishing the stereotype of bland, boring dinners by creating recipes such as vegan cottage pie and baked vegan Camembert, Eleanor aims to make plant-based eating simple and attainable. “I often make a big pot of veg stew at the start of the week, then have portions with lentils, mash or rice to bulk it out,” she says. “My ultimate comfort food is homemade potato wedges!”

A healthier, more mindful lifestyle that means we look and feel better, help the environment and still get to eat wedges? Sign us up!

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How will I eat enough protein?

No meat, no problem! Dietary experts have found that you can get all the protein you need from a varied plant-based diet.

By bumping up your plant intake you’ll easily hit your five-a-day, but what about those other nutrients? Or, as pretty much everyone eating a plant-based diet gets asked, “Where do you get your protein?”. Foods like steak, chicken and tuna aren’t the only sources – beans, pulses, grains and soya are also packed with it. It’s recommended that the average woman should eat about 45g of protein a day, so as long as you maintain a well-balanced diet, you’ll be fine.

We’ve picked four easy ways for you to get your protein throughout the day, but there are plenty more – try swapping rice for quinoa, and adding flaxseed to salads and your morning porridge.

Here’s the amount of protein in a few common meat and dairy products, for you to compare with the plant-based alternatives below:

  • Milk, 250ml serving – 8.7g
  • Eggs, 1 medium – 7.1g
  • Steak, 70g serving – 19g
  • Cheese, 30g serving – 7.7g

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Almonds

30g serving (roughly 20 almonds) – 6.4g protein

Snack your way to your daily protein allowance with a handful of almonds. Not only will these stop you craving sugary treats between meals, they contain fibre and are said to lower cholesterol, too. Plus they’re a good source of vitamin E and other antioxidants that nourish the skin and reduce signs of ageing.

Chickpeas

120g serving – 8.6g protein

Low-cost and low in fat, add half a tin of cooked chickpeas to a salad and you’ve got a quick and easy protein-packed lunch that’ll keep you full through the afternoon. Or why not whizz them up in a food processor along with tahini, lemon juice, garlic and water to make your very own houmous. This versatile little legume also forms the base of falafels, and works really well in a curry too.

Soya milk

250ml serving – 8.5g protein

Pour it on your cereal or use it to make your porridge and you’ve already started your day with a hefty serving of plant-based protein. When fortified, soy milk contains almost as much calcium as dairy milk, so you’re not missing out by switching to soya. In fact, you’re going for a lower-fat option.

Tofu

100g serving – 12.6g protein

Firm tofu, or soya bean curd, can be marinated and livened up in a stir fry, while soft, or silken, tofu can be used to make sauces, salad dressings and even chocolate mousse. Tofu contains all the essential amino acids, so is a complete source of protein. Plus, it’s an excellent source of iron and calcium. If you want to pack even more protein into your diet, try cooking with tempeh, the nuttier, less processed option made with fermented, cooked soy beans.

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Four simple food swaps to help you adopt a plant-based diet

Start swapping these alternatives into your shopping basket and plant-based living will be second nature before you know it!

1

Pick plant milk over dairy

Move over, dairy, it’s all about the plant-based milks. Be it almond, coconut, hazelnut, hemp, oat, rice or soya milk, there’s something for everyone.

Put them in your tea or coffee, mix them in milkshakes and smoothies, use them in your cooking – they’re an ideal straight swap for dairy. And you can even get cream and crème fraîche replacements, too.

2

Swap white pasta for wholewheat

They’re the same price, take the same time to cook, and taste the same once they’re covered in sauce. But as white pasta is processed, its simple carbohydrates are quickly digested, whereas wholewheat pasta’s complex carbohydrates provide slow-release energy. And because wholewheat is made with the whole grain, you get more nutritional value.

3

Replace meat with beans

Curry and chilli are both great weeknight meals, and can easily be made ahead and frozen. And by replacing chicken or mince with black beans, kidney beans and chickpeas, you’ll be saving money and cooking time. Plus, in dishes like these that use lots of herbs and spices, meat often just adds a bit of texture, so swapping it out with beans or lentils isn’t too noticeable.

4

Switch sugary snacks for fruit

We know it sounds boring. And we know that an apple is no substitute for a packet of biscuits. But try treating yourself to something a bit sweeter, like strawberries, blueberries or watermelon. You won’t get that afternoon slump that comes from scoffing a chocolate bar at 3pm, and eventually that craving for refined sugars will wear off.

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Follow the foodies

Join the plant-based community! If you don’t have friends or family that follow a plant-based diet, get online and find a new tribe of pals with the same foodie interests as you. Social media and the internet make it easier than ever to be part of this expanding community – here are our favourite bloggers who share their journeys, recipes and inspiring food photography.

The First Mess

Laura Wright loves cooking with natural, seasonal, plant-based foods, and writes about living simply and staying connected to the earth. Based in Southern Ontario, she shares her own recipes (along with some gorgeous photos) and tries out those from fellow plant-based authors’ cookbooks too.

Minimalist Baker

Dana Shultz creates super-simple, delicious recipes that require either just 10 ingredients or less, one bowl, or under 30 minutes to prepare. Showcasing plant-based comfort food at its very best, Dana herself doesn’t subscribe to one particular diet, but many of her recipes are also gluten free.

Oh She Glows

Angela Liddon has a passion for plant-based foods, and shares recipes that are free from gluten and soy as well as processed ingredients. She shifted to a plant-based diet back in 2009, and has been helping to inspire others on their path towards health and wellbeing ever since.

Pea Soup

Aine Carlin started her food blog in 2009, but it’s since evolved into a lifestyle blog, documenting what she eats, wears and loves. Aine has a passion for sustainable living, and often posts pictures of her beautiful vintage outfits alongside tasty plant- based recipes. She’s written two vegan recipe books, too!

Photos by Mariana Montes de Oca, Brooke Lark, Heder Neves, rawpixel, Maddi Bazzocco, Alexandra Andersson on Unsplash.

This is an edited version of an article written by Yvette Streeter and originally published in In The Moment Magazine issue 2.