How to Go Meatless

Vegetarian and vegan diets may have health benefits, but consumers should be sure to get all the nutrients they need

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

Many consumers take steps to eat less meat and more veggies. Veggie-heavy diets can have health benefits, but they need to be done right to provide all the nutrients necessary for a healthy life.

A 2013 survey from the market research group Mintel revealed that, while only about 5 percent of Americans considered themselves vegetarians, 36 percent of those surveyed reported using meat alternatives. Past research has found that as many as 1 in 4 Americans lived as “flexitarians” (or occasional vegetarians), and 36 countries have cities that participate in the “Meatless Monday” movement.

Why are these consumers stepping away from the deli counter and out of the butcher shop? According to the Mintel survey, the most common reason was for better health.

Some studies suggest that those following a vegetarian diet may have a lower risk of death, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It may also slow autoimmune disease progression. Other recent research indicated that even those who follow a plant-heavy diet may be less likely to develop colorectal cancer than meat-eaters.

However, these possible benefits do come with some risks — cutting out meat or other animal products can put these vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians at risk for vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. One study followed children raised vegetarian and found that they had low levels of vitamin B-12. Compared to the control group, these vegetarian kids scored lower on psychological test scores.

In an interview with dailyRx News, registered dietitian and 20-year vegan Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD, said those new to a meatless lifestyle may cut out meat but not replace it with other food — leaving them with a lack of energy and nutrients. He stressed eating a variety of foods to get enough of what the body needs.

Watch the dailyRx News video for more from Ruscigno.

Interested in giving Meatless Monday a try? Check out some sample recipes:

Iron Man Salad

Simply combining spinach with ruby red grapefruit offers a fruity, ferrous marriage of flavor and nutrients. The sweet tanginess of the grapefruit pairs well with the earthy and somewhat bitter flavors of spinach, while the vitamin C from the grapefruit may help the body absorb the iron from the spinach. Because the grapefruit is juicy, there’s no need for dressing! If desired, sprinkle in some raisins for even more iron. Looking to add some protein? Pair with a mild legume, such as garbanzo beans.

Popeye’s Pasta

Serves four to six


Whole-grain pasta

1 package firm or extra firm tofu; optional substitute: plain “fake” chicken strips or breast (sliced)

2 bags spinach

1 box baby crimini mushrooms, sliced or quartered


1 carton cherry tomatoes, halved

Olive oil

  1. Drain tofu and blot out excess moisture; cube in about half-inch squares and set aside on a paper towel.
  2. Set water to boil for pasta. Follow pasta box directions for cook time.
  3. Steam the spinach by adding leaves with a splash of water to a large pan with a lid; heat on a low stovetop setting. This is easiest by starting with one bag, then adding the second once the first bag is reduced. Use tongs to “stir” the leaves occasionally. This can also be accomplished in the microwave by adding a little water and the leaves to a micro-safe bowl and covering with a wet paper towel. Check at minute intervals. Once leaves are steamed, turn off heat and set aside.
  4. In a separate large pan, heat olive oil (about 2 tablespoons) to a high heat; carefully add the cubed tofu and sliced or chopped garlic to personal preference. Occasionally stir the tofu to heat all sides; the tofu may get a golden-brown hue (but if it doesn’t, that’s OK).
  5. Reduce to medium heat and add the sliced mushrooms and tomatoes to the pan. If the veggies stick to the pan, add a bit more olive oil. Stir occasionally until the veggies are cooked to preference.
  6. If using fake chicken substitute, follow the directions on the package, then add to the pan.
  7. Reduce heat to low, then add steamed greens. Once the entire mixture is warmed, serve on the pasta.
  8. Enjoy!

Among other important nutrients, this meal provides both protein and iron. In this dish, the vitamin C from the cherry tomatoes may aid the absorption of the iron from the spinach. The tofu or meat substitute offers protein, as does the whole-grain pasta. Depending on the type of tofu, it may also have calcium added to it, so check the label at the store. Additionally, olive oil is considered a “healthy fat,” which the Mayo Clinic notes may help heart health.


Review Date: 
April 13, 2015