I certainly pride myself on my omnivore status. I never have to explain detailed food aversions or requests before dinner parties, I can eat at any restaurant, I get loads of vitamin B12 (the only vitamin that cannot be supplied with a whole food, plant-based diet), and I get to enjoy a rich, meaty, bacon cheeseburger whenever I want. Vegetarianism has never really appealed to me—and yet, Meatless March does.
While you might never be able to imagine yourself completely abstaining from medium-rare filet mignons for the rest of your life, that doesn't mean this challenge isn't for you. Yes, research has shown that going vegan is the most effective weight loss diet, but Meatless March is about more than just minimizing belly fat. It's about learning how to incorporate healthier foods into your diet, challenging yourself to get creative with different recipes, and—arguably most importantly—helping to do your part in cleaning up our planet. Some reports estimate that it can take 14.6 gallons of water, 13.5 pounds of feed, and 64.5 square feet of land to produce a single quarter-pound burger. Besides those wasted resources, that same burger will cost the Earth an eighth of a pound of methane and a total of four pounds total of greenhouse gases—two factors in what are contributing to human-driven climate change. Yes, your burger might have only cost you a dollar, but it costs the planet a lot more.
Giving up eating animals can be tricky, not just because we crave the occasional order of chicken nuggets, but because animals products have traditionally been our primary source of protein and important nutrients like vitamin D and B12. With this Meatless March Plan, you'll learn how to make this vegetarian (and possibly vegan) month work for you. Read on to get a new perspective on diet and nutrition with Meatless March and then keep the themed days of food going by seeing what's coming up for the 50 National Food Holidays for What's Actually Healthy.
WHY YOU SHOULD DO MEATLESS MARCH
WE'RE EATING TOO MUCH PROTEIN…
The federal dietary guidelines recommend that the average adult needs 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which comes out to 71 grams for the average man and 60 grams for the average woman. But those numbers are much lower than what Americans are eating: A National Health and Nutrition Examination report found that the average American man consumes 102 grams of protein a day, and the average woman about 70 grams. The 2015 dietary guidelines finally spoke out about the problem, advising that "teen boys and adult men need to reduce overall intake of protein foods by decreasing intakes of meats, poultry and eggs and increasing amounts of vegetables." According to the USDA, meat alone contributes 40 percent of the daily protein intake of all Americans.
…AND TOO FEW VEGETABLES
The same 2015-2020 dietary guidelines found that the average intakes of vegetables across every single age and sex group is lower than the current recommended intake ranges. That goes for green, red and orange, starchy, and "other" vegetables as well as beans and legumes. The dietary guidelines recommend most individuals should "shift to consume more vegetables," and that, "following a healthy eating pattern would include an increase in total vegetable intake from all vegetable subgroups, in nutrient-dense forms, and an increase in the variety of different vegetables."
TOO MUCH PROTEIN CAN LEAD TO WEIGHT GAIN
Among the 7 Things That Happen To Your Body When You Eat Too Much Protein, gaining weight is one of them. While a high-protein, low-carb diet may help you lose weight right off the bat, over the long-term, it can actually cause weight gain: According to a Spanish study, researchers had more than 7,000 participants fill out questionnaires about their eating habits over the course of six years. After analyzing the data, they found that those who ate high-protein diets had a 90 percent greater risk of gaining more than 10 percent of their body weight during the course of the study than those who ate less.
IT MIGHT BE TIME FOR A CHANGE
If you've hit a weight-loss plateau, it's probably time to change something up about your diet, and one of the best ways to fight fat is with fiber-filled meatless meals! Dr. Sean M. Wells, the owner of Naples Personal Training explains, "Emerging research shows that focusing on high-fiber foods can help you shed pounds after other diets have caused a plateau, likely because the nutrient is so filling." In fact, one study found that for every gram of fiber we consume, we eliminate seven calories from our diets later in the day.
YOU'LL HELP HEAL THE PLANET
The USDA's Energy Use In The U.S. Food System report says that if a large number of people chose to eat less meat that would translate into substantially less energy used in the production of meat—that means we'd use less coal, oil, and diesel, and therefore send less dangerous CO2 into the air. It would also result in fewer cows sending methane gas—a greenhouse gas that is disastrously better than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere—into the air, as well as a significant decrease in water usage. It takes about 1,847 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef and 518 gallons per pound for chicken, according to a report by the Dutch Institute for Water Education.
YOU'LL SAVE MONEY
Going meatless will also slash your weekly budget! Meatless meals are built around vegetables, beans and grains instead of meat, which is usually more expensive. Using data from The United States Department of Labor, we found that in January 2016, the average price of meat per pound in America was $4.16 while the same pound of vegetables would cost you only $1.67. This difference in cost is primarily due to the fact that producing meat requires extra expenses like food, health maintenance, processing, and transportation.
IT'S A MOVEMENT
Even though the number of vegetarians/vegans has remained around 2 percent of the U.S. population, more people are choosing to decrease their meat and dairy intake regardless of their dietary trend status, resulting in a 10 percent decrease in meat consumption per capita since 2007. And a recent survey by the Nutrition Business Journal found that about 26 percent of the U.S. population has said they've consciously chosen to eat less meat in the last 12 months. What does that look like exactly? In 2014, approximately 60,000 fewer dairy cows were raised on factory farms than in 2008, and 400 million fewer land animals were killed for food in the US than in 2013, according to The Humane Society.
PLANT-BASED PROTEIN IS THE FUTURE
McDonald's ex-CEO, who worked 25 years for the fast food giant that churns out 75 hamburgers a second, is now on the Board of Directors of a vegan company that wants to cut global meat consumption. Beyond Meat's philosophy is that because of meat's negative impact on animal welfare, global resources, and the environment, animal protein should be swapped out for plant-based protein. The company sells items called "Beast Burgers" and "Beyond Chicken Strips" that are made with non-GMO pea protein. It's not just one company either. The 2015 Special Diets Report by the Nutrition Business Journal found that sales for vegetarian-specific foods are expected to grow at 6.9 percent between 2015 and 2018, a growth rate three times higher than what is predicted for total food sales.
IT'S A LEARNING OPPORTUNITY
Meatless March is a great way to not only learn about a diet different than your own, but it's also a wonderful opportunity to learn more about nutrition in general. You'll start to think about food in a new light, discover alternative protein options, try new restaurants, new recipes, learn about local foods, experiment with different cooking techniques, and find ways to incorporate more healthy foods into your meal plan. Because the plan revolves around vegetables (and you might get sick of eating broccoli every day), you'll be encouraged to branch out and try veggies that you've never tried before. Ever heard of sunchokes?
That's right. Going meat-free does not mean you have to start growing your own veggies or only subsist on a tofu diet. The fact is, you can find deliciously satisfying meat-free options in the grocery store. And if you follow the tips below, your meatless March will be a breeze!
TIPS FOR HOW TO GO MEATLESS
PICK YOUR PLAN
While some of you might be thinking, "This all sounds great! I can't wait to get started!" others might be a little more pessimistic about their ability to fully commit to an entire month of meatless eating. Not to worry, there are options! Already a vegetarian? Try veganism! If the whole month is too much for you, try a 7 day challenge. If a whole week is too much, why not try once a week a la Meatless Monday? Embrace the part-time vegetarian method: eat meatless until dinner, or maybe just throughout the week with weekends off. Just try the first day of spring, March 20th, otherwise known as "Meatout Day." Still not convinced? There's one more option! If you're someone who thinks you could never give up meat, use this month as a chance to eat more vegetables and whole grains. Choose a plan that will fit your life.
EASE INTO IT
Regardless of your Meatless March plan, there's no need to go cold turkey right off the bat. You can gradually shift into your meatless diet by focusing on a single type of change. Identify one meal (like breakfast) or one day each week where plant-foods will be front and center. In your first couple days, plan meatless meals that you already like, such as lasagna, pasta, or soup, and then gradually transition into the unknown with one of these Weeknight Vegetarian dishes. You can also ensure your meal features veggies by starting your dinners with a salad.
Setting specific goals will help you stay focused and learn even more about yourself and general nutrition on this 31-day challenge. Start by challenging yourself to try one new food each week. Try vegan one day. Cut down on processed, junk foods. Since March is also National Nutrition Month, you could keep a nutrition journal to help you understand where all your essential micro and macronutrients are coming from. Take a cooking class. Read a new Eat This, Not That! article every day! Are you doing this to help reduce your carbon footprint? Expand your environmental outlook by biking to work one day, cutting down on your bottled water habit, visiting a local farm, or turning off your lights more often. The possibilities are endless, but only you have the power to make your journey personal and worth it.
EMBRACE THE VEGGIES
The first rule of vegetarianism: Don't pretend like you're eating beef. No matter how much you try to manipulate tofu or wheat gluten, it will never taste like a Big Mac. Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, and author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet recommends you should "Focus on adding fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, tea, and water…not on reducing meat." So don't think about "replacing" your meat, just embrace its absence and check out these 26 Best Sources of Vegetarian Protein.
MEAT ALTERNATIVES AREN'T ALWAYS HEALTHY
Be wary of swapping meat for vegan meat alternatives. A package of vegan chicken nuggets can be just as loaded with nasty additives and sodium as normal chicken nuggets (and they most likely won't appease your cravings for the real deal).
Unlike America's idea of a meal, many ethnic cuisines are centered on vegetarian dishes. Indian food offers spicy and filling vegetable curries, Mexican is great for diet-pleasing veggie fajitas and guac, and Japanese food boasts an array of veggie sushi rolls and miso soups.
RETHINK HOW YOU SHOP FOR FOOD
The produce section will be your primary stop at the supermarket, but there's no reason to skip the other aisles entirely. Canned, jarred and frozen foods are all fair game and can bolster your daily diet as long as you look for products that use whole foods and have short and simple ingredient lists. And it might surprise you, but umami flavor isn't just in meat. Pick up foods like parmesan cheese, kalamata olives, mushrooms, miso and tomato paste, to help enhance the savory side of your whole-grain pasta dishes or bean- and tofu-based meals.
GET TO KNOW YOUR SPICE DRAWER
Unlike meat, vegetables don't have a lot of saturated fats to make them flavorful. And yes, a meat-centric diet boasts lots of satisfying umami flavors, but a lot of that comes from fat- and sodium-laden marinades and sauces—recipe additions that can add inches to your waist. The best weapons in your vegetarian arsenal are herbs and spices; they're low on calories, high in flavor, and will help transform any blah meal into a mouthwatering masterpiece. Start by adding a sprinkle of fat-burning, metabolism-boosting cayenne pepper to your next batch of guac.
WATCH OUT FOR THE CARBS
When one food goes out, another is quick to replace it. When you switch to a meatless diet, you're primarily getting rid of what has traditionally been a huge source of protein. As a result, it's very likely that carbs will slowly begin take up a larger portion of your meals. However, replacing protein and fat with empty carbs is a lousy trade too many vegetarians and vegans make, so be sure to stay away from blood-sugar-spiking refined carbs.
Recent research shows that nuts can be a boon for weight loss and they help ensure you're getting enough protein when you're cutting back on traditional, animal-based sources. Get creative and slip them into your morning oatmeal or snack on them with some trail mix. We suggest picking up some walnuts. These heart-shaped nuts are one of the 6 Best Nuts for Weight Loss because they're packed with protein and fiber to keep you feeling fuller for longer—a key to efficient weight loss.
LIVE IN THE PAST
While your parents may have only heard of ancient grains in Bible passages, now grains like quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff, and buckwheat are everywhere—granola bars, cereals, breads, chips, and even cookies. So why all the hype? Unlike modern grains such as wheat, corn, and rice, ancient grains' genetic makeups have not been manipulated much from antiquity. Plus, grains like amaranth and quinoa are great for meatless dieters because they're rich, complete proteins—just like meat, they're packed with all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own.
PLAY IT SMOOTH
Studies show that high-protein, low-fat smoothies are highly effective at rushing nutrients to your muscles, and that blended fruit drinks—which, unlike juices, include fiber—will keep you fuller longer. If you want to make it vegan, make one with a non-dairy base, like unsweetened almond milk. If you're worried you won't be getting enough protein in your diet, not to fear. Add a scoop of vegetarian protein powder to your morning pick-me-up. For more inspiration, check out these weight loss smoothies.
10 THINGS THAT WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR BODY DURING MEATLESS MARCH
YOU'LL LOSE WEIGHT
Building your meals around an array of nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans is likely to make your weight loss efforts much easier than if you follow other regimens. When you consciously substitute more plant-based foods for meat or even animal-based foods, you'll find that you establish a healthier pattern of eating. In fact, when a recent study published in the journal Nutrition compared the effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss, researchers found that vegetarians and vegans decreased their body weight by over 3 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively, more than omnivores over a 6 month period. Some of this weight loss can be attributed to an increase in fiber intake. The macronutrient not only keeps you regular, but it also keeps you full, causing people to eat fewer calories.
YOU'LL LOWER CHOLESTEROL LEVELS
Raised LDL, or "bad," cholesterol is a major contributor to high blood pressure and clogged arteries, both of which put you at risk for heart disease and stroke. Total cholesterol levels are mediated by our genes and our diet; however, dietary cholesterol itself isn't a large player in raising internal cholesterol levels. While, yes, a vegetarian diet will decrease your intake of dietary cholesterol because only foods derived from animals contain cholesterol, the reason your cholesterol levels will decrease is for another reason: A vegetarian diet is focused on produce that is full of fiber and phytosterols, or plants' version of cholesterol. A review of clinical trials in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found that both phytosterols and dietary fiber inhibit the uptake of LDL cholesterol, through two different mechanisms, with the same result of reducing LDL levels.
YOU'LL HAVE A CLEANER GUT
Besides the benefits of decreasing your intake of fat-inducing, hormone-, preservative- and antibiotic-laden meat products, your meat-free gut will also get a spring cleaning. The human gut consists of 100 trillion live, symbiotic microorganisms, called probiotics, that influence nutrition, metabolism, immune function, and keep our digestive system happy. Like all living things, probiotics need to be fed in order to survive and do their job—which is where prebiotics come in. Prebiotics act as food for probiotics, keeping them healthy and functioning. And where do they come from? You guessed it: fiber! Foods like oatmeal and bananas contain soluble fibers which release their food source when they're broken down in your gut, and your meat-free March will be full of them.
YOU'LL REDUCE RISK OF METABOLIC SYNDROME
The extra fiber and good bacteria in a vegetarian's gut reduces inflammation, explains nutritionist Keri Glassman MD, RD, CDN, and founder of Nutritious Life. This reduction in inflammation paired with a better gut flora has been shown to improve risk factors that have been associated with metabolic syndrome—in just 1 month! A study in Environmental Microbiology Reports put 6 obese volunteers who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and/or hypertension on a strict vegetarian diet for one month. They found that the increase in prebiotic consumption reduced the risk factors associated with metabolic diseases—participants had better glucose tolerance, lower LDL levels, and lost weight—all while improving the composition of the gut microbiota.
YOUR SKIN WILL GLOW
Beauty may only skin deep, but it reflects how happy our digestive situation is, says Susan Tucker, holistic nutritionist and founder of Green Beat Life. She claims that plant eaters "find that their acne, rosacea or eczema clears up when they give up meat," she says, adding that the antioxidants, fiber and minerals in a plant-based diet help the system to detoxify daily, contributing to healthier skin. Want an extra detox boost? Try one of these 50 Detox Waters for Fat Burning and Weight Loss.
YOU'LL HAVE MORE ENERGY
Balanced vegetarian diets are full of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables that are high in slow-digesting complex carbohydrates, which help supply the body with plenty of fuel and more consistent energy levels. It's no wonder six out of the 7 Energizing Foods Better Than a Red Bull are plant based.
YOU'LL BOOST YOUR METABOLISM
A big part of the body's job is breaking down food so that the body can absorb nutrients. It takes the body extra effort to break down whole grains than more refined and processed grains, and fibrous veggies like kale, spinach and bananas in their solid form. When you prioritize these fibrous vegetables, fruit, and whole grains that the body has to work harder to digest, you are driving up TEF (Thermic Effect of Food), keeping your metabolic rate elevated, and expending more calories on digestion. Need some more revving of your metabolism? Check out these 50 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism.
YOU'LL EASE MENOPAUSE SYMPTOMS
Studies link the debilitating symptoms of peri- and postmenopause to the low levels of estrogen that occur due to the lack of ovarian hormones. Luckily for you, a healthy dose of veggies can help your body regulate these hormones, and aid with your menopause symptoms, according to a study published by the Chinese Pharmacological Society. That's thanks to the presence of phytoestrogen in some plants, such as chickpeas, apples, soy, beets, and more. These plant-based chemical compounds mimic the behavior of estrogen, and can thus increase and decrease estrogen and progesterone levels, maintaining a balance of them in your diet helps.
YOU'LL BE MORE REGULAR
Yet another benefit of increasing your fiber intake! The insoluble fiber in fruits, veggies, grains, and legumes doesn't digest in your stomach. Instead, it helps you push out waste better by making stools easier to pass. If you suffer from any sort of bowel trouble, you might have IBS. Don't miss these essential 37 IBS Remedies That Will Change Your Life!
If people seem to be migrating away from you during the first few days of the meatless challenge, don't take it personally. Suddenly increasing your fiber intake may cause you to experience gas and bloating due to the changes going on in your gut. To offset this unwanted side effect, try easing into the diet over the first week, phasing out meat, and steadily increasing foods that are packed with fiber—like these 30 High Fiber Foods That Should Be In Your Diet.