By now, most of us have heard the bad news. The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that bacon, sausages, hot dogs, cold cuts, and other types of processed meat cause cancer (particularly colon cancer) at a similar rate to asbestos and tobacco. As little as 50 grams a day (that’s just two slices of bacon!) can increase your cancer risk by 18 percent. Other types of non-processed meat are classified as “probably carcinogenic.”
Yikes, right? Suddenly that low-fat turkey sandwich doesn’t seem like such a healthy lunch choice after all. You may be wondering how to reduce your meat intake while still maintaining a balanced, satisfying diet. One problem is in our culture, a diet (and in some households, a meal!) without meat seems nutritionally imbalanced and incomplete. This is a myth. Not only is it perfectly healthy to shift away from meat and toward more plant-based options, it’s also easier and more palatable than you think.
After counseling thousands of patients toward better health via dietary modifications (not to mention breaking my own addiction to barbecued ribs while transitioning to a vegan diet), I know that changing what you put on your plate isn’t easy. No matter how good your intentions are or how much you know about nutrition, it’s difficult to break lifelong habits and ingrained beliefs about what’s “good” for you.
Here are 10 tips to help you reduce your meat intake now—and lower your risk for serious diseases like cancer later.
Tip 1: Do a 24-hour food recall. First, get an accurate idea of how much meat you’re currently eating. Instead of keeping a food log (which you’re prone to forget about after Meal One), do a 24-hour food recall. Write down everything you ate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and drinks for the past 24 hours. For many people, seeing a typical day’s diet in black and white is eye-opening.
Even if you don’t think you eat much meat, consider the WHO recommendations. Just 50 grams of processed meat, or a little under 2 ounces daily, increases your risks. Bacon or sausage for breakfast, plus a deli sandwich at lunch, might put you well over 50 grams—and that’s not even counting supper!
Tip 2: Stop thinking of meat as the main event. Unless you grew up in a vegetarian or vegan household, chances are you were raised to think of meat as the main dish and everything else as “sides.” It can be helpful to mentally switch these designations.
Consider meat a condiment that you can sprinkle over beans, whole grains, or vegetables, rather than the main dish. For instance, you might crumble a small amount of chorizo into your vegetable soup or top your salad with a pinch or two of bacon bits.
Tip 3: Get over your fear of carbs. Are you afraid that stepping away from meat will inevitably lead to more carb consumption...and then to more body fat? This is a common concern, but it’s unfounded.
There’s much more to a plant-based diet than bread, rice, and pasta. A balanced plate includes fruits, vegetables, fiber, protein, and more. And anyway, not all carbs are bad. You do want to stay away from simple carbohydrates, like those found in white bread and white rice, which are easily broken down by the body and quickly converted to fat—without leaving you satisfied. However, complex carbohydrates, like those found in whole grain products, will fill you up without filling you out.
Tip 4: Take the transition slowly. There’s nothing pleasant about quitting your favorite meats cold turkey (pun intended)—and anyway, this strategy is unlikely to be successful in the long run. If you’re currently a committed carnivore, start by eliminating meat from just one meal a day. After a few weeks, you can move on to having meat only once per day—and after that, to one or more meatless days each week.
No matter what kind of dietary change you’re making, the key to lasting success is sustainability. A slow, gradual transition gives your body and palate plenty of time to get used to more plant-based options and keeps you from feeling restricted and dissatisfied.
Tip 5: Stretch your culinary muscles. As you cut back on the amount of meat you eat, you’ll want to add new plant-based recipes to your kitchen repertoire. Sorry—eating more chips, French fries, candy, and other meatless junk food won’t do your health many favors in the long run. Also, variety is important both for nutrition and your new diet’s sustainability.
Fortunately, finding recipes and learning new cooking techniques has never been easier thanks to sites like Pinterest and Epicurious, plant-based food blogs, YouTube tutorials, and more. If you don’t want to spend time searching and prefer a more customized approach, my Get Waisted program gives you access to thousands of curated plant-based recipes.
Tip 6: Look for satisfying substitutions. Instead of telling yourself, I can’t eat that, ask, How can I make it healthier? Your quest to eat less meat (or even go meat-free) won’t feel like a sacrifice if you can find a plant-based way to replicate the flavors and dishes you’ve always loved.
Before I cut meat out of my diet, I used to love making—and eating—Vietnamese pork bundles. I mourned their loss for four whole years before I had the idea to substitute pinto beans for the pork. Turns out their creamy goodness, and even their coloring, mimics ground pork reasonably well. And bonus: Beans are consistently linked to high productivity and longevity. By choosing a bean over meat, I had not only found a way to extend my life, I was improving its quality, too.
The point is, you don’t have to look for an all-new repertoire of meatless recipes—just get creative when preparing your old favorites. In addition to subbing beans for meat, give meat-replacers like tofu, portobello mushrooms, lentils, and eggplant a chance.
Tip 7: Start the day off right. Many of us view cured meats like bacon, sausage, and ham as breakfast staples. We may even have thought we were doing ourselves a favor by avoiding sugary cereals and carbs. But based on the WHO’s report, it’s wise to bid farewell to these old meaty favorites—or at least enjoy them on a more limited basis.
Don’t skip breakfast altogether if your old go-to option is off the table. This meal is a great place to start incorporating plant-based substitutions. You can try vegetarian and vegan sausages and bacon if you prefer to start the day off on a savory note. Personally, I was surprised by how close to the original many of these copycats are. And don’t forget options like oatmeal, fruit smoothies, and whole grain breads and cereals. All of these are healthy, and once again, will fill you up without filling you out.
Tip 8: Harness the power of association. If you really want to get serious about saying no to meat, go on the offensive by associating something very yummy with something even more yucky. Every time you bite off a piece of bacon, for instance, picture a mouthful of chemical-laden smog. When you’re craving a hot dog, conjure up a mental vision of a sludgy, disgusting landfill.
During my own transition, I was frequently assailed by cravings for barbeque. So when I smelled or just started fantasizing about this dish, I would think about dirt and feces. Sometimes I’d even picture a little pig on a factory farm, living his life in a crate, never getting a breath of fresh air and never knowing what it felt like to stick his nose in some nice mud. This tactic worked amazingly well!
Tip 9: Consider what makes cents. Face it: Many types and cuts of meat are expensive! In fact, over 20 percent of the average American grocery bill is spent on meat (and meat prices are continuing to rise). So if you’re motivated by a good deal, you may find it helpful to remind yourself of the money you’re saving by choosing plant-based options.
You might object that fresh produce and other non-processed foods can also be pricey. However, if you’re no longer funneling one-fifth or more of your grocery budget toward meat, you’ll have a lot more to spend on these items.
Also, remember that the cost savings aren’t limited to what’s (not) on your plate. For instance, many of my patients find that they spend less on cosmetics because a plant-based diet improves their hair and skin. And, of course, by eating nutritiously you’re avoiding piles of medical bills in the future.
Tip 10: Find a friend to share the journey. It’s a lot easier to make healthy transitions when you’re working toward your goal with a friends old or new. Don’t underestimate the power of support, encouragement, and commiseration. If you can’t get your family on board with a reduced-meat or no-meat diet, maybe you can swap plant-based meal plans with a good friend or team up with a coworker to make sure the break room is stocked with healthy snack options.
Together, we can curb this cancer epidemic and take back our health. It starts with you and the foods you choose to put in your body. Transitioning to a plant-based diet may be challenging, but isn’t your long-term health worth it? And bonus: You can look forward to a healthier, leaner body.
Mary R. Wendt, MD, is the founder of Get Waisted and the author of Waist Away: How to Joyfully Lose Weight and Supercharge Your Life. She is an expert on making the transition to plant-based nutrition and has 20 years of experience practicing internal medicine in private and hospital practice. When she’s not eating rice and beans from Chipotle, she’s searching for the latest healthy choices available all over New York City.
To learn more, please visit www.getwaisted.com.