According to the National Food Strategy report (2021) commissioned by the UK government, Brits need to reduce their meat consumption by 30% by the end of 2030. This is essential to help curb greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts from livestock farming and reduce the prevalence of diet-related diseases.
While going completely veggie or vegan may feel a bit daunting, there are some easy ways we can do our bit and reduce our meat intake. Step one: pick just one day of the week to go plant-powered!
Vegetables are naturally much lower in calories than meat due to their high water and low fat content. Substituting meat for veggies means you can pile your plate high and easily stay within your calorie target. They're also high in fibre, which has the added benefit of keeping us fuller for longer, reducing the temptation to snack between meals.
Vegetarian and vegan meat alternatives are fantastic lower-calorie options for a more substantial meat-free meal. Here are a few calorie comparisons of veggie protein products vs meat counterparts:
So you can still cook and enjoy your favourite recipes on your meat-free day – just substitute the meat ingredients for veg-based ones to save on calories.
You probably don't need a nutritionist to tell you that vegetables and pulses are good for your health, but what are the actual benefits of eating more plant-based meals?
As mentioned above, vegetables and pulses, such as lentils, are very low in saturated fat and rich in fibre compared to meat. The combination of these factors is believed to be why diets high in vegetables are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
Data from 10 studies showed an 18% increased risk of colorectal cancer for every additional 50g of processed meat added to the diet each day (Bouvard et al., 2015). This led the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), who advise the World Health Organisation, to classify processed meat consumption as "carcinogenic" i.e. cancerous to humans. Although the evidence isn't strong enough to make a definite link, unprocessed red meat has also been associated with increased cancer risk, so IARC classifies its consumption as "probably carcinogenic to humans". In summary, reducing our intake of meat, mainly processed meats, may help to reduce our risk of cancer.
Leaning towards a more flexitarian diet doesn't mean you have to miss out on protein. There are plenty of plant-based protein sources to try: Quorn (vegetarian and vegan options available), tofu (soy-based), tempeh (soy-based), seitan (wheat-based), quinoa (a gluten-free grain), as well as beans, legumes, and pulses such as chickpeas and lentils. Tofu, tempeh, edamame beans and quinoa are particularly excellent sources as they are classed as 'complete proteins', meaning they deliver all nine essential amino acids your body can only get through your diet.
Vegetables are one of the most nutrient-dense foods, rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, essential for keeping all our bodily processes tip-top and reducing our risk of disease. Plant-based foods are known to be especially good sources of vitamin A, B-vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, potassium, and iron.
Globally, 340 million tonnes of meat are produced every year – that's three times more than 50 years ago. Producing meat at this scale is a leading cause of climate change, as well as water depletion and soil erosion.
Over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and almost 80% of ocean and freshwater pollution is caused by agriculture. These staggering figures have prompted the United Nations to appeal for a global shift in our diets to help tackle the worst effects of climate change. When we eat vegetables and grains directly, instead of funnelling them through animals, it uses far less land and water.
This doesn't mean we need to stop eating animal products altogether – meat and dairy foods are nutrient-rich and offer some valuable benefits compared to plant-based foods. For example, we know that iron and omega-3 fatty acids naturally occurring in animal products are absorbed much better by our bodies than iron found in vegetables and grains. Plus, vitamin B12 is almost exclusively found in meat and eggs, so cutting them out entirely may present nutritional challenges in the long term for some people.
That said, there is certainly scope for us all to maybe re-evaluate our diets, and start viewing meat as a complementary food rather than the centre of all our meals. Picking at least one day a week to go meat-free (or all animal products if you're up for a challenge) is an excellent place to start.
Are you stuck for ideas on what to prepare for your meat-free day? Check out these 10 recipes for some plant-based inspiration!
Nutritionist Amy Wood (ANutr), MSci BSc Nutrition has a keen interest in the relationship between diet and health. Having been published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Amy is passionate about making evidence-based nutrition accessible to everyone and helping others to adopt a food-focussed approach to taking control of their health.