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The risks of not going meatless

Donald Hensrud, M.D.
Preventive Medicine

When people think of drastically reducing or even eliminating meat and other animal products from their diet, their first thought is often: "What are the nutritional risks?"

I suggest that this question be flipped around. It's really more valid to ask: "What are the risks of continuing to eat meat?"

Foods that come from animals — including meat, poultry (especially with the skin) and dairy products containing fat — are generally high in calories. Consuming them can make it harder to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. In addition, these foods are generally high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which are key contributors to your risk of heart attack, stroke and other diseases related to artery health.

In contrast, the risks of going without eating animal products are easily manageable, as you can read in our April 2010 Health Tips article "Going without meat." Most important, the nutritional risks of going meatless pale in comparison with the potential benefits of a well-balanced, plant-based diet.
But what about getting enough protein? It's a common concern, but in reality, most people eat much more protein than they need. So, as long as you consume enough calories and eat a wide variety of plant-based foods, you will get enough protein — even if you consume no animal-based products.

Another common concern is getting enough iron. Studies have shown that those who don't eat meat have slightly lower iron stores than do those who eat meat. However, it's not clear if this is a problem — and it may even be a good thing. Regardless, those who don't eat meat have no greater prevalence of iron deficiency (anemia) than do meat-eaters.

As mentioned in the article, the only true nutritional issues for those who consume no animal-based products are getting enough vitamin B-12 and calcium. And these potential deficiencies can easily be remedied with fortified foods or supplements.
The bottom line is that drastically reducing or even eliminating animal-based foods is healthier, not more risky! And to give you an idea of just how tasty and satisfying a meatless dish can be, try the recipe below, taken from the book "The Mayo Clinic Diet."

Simple spaghetti with marinara sauce
10 minutes preparation time
45 to 90 minutes cooking time
Serves 8

1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves (or more according to preference), minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 28-ounce cans of whole, peeled tomatoes and juice — with no salt added
1/4 cup chopped parsley
12 ounces uncooked whole-wheat spaghetti
2 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 3/4 cup)

1. In a large skillet, cook onions and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until soft. Add tomatoes, including juice, and parsley. Simmer, breaking up tomatoes into smaller pieces. (To make thicker sauce, simmer for up to 1 1/2 hours.)

2. Fill a large pot 3/4 full with water. Bring to a boil. Add the spaghetti and cook until "al dente" or until tender, yet with texture. (See package directions for time.) Drain pasta thoroughly.

3. In a large heated bowl, combine the spaghetti and sauce. Toss gently to mix. Serve — each serving topped with Parmesan cheese.

Per serving
Calories 247
Protein 10 grams
Carbohydrate 43 grams
Total fat 5 grams
Monounsaturated fat 2 grams
Saturated fat 1.5 grams
Cholesterol 5 milligrams
Sodium 140 milligrams
Fiber 7 grams

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