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Let me start off by saying that I am not a vegan. I eat plants. I prefer soy milk, though I am not against cow’s milk. And I eat meat when I want. While that may make some of you question my credibility that is part of the concern we should have with food extremism. Here is where I should make some clever joke about being a vegan, or becoming a “televeganist” spouting the benefits of a plant based lifestyle to decrease health risks. But let’s just have a little talk about the reality of eating plants.

We like to complicate health. We want potions, lotions, pills, powders, and miracle lasers. We argue about organics, nut milks, oils, GMO’s, clean eating, and keto but the crux of all of health is just eating more plants. We all know that,…right?

In American society the question is, “Where’s the beef?” Continuing this mentality, many people think that in order to have a meal there needs to be meat on the dish and if there is not meat on the plate it is not a meal. To be clear, in talking about meat I am not just considering beef, but meat will include chicken, turkey, pork, ham, duck, lamb, ox tail, and so on. As a funny aside, I once had a student tell me that “I stopped eating red meat, now I cook it until it is not red anymore.”… that is not what professionals mean when they say limit eating red meat.

First, let me say that meat is not the devil. It can be an easily accessible source of protein, vitamins and minerals. It has all of the essential amino acids that your body needs in order to maintain your DNA, immune system, and muscles. However, many Americans can get the daily recommended amount of protein by eating a 4 ounce (palmed size) piece of chicken, a couple of slices of bread and a cup or two of milk (cow or soy). What I am trying to say is that many Americans are over consuming protein because they’ve heard bad things about fat and carbohydrates with little bad being said about protein. We had the low-fat phase and the low-carb phase, but no low-protein phase so there is little food fear associated with protein.

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However, the downside in consuming large amounts of animals is that they can have unhealthy fats in it that may lead an increased risk for developing heart disease and clogged arteries. Also, if our sole focus is on consuming protein other healthy options are slowly pushed out. We are missing out on fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients (plant-nutrients that are beneficial but not classified as vitamins or minerals).

Ironically, if we are trying to be healthy we aim to change and strive to incorporate more vegetables into our diet, inevitably that leads to eating salads. I say that in jest, because when we think of eating more plants we think of eating more salads. This limited vision of food can be true, especially when we have the meat and potato mentality. Many vegetarians and vegans are asked, “if you don’t eat meat, what do you eat?!” and the answer is typically, “anything else”.

I am not saying that you should entirely remove meat from your diet, but I am proposing that we should have less. Maybe the meat should be there to add taste to the rest of the dish rather than being the dish, to be the seasoning to a dish rather than the whole thing.

So how do we break it the cycle? Well, we could go off of Bob Newhart’s skit of, “Stop it” or we could take small steps to see what vegetables you could easily add to dishes you already make. If you have a favorite meal, what fruit/vegetable/plants could you add to it to improve it? Remember onions, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, shallots, and other easily forgotten plants that are common place.

Here are some simple ideas of how to experiment with meatless meals.

1.Tacos, quesadillas, burritos and enchiladas — Rather than simply having tortillas, beef and cheese, consider adding some of the following vegetables to your dish such as fresh salsa, beans, corn, grilled onions, sliced tomatoes, bell peppers, spinach, romaine lettuce, pico de gallo, etc.

2. Protein Bowl — Having a acai bowl, grain bowl, or lentil salad is a great way to increase your fiber and whole grain intake. These can help promote and maintain fullness while also being a great source of vitamins and minerals.

3. Homemade Parfaits — that include granola, seeds, nuts, and sliced fruit

4. Overnight Oats — Sweet or Savory

5. Omelettes with mushrooms, peppers, spinach, onions, tomatoes, salsa

6. German Pancakes, crepes, or waffles with fruit

7. Stuffed bell peppers with beans, grains, corn, tomato sauce

It can be daunting to overhaul a diet, and that is why most behavior change specialist typically recommend slow, steady, sustainable changes. If you are able to adopt one new thing a week, after a year you have created 52 new habits. Whereas, if you attempted to adopt 52 new things this week it could quickly become overwhelming, cause you to dig your heels in, or start fast out of the gate only to burn out and fall back into old habits.

Allowing yourself to try one new behavior at a time provides the opportunity to experiment without the pressure of this being your one chance to get it right.

Instead, continuing to have the growth mindset (where you believe you can continue to learn and develop rather than being limited in to what you were born with) allows you to try, learn, fail, succeed, and develop the resiliency that is essential in establishing life long health. That resilience is important so that your day of “eating off the rails” or vacation, or recent weight gain doesn’t completely destroy the progress you’ve made.

It is important to remember that you are a life long being. That one choice will not make or break you. Instead, it is the habits you create and the lifestyle you develop. So allows keep in mind you are in the long game, one play at a time. If you don’t score a touchdown now, adjust your play calling and try again.

That being the case, try one meatless meal this week and see how it goes!

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You might not like this story, so just try another! They’re free like that. Good ole’ information buffet. Dietitian, Professor, Author www.cordellnutrition.com

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