If you’ve given up meat for health reasons (or ethical considerations), you need to stay focused on nutrition. Simply cutting out beef – and, for some people, chicken too – doesn’t guarantee that your diet will be nutritionally complete or healthy.
Depending on which foods you replace meat with (or don't), you could be shortchanging your diet – and your body – essential protein, not to mention other much-needed nutrients (see sidebar).
Protein is the building block of muscles, bone, cartilage, skin, hormones and enzymes. Getting enough protein helps to repair muscles after a workout, supports a strong immune system and maintains healthy hair and nails.
Including protein in meals also helps to suppress your appetite and, as such, may help you lose weight.
How much protein you need each day depends on your body weight and how active you are. The official RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for sedentary people is 0.8 grams of protein every kilogram of body weight. If you weigh, say, 170 pounds (77 kg), you need 62 g of protein a day, an amount found in 7.5 ounces of steak or chicken.
Older adults likely need more protein to preserve muscle mass and muscle function, about 1 to 1.2 g every kilogram a day.
No matter what your age, though, if you work out regularly (strength and/or cardio exercises), you have higher protein needs to replace muscle breakdown during exercise, about 1.2 to 1.7 g ever kg of body weight each day.
While meat is an exceptional source of protein – three ounces of cooked beef delivers roughly 25 g of protein (ditto for pork, lamb, chicken and turkey) – it's not the only source.
Many meatless foods are packed with protein, some animal-based and others vegan-friendly. To help meet your daily protein quota, include a protein-rich food at each meal and snack.
Here are seven meat-free protein foods to help keep your body strong.
One cup of cottage cheese delivers an impressive 30 to 32 g of protein. Plus, one cup offers 150 milligrams of calcium, plenty of B vitamin and one-third of a day's worth of selenium, an antioxidant mineral needed for thyroid function and DNA production.
Watch sodium, though. Some brands contain as much as 800 mg a cup. Look for lower-sodium brands and avoid high-sodium foods at other meals.
Mix cottage cheese with berries or chopped fruit (add a dash of cinnamon and shredded unsweetened coconut), toss it with chopped cherry tomatoes and bell peppers, or sub it for sour cream in recipes.
One large egg contains 6 g of protein, 60 per cent of it found in the white. Seven egg whites (slightly less than one cup of liquid egg whites), for example, serves up as much protein as three ounces of meat.
There's no need to throw away the yolk, though. As well as some protein, one egg yolk supplies a generous amount of choline, a B-like vitamin that is used to transmit nerve impulses and make acetylcholine, a memory neurotransmitter.
Enjoy an omelette for dinner, toss an egg or two into a vegetable stir fry, or snack on a hard-boiled egg or a muffin-sized frittata.
All pulses are excellent sources of vegetarian protein, but lentils lead the pack, providing 18 g a cup. They are also an outstanding source of fibre (15 g a cup) and supply 90 per cent of a day's worth of folate, a B vitamin needed to make and repair DNA.
Toss cooked lentils into salads or stir them into soups, pasta sauces and roasted vegetables. Or replace ground meat with lentils when making stuffed peppers.
These fresh green soybeans, found in the freezer section of the grocery store, deliver 16 grams of protein every ¾ cup (shelled). But that's not all. You also get 8 g of fibre and a decent amount of calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Add frozen shelled edamame to a vegetable stir-fry or soup near the end of cooking. Toss edamame into a green salad or quinoa bowl. Or steam or boil edamame in their pods and enjoy as a snack.
With 16 g each one cup (3 ounces), extra-firm tofu is also a fair source of calcium, B vitamins and iron. Whether it's baked, grilled or stir-fried, tofu takes on the flavour of what it's cooked with.
Marinate slices of firm tofu for 30 minutes, then grill or bake it. Add chopped tofu to soups and stir fries. Or crumble firm tofu and scramble it with chopped vegetables, tomato, baby spinach and curry powder.
Three tablespoons of these crunchy seeds offer a surprising 10 g of plant protein, not to mention plenty of calcium, magnesium and more than a day's worth of ALA (an omega-3 fatty acid).
Sprinkle them over oatmeal, yogurt, green salad and roasted vegetables. Or blend into smoothies and soups.
If you don't do cow's milk, soy milk is your best replacement since it, too, is a good source of protein. One cup of unsweetened soy milk, for instance, has 8 g of protein, the same amount in one cup of cow's milk. (Almond, cashew, rice and coconut beverages have only 1 g of protein in a cup.)
Going meatless? Don't miss out on these key nutrients
Whether you're a vegetarian or simply someone who wants to eat more meat-free meals, it's important to replace key nutrients that meat and poultry offer (besides protein, of course).
Meat is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals – especially the four below – that support growth, metabolism and a healthy immune system. Here's how to get them from a meatless diet.
Needed to make red blood cells, keep nerves healthy and make DNA, B12 is found naturally only in animal foods. And beef is an outstanding source, providing a full day's worth per 3.5 ounces (adults need 2.4 micrograms each day).
You'll also find B12 in fish, chicken, eggs (1 mcg every large egg), yogurt and milk (1.2 mcg a cup). The vitamin is also added to plant-based milks (e.g. soy, almond, rice, coconut) and many soy burgers and vegetarian chicken products. Nutritional yeast is also an excellent source.
Also known as vitamin B3, niacin is used to make stress hormones and convert carbohydrates into fuel for the body. It has also been shown to suppress inflammation.
While chicken is one of the top food sources (3.5 ounces supply more than a day's worth), other good sources include salmon, tuna, beets, sunflower seeds and peanuts.
This mineral is needed for growth and development, to make hormones and connective tissue and to transport oxygen to the body's tissues.
Good sources, other than red meat, include baked beans, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, firm tofu, pumpkin seeds, fortified breakfast cereals, prunes, raisins and blackstrap molasses.
The body has a harder time absorbing iron from plant foods than it does from meat. To enhance iron absorption, include a source of vitamin C in plant-based meals (e.g. bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries, citrus, tomato sauce).
It's critical for healing wounds, fighting off invading bacteria and viruses and making proteins in the body. Zinc also helps children grow and develop properly.
Meatless food sources include fortified breakfast cereal, lentils, black beans, chickpeas, yogurt, milk, cashews and oysters. Two medium oysters, for example, deliver 8 to 12 mg (women need 8 mg daily and men require 11 mg; children need 3 to 5 mg and teenagers should get 9 to 11 mg a day).
Leslie Beck is a registered dietitian.