A plant-based diet, filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, legumes and nuts, is rich in fibre, vitamins and other important nutrients.
While meat is an excellent source of protein and vitamins, many of us eat more of it than we really need. In fact, Australians are ranked in the top three biggest meat eaters per capita in the world. The average Australian will consume 111.5 kg of meat each year, while the world average is 41.9 kg.
What this means is that a lot of us are consuming more calories, saturated fat and cholesterol than is optimal. Many studies have suggested that eating less meat can promote better health, reducing our risk of disease and encouraging a long lifespan.
Here are some of the benefits you may experience from adopting a more “flexitarian” approach to eating:
Weight loss and reduced obesity risk
Research has suggested a link between weight gain and consumption of meat, particularly processed meats such as sausages and ham. A five-year study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2013, for example, found that people who don't eat meat have a lower average BMI than meat-eaters, and that vegans have a significantly lower obesity rate.
Better heart health
Meat is high in saturated fat, which raises the level of cholesterol in your blood, making you more vulnerable to heart disease. A Harvard University study found that reducing meat and adding more foods rich in polyunsaturated fat (such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds) could lower your risk of heart disease by 19 per cent. Fibre also helps reduce cholesterol levels, so filling up on more vegetables, fruits and wholegrains has additional benefit.
Lower blood pressure
It has long been noted that vegetarians and vegans have lower blood pressure than meat-eaters, possibly due to their lower average weight and higher intakes of fruits and vegetables. As far back as in the 1920s, nutritionists found that a vegetarian diet could reduce a person’s blood pressure in as little as two weeks. It is thought that reducing saturated fats and sodium from meat lowers the blood’s viscosity (thickness), which in turn brings down blood pressure.
Reduced diabetes risk
High consumption of red and processed meat has been linked to the increased risk of type 2 diabetes. A Harvard University study, for example, found that increasing meat consumption by half a serving or more each day was linked to a 48 per cent increase of risk – and that cutting back reduced the risk by 14 per cent. This is likely due to a combination of factors, including the levels of saturated fat and cholesterol in red meat, as well as the impact of meat on the metabolic system. Replacing some of your normal meat intake with legumes and vegetables is a good way to work towards higher intakes of fibre and lower intakes of fat.
Reduced risk of some cancers
Bowel Cancer Australia says there is convincing evidence linking the consumption of red meat and the risk of bowel cancer, and suggests limiting your meat intake to 500 grams per week. Processed meats, including bacon, sausage, cold cuts, ham, bologna, salami, pepperoni, devon, luncheon meat, corned beef and hot dogs also compound the risk. Studies also suggest there may be a connection between eating large amounts of meat and other types of cancer, including breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers. In addition, there is much research to suggest that a diet high in fruits and vegetables may reduce cancer risk.
24-30 March 2014 is Meat Free Week. For more information about the benefits of cutting back on your meat intake, visit meatfreeweek.org