Lower Cholesterol Naturally by Eating Less Meat


Can you be a vegetarian and still eat meat? Here are the confessions of a social carnivore.

My love affair with meat is almost over. Although I have packed a turkey sandwich in my brown-bag lunch for most of my life, I've been eating less and less meat over the years for a number of reasons.

For one, I know a plant-based diet is good for my health; in some studies, vegetarian diets have been associated with lower LDL, or bad, cholesterol and blood pressure, and a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. High cholesterol runs in my family (my mother recently discovered she had high LDL levels), plus meatless meals can be cheaper, have less impact on the environment, and are just plain easier when I'm dining out with my vegetarian boyfriend.

There's just one teensy problem: I actually like the taste of meat. Who doesn't want turkey on Thanksgiving or a bowl of chicken soup when she's sick?

And I'm not alone. The results of a national survey published in 2003 in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a majority of self-described vegetarians eat meat once in a while. In fact, two-thirds of people who identified themselves as vegetarians ate meat, fish, or poultry on one or both of the two days they were asked to recall.

Although I stick to my meat-free diet 90% of the time, social occasions have posed some serious problems for my almost-vegetarian lifestyle. My mind says, Veggies only, but my mouth says, Meat, please! There was the chicken wing incident after a long-distance run and a bit of impossible-to-resist foie gras a few weeks ago.

I've always felt a twinge of guilt after a slipup, but I'm feeling less ashamed after speaking with Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, the author of The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life. According to Blatner, there's a name for people like me, and that's a social carnivore.

She says that less meat is nearly as good for your health as no meat. Even if I cut out just red meat, it can help keep my ticker in tip-top shape. A 2009 study in Archives of Internal Medicine found that if people were to slash their daily red meat intake to about 9 grams per 1,000 calories (roughly a bite of a Quarter Pounder a day), it would result in an 11% decrease in cardiovascular disease mortality in men and a 21% decrease in women.

The saturated fat in meat is a big culprit in patients with high cholesterol. So do your heart a favor and use these six dietitian-approved tips to cut down on meat and lower your cholesterol naturally.

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"I really can't advise strongly enough to start out slowly," says Blatner. She urges clients to try one new vegetarian meal a week and slowly add in more meatless meals. "I tell clients to actively go to friends, family members, or even restaurants to get recipes and gain knowledge on vegetarian fare." Visit Meatless Mondays for recipe ideas.

Reinvent your old favorites
It's easy to substitute beans or veggies for your meat favorites. Craving a burger? Try a black bean variety. Making stir-fry? Throw in some edamame instead of chicken. Chances are, all of your favorite recipes are easily adapted. And with 8 out of 10 restaurants offering vegetarian dishes, according to the National Restaurant Association's 2000 Tableservice Operator Study, you can test out vegetarian recipes even while dining out.

Redirect meat cravings
"People are big meat eaters. A lot of people [going on a low-cholesterol diet] aren't really interested in eating meals without meat," says Janet M. de Jesus, RD, a nutrition education specialist at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Try substituting other savory flavors instead. Umami is a Japanese word used to describe the meaty or savory taste found in food. Blatner suggests getting that same taste from vegetarian-friendly sources such as mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and tomatoes.

Think of meat as a condiment
"From what I've seen, meat is the biggest culprit of saturated fat," says de Jesus. However, cutting it out may be difficult from a meat-centric diet. Instead, Blatner advises clients to use the ratio of replacing 1 ounce of meat with 1/4 cup of some sort of canned beans. "If you're having steak fajitas, take out 4 ounces of steak and add in a cup of black beans," she explains.

Explore exotic foods
You know the usual suspects in the world of protein-rich vegetarian foods (peanut butter and soybeans, anyone?), but don't be afraid to experiment. "People hear about almonds, but they forget about all the other options," says Blatner. She suggests using flavorful plant protein sources such as pumpkin and sesame seeds, lentils, low-fat (vegetarian) refried beans, and even Brazil and macadamia nuts. Many traditional Indian and Japanese dishes are vegetarian, so steal their tricks for using spices and herbs to add flavor to your dishes.

Variety is the spice of life
When you're out in restaurants, don't be afraid to order salad and soup or a combo of appetizers if the meatless entrees don't appeal to you. Also avoid substituting high-fat foods (such as cheese and whole milk), an abundance of carbs, or processed food for meat. "Some vegetarians forget that fruits and vegetables are part of being a vegetarian," says Blatner.