Yes. The average modern human can survive without meat. However, they should keep certain nutrient needs in mind!
Cutting out meat with nutrition in mind can be a learning curb. After all, popular media would have you believe animal products are necessary!
Luckily this is not the case for many of us.
Keep reading to find out why you should consider going meatless, nutrients to pay extra attention to, and glimpse at what a meat free day could look like!
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Disclaimer: This post is not providing personal dietary or medical advice. Always talk to your doctor before adding a supplement or making major dietary changes. See our Disclaimers for more details.
This article was originally published on 10/20/21. The recent updated date is listed above.
What is a Meat Free Diet?
A meat free diet excludes meat, defined as animal flesh. However, while fish would technically be under this category, I have excluded fish from this article.
That’s because I have a separate article dedicated to going fish free! Feel free to read our No Fish Diet article here. I separated “meat” from fish into two articles because the unique nutritional factors each category contains.
Why Go Meat Free?
Perhaps the most important question you need to answer is this one: Why am I going meat free?
The answer to this question is the backbone behind your decision. It is what you will remember when you want to order those chicken wings at the theater.
The motivation behind ordering a plant-based burger when your friends are getting beef.
Why go meat free? Lets talk about a few reasons!:
1. For The Environment
Study after study shows that the less meat we eat, the better for the health of our planet. How much better? Check out these stats:
One review in the journal Sustainability suggests that (1):
- The production of red meat generates about 23% of agriculture associated green house gas emissions. Meat production typically produces much more green house gas emissions than the production of food for vegan or vegetarian diets that include dairy and eggs.
- 1 kilogram (kg) Beef requires 163 times more land use and 18 times more water use than 1 kg of rice or potatoes.
- The production of animal protein likely uses more water than plant based protein.
Why should you care? Simply put, this planet is our home. What kind of home do you want to live in?
You only have to turn on the news to know that weather related disasters are increasing.
Demanding more eco friendly foods can make a difference for our planet and future generations.
2. For The Animals
No one can deny this fact: eating meat is not good for the animals used to produce meat. Personally, animal suffering in the industry was the reason I shifted to a vegan diet.
Here’s what you may not know about meat production (hey, I didn’t know for most of my life!):
- Some estimates suggest roughly 60 billion land animals are slaughtered per year.
- Since male chickens cannot produce eggs, the chicks are often killed alive in macerators.
- The conditions the animals must live in are often crowded, filthy, and breading grounds for disease. We know that animals experience pain, distress, and fear.
Animals suffer on the way to the plate, but maybe you heard that you need meat to be healthy. We challenge that view in the next reason why someone might give up meat:
3. For Your Health
There are several reasons why cutting back on meat may be good for your health.
Some research suggests that a certain level of red meat intake may be associated with an increased the risk of kidney disease progression(2), type 2 diabetes(3), or even certain types of cancers(4).
The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer has even classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. Yikes!
And finally, about 3 out of every 4 novel or emerging infectious diseases come from animals according to the CDC (5). It has also been speculated that an overuse of antibiotics in animals may contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans-a growing problem.
That’s why reducing our consumption of animals that can be vectors for disease has a role to play in public health.
So back to you my friend. What reason(s) do you have for going meat free?
Go ahead and write your answer down. Post it near your fridge or freezer, where ever you think it may be most helpful.
And while your at it, tell your close family members or friends why you are doing this. Who knows, you might just have an accountability partner!
But what if your friends are concerned you won’t be healthy without meat? I am so glad you asked…
Can I have a Healthy Diet without meat?
Yes, with the right resources and implementation.
As mentioned in the last section, cutting out meat has many potential health benefits.
But on the nutritional level, meat can be source of certain essential nutrients.
Here’s the key: can.
There are many other ways to get nutrients meat contains without beef and chicken. Stick with me, because we are going to go over that soon.
But first, who might a meat free diet be unhealthy for?
- Those who need meat for survival.
For example, meat is the main foodstuff in certain countries. Perhaps veggies, fruit, and legumes are hard to obtain there.
In these situations, you might need to consume some animal products to get enough essential nutrients.
- Those who can’t make nutritionally appropriate swaps.
While replacing meat with refined sugar may reduce animal cruelty, you miss out on many essential nutrients. This can put you at potential risk for deficiencies (longer term side effect) and (very likely) a hangry you (short term side effect).
See the theme here? In order to have a healthy meat free diet, we need to ensure we replace meat with appropriate nutrient dense substitutions.
Depending on your diet and situation, you may need to add some supplements as well (talk to your doctor about this).
So, if you aren’t living in major food dessert (for example) and want to go meat free but aren’t convinced about the health benefits, there is one thing most of us can agree on:
A meat free diet is undeniably healthier for our fine furry friends (the animals).
How Can I Get Protein Without Meat?
There are many ways to get enough protein without meat. In fact, many western meat eaters might actually get more protein than they need and here’s why:
Protein needs for the average person may surprise you.
Get out your calculator and do a little math with me: take your weight in pounds and divide that number by 2.2. That’s your weight in kilograms. Now take that number and multiply it by 0.8 (grams of protein). That’s the amount (in grams) of protein that the average healthy adult in your weight category needs per the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)for protein.
For example, a 150 pound women would need about 55 grams of protein per day per that RDA.
Sure, eggs, dairy, and fish contain some protein, but don’t forget about plant based sources!
Soy beans chock in at around 17 grams of protein per half cup, peanuts have about 10 grams of protein per one fourth a cup (6). Eating a variety of protein rich plant based foods can help you meet your protein needs.
And if your trainer at the gym told you that the protein quality of plant based proteins are inferior to meat, tell her to read this article!
Meat is often touted as having all the essential amino acids (protein’s that our bodies can not make). But a variety of plants based foods can also also include all these essential amino acids over the course of a day.
In America, many of us may be getting more protein than we need.
So if you are concerned about protein, know your sources of meatless protein, such as yogurt, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
And if you are going vegan, be sure to check out our article Vegan for Beginners for additional considerations about protein.
Not sure you are getting enough? Try tracking your intake. A app like Cronometer (affiliate link*-as a reminder, if you click on this link and sign up or purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you) can help!
I’ve even used Cronometer (affiliate link*) every now and check how my nutrient intake is trending. This app is unique in that it also breaks down your intake of essential amino acids (aka, proteins our bodies do not make enough of on it’s own)!
Now as a reminder, no nutrition app is a substitute for the advice of health care providers.
If you still have concerns, talk to your doctor and Registered Dietitian about your meat free diet – especially if you have higher or lower protein needs or a medical condition.
Micronutrients in Meat and How to Get Them Without Meat
Now to get to the meat (pun intended) of this article: What vitamins and minerals do I need to pay more attention to if I cut out beef, chicken, and pork?
To answer that question, lets look at the nutrients that are typically high in common sources of meat. Then I’ll shall discuss how we can get those nutrients from other sources:
1. Vitamin B12
When you take meat off your plate, you may need to pay more attention to vitamin B12.
Why? Lets start off by talking a bit about Vitamin B12.
The only food sources that “naturally” (and even then, some of these may have been supplemented in our modern world) contain vitamin B12 in varying levels are:
This vitamin is derived from the bacteria found in soil and feces of other animals – which the animals can eat or be supplemented with.
If you do not consume enough vitamin B12, you may eventually develop anemia, neurological problems(7).
Therefore, if you are cutting out meat (a significant source of protein for a lot of us) you should make sure you ensure adequate vitamin B12 from other food sources, fortified foods, or supplements (or a combination of these forms).
Some research suggests that vegetarians have a higher prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency(8). So talk to your doctor about a supplement if you are giving up meat.
And finally, its important to note that certain groups of people, such as older adults, those with GI disorders/surgery, etc, may need extra vitamin B12 regardless of diet(7).
Iron is important nutrient that helps transport oxygen to our tissues.
Contrary to popular belief, the amount of iron in commonly consumed meat vs legumes is very similar in amount.
The controversy lies in the fact that the iron from meat (heme iron) is better absorbed than the iron in plants (non heme iron).
Certain varieties of seafood (like oysters) tend to be high in iron. So if you are eating these foods regularly but cutting out meat, you are still getting some of that more easily absorbed iron.
However, it certainly is possible to get enough iron without animal products!
Here are a few tips to increase plant based iron absorption:
- Know your plant based sources of iron, such as legumes, and cook grains and legumes well in order to reduce phytates (iron inhibitors).
- Consume vitamin C rich foods (this study used 25 milligrams of ascorbic acid (9). Example: there are about 56 milligrams of vitamin C, total ascorbic acid in approx 100 grams of raw strawberries) with your vegan sources of iron.
- If you drink tea or coffee, wait an hour or two after an iron rich meal instead of having it with the meal(10). Tannins in tea/coffee could inhibit iron absorption.
If you are still including dairy don’t count on them to meet all of your iron requirements, as dairy is low in iron.
While you certainly can meet iron requirements with plant based sources, it’s important to consider that some individuals like menstruating women may have higher iron requirements.
If you have any concerns, have higher iron needs, or a medical condition talk to your doctor.
Meat contains significant amounts of this essential mineral and is probably a top source of zinc in your diet.
A lack of zinc can impair your immune function and even cause food to taste different(11).
While meat and seafood are especially notable for zinc(11), there are many plant based options as well!
They include oats, beans,, nuts and seeds.
Just don’t rely on fruit and salad greens to provide you enough zinc. These are excellent foods, but not high in zinc.
Vegans will especially want to keep in mind that phytate (a substance naturally found in plants) reduces zinc absorption(12). However, you can reduce phytates by cooking your legumes and grains thoroughly.
Similarly, plant based foods that have been soaked, sprouted, fermented or leaved (such as choosing bread over crackers) can reduce phytate content(13).
As always, talk to your doctor about any concerns.
Choline was only recently recognized as a essential nutrient in the 90s(14)!
The discovery is so recent that we do not have enough evidence for a RDA. We do make some choline in our liver, but not enough to prevent choline deficiency(15).
What we do know about choline, is that it is highly concentrated in certain animal products, like meat and eggs, and not as highly concentrated in plant foods (with some exceptions). We also know that a deficiency in choline can lead to liver damage(16).
So what is a non-meat eater to do? Before you go out and buy a choline supplement, it is important to note that we are still learning about the dangers of too much choline intake.
Some research suggests that a high intake of choline may be linked to inflammation (17).
What does this mean for you? If you are making the gradual transition to a fully plant-based diet by cutting out meat, know that eggs, and certain fish, provide a considerable amount of choline.
If you are cutting down on all animal-based products, you will want to consider including some of the highest sources of plant based choline in your diet, such as soy and quinoa.
Check out our post about an egg free diet to learn more about choline.
Lastly, certain groups of people, may be at greater risk of choline inadequacy, including:
- Those who are pregnant
- Individuals on total parental nutrition
- Those who have certain genetic alterations(15).
If that’s you, or you have concerns about choline intake, talk to your doctor about how you will can get adequate choline on a meat free diet.
Selenium is important for the functioning of our thyroid and immune system.
One noteworthy note: this antioxidant/essential nutrient is abundantly found in meat and but can be even higher in brazil nuts and certain types of fish.
Here’s a few decent sources of plant based selenium (disclaimer: not a comprehensive list):
- Brazil nut (1 kernel has about 91 mcg selenium (this is >100% the RDA for adults so do not over do brazil nuts!)
- whole wheat bread
- Pumpkin seeds
FYI: Certain countries may or may not have lower amounts of selenium in the soil. So, If you live in a selenium soil deficient region, or are concerned about your zinc status ask your doctor if a zinc supplement is right for you.
Also, having specific medical conditions may put you at greater risk for selenium inadequacy, so talk to your doctor about any concerns you have with selenium intake.
You could also discuss eating about half a Brazil nut a day as they are particularly high in zinc (it is important not to eat too much as they do have a high zinc content).
Anything Else I Should Keep In Mind?
Vitamin D deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the US, regardless of diet.
This essential nutrient is important for absorption of calcium, immune system health, maintaining bones, and more!
Very few foods contain vitamin D. Many of us (regardless of diet) may want to consider talking to our doctor about getting levels checked and supplementing if approved/appropriate.
Planning a No Meat Diet
The best meat free meals are the ones that you can afford, enjoy, and incorporate into a healthy lifestyle for the long term.
As you go shopping for your meat free diet, don’t forget to keep the nutrients we just talked about in mind! You want to make sure your body still gets what it needs to function (and so that you don’t run back to meat).
Think you won’t feel full without meat? Fiber is king! Make sure to consume enough fiber for your needs.
Remember, fiber is found in plants, not animal products. So think of your plate like a blank canvas. Color it with a beautiful array of fruits and vegetables.
If you are significantly cutting down on all animal products (not just meat!) Don’t forget to pay extra attention to protein rich plant-based food at your meals.
Still think its not possible? I’ll leave you with some examples of meat fee days!
Meat Free Diet Example Diaries
Disclaimer: These diary examples are JUST examples. They are not meant to tell you specifically what to eat and not to eat. Find a Registered Dietitian near you to discus your own diet needs. Always talk to your doctor before adding any supplements.
Consumer Notice: This section contains affiliate links that are marked in this manner : (affiliate link*)”. If you click on these links and purchase, I earn a commission at no added cost to you.
Diary of a Meat Free Day
Note: This meat free diet still includes dairy, eggs, and fish. The nutrient facts were calculated via Cronometer (affiliate link*) on 1/13/21.
Profile: An active 30 year old female, 150 pounds. She lives in the United States.
Macronutrient totals: 1930 calories, 67 grams of fat, 86 grams of protein, 265 grams of carbs
- 1 cup oats cooked with a mashed banana for sweetness, and 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
- one small egg fried in 1 tsp canola oil and ¼ tsp iodized salt, ¼ tsp pepper
- 1 cup cooked Quinoa,
- ¼ cup Black Beans, drained
- 3 ounce Baked Tofu (Soysauce, 1 teaspoon Canola Oil)
- 1/4 of an Avocado
- 2 cups Mixed Greens
- 1/2 cup plain low fat Yogurt with 1 cup Strawberries
- 1 medium Sweet Potato, baked
- 1 cup Broccoli steamed, tossed with 1 teaspoon Canola Oil, spices)
- 3 ounce (checkbook sized piece) of Atlantic Wild Salmon cooked (1/4 teaspoon Iodized Salt)
- Dessert: a small handful of Dark Chocolate covered Almonds with ½ cup Silk Almond “Milk.”
- Vitamin D supplement (approved by doctor)
- Vitamin B12 supplement (approved by doctor)
Diary of an Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian’s Day
Note: A lacto-ovo vegetarian excludes meat and fish, but includes dairy and eggs. The nutrient facts were calculated via Cronometer (affiliate link*) on 1/14/21.
Profile: an active 30 year old female, 150 pounds. She lives in the United States.
Macronutrient totals: 2041 calories, 66 grams of fat, 78 grams of protein, 313 grams of carbs.
*FYI this individual may want to talk to her doctor about adding a Omega-3 supplement. Check out the giving our article about Going Fish Free to learn more.
- 1 medium scrambled Egg with ¼ teaspoon Iodized Salt
- 1 slice Whole Wheat toast with ¼ avocado mashed on and ¼ teaspoon Iodized Salt, seasonings
- medium Orange
- Trail Mix: – ½ cup Cheerios- 1 ounce Raisins -1/2 ounce Peanuts
- 1 cup Brown, Long Grain Rice, cooked
- Chana Masala (Chickpea Curry)
- Salad: 3 cups mixed Greens with 1/2 ounce Walnuts on top, 1 medium Red pepper, lemon juice/ Vinaigrette dressing, 3 Almonds, slivered
- 1 medium Baked Potato, 1/2 ounce of Chives, 1 tablespoon Sour Cream
- 3 ounces baked Barbeque Tempeh (Tempeh baked with Barbeque Sauce)
- 1 cup cooked Collard Greens
- Dessert: Yogurt Parfait: 1 cup vanilla, Non Fat Yogurt with ¼ cup Granola and 1 cup Blueberries.
- Vitamin D supplement (approved by doctor)
- Vitamin B12 Supplement (approved by doctor)
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And while you’re here, why not poke around on the blog? We discuss subjects like “Is Chocolate Vegan? and Plant Based Milks!
I’m also on Instagram and Facebook, so be sure to say hi there. I live a completely meat free lifestyle, and share tasty meatless finds and tips because let’s face it: Meat free eating is not the norm, but I have full confidence in you, because now you are that much more equipped to do it!