Can Humans Survive Without Meat?

Sharing is caring!

Yes. The average modern human can survive without meat, if they keep certain nutrient needs in mind!

If you are that human who wants to cut out meat, you have come to the right place.

Keep reading to find out why you should consider going meatless, what nutrients to pay attention to, and glimpse at what a meat free day could look like!

Consumer Notice: This post 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. 

Disclaimer: This article was written by a Registered Dietitian NOT a doctor. Always consult your doctor if you have any health concerns or want to take a supplement. This article is not meant to treat, diagnose, or provide personal medical or dietary advice.

What is a Meat Free Diet?

Graphic showing pictures of meat that aren't included in 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.

If you would like to learn about fish free diet nutritional considerations, check out our comprehensive article: No Fish Diet: What to Consider with Nutrition in Mind. 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.

It is the motivation behind the courage to order a plant-based burger when your friends are getting beef.

Why go Meat free? Personally, I think the harder question is, why not? Pick your reason (motivation):

1. For The Environment

Study after study shows that the less animal protein we eat, the better for the health of our planet. How much better? Check out these stats:

According to one review:

  • The production of red meat generates about 23% of agriculture associated green house gas emissions. Meat eating generally produces far more green house gas emissions than those eating vegan or vegetarian diets that include dairy and eggs.
  • Beef requires 163 times more land use and 18 times more water use than staple plant based foods (ie: rice, beans and potatoes)
  • The production of animal protein uses about 26 times more water than is needed for plant based protein.

Mic drop. Climate change is real, and the meat industry is contributing to it. Why should you care? Simply put, this planet is our home. What kind of home do you want to live in?

And if your thinking: “Well, I don’t really care about my home really…” I challenge you to think about this planet as a home to future generations, perhaps your future or current children.

What kind of a world would you like them to live in? What are you going to do to preserve their home?

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 made the switch to a vegan diet.

Here’s what you may not know about meat production (hey, I didn’t know for most of my life)!

Because male cows cannot offer milk to their offspring, they are often taken from their mothers prematurely. They will then live in crowded conditions and meet an early death.

  • 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

Heart disease is the number one killer in America.

Some research suggests that a certain level of red meat intake may increase the risk of kidney disease progression, type 2 diabetes, and even certain types of cancers.

If there is one thing that many health professionals can agree on for many of us is this: eat more healthy plant based foods, and less meat.

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, planning, and implementation.

As mentioned in the last section, cutting out meat has many potential health benefits.  

So, is meat extremely bad for humans?

Sure, meat contains cholesterol, and some unhealthy fats. But on the nutritional level, meat can be source of certain essential nutrients.

Who might a meat free diet be unhealthy for? Potentially you if you fall in one of these categories (FYI: Not a comprehensive list):

1. Lack of Access or Money for a Variety of Foods and Appropriate Supplements:

If you cannot access or afford a variety of foods and appropriate supplements (as needed/approved by your doctor) you may be missing out on key nutrients.

For example: perhaps you live in a country where meat is the main foodstuff. Perhaps veggies, fruit, and legumes are hard to obtain. In these situations, you might need to consume some animal products to get enough nutrients.  

Think about it this way, would you expect someone to fix your car without any equipment? Insane right?

In the same way, like the compassionate being I know you are, it is important to understand that not everyone has the same resources. Access to a wide array of foods, the right supplements, or educational content like this guide are important. And a potential B12 deficiency for example is just not worth it.

The other factor that may make a meat free diet “less than good for you” is what you are replacing the meat with.

2. Swap This, Not That

Candy anyone? While replacing meat with candy 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 get a variety of (preferably) whole foods sans meat. Depending on your diet and situation, you may need to add some supplements as well.

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) and our shared home (the planet).  

In Summary: Yes, a meat free diet can be healthy for those who can replace meat with appropriate nutrient dense alternatives. These foods should contain the important nutrients that meat would normally have, namely certain vitamins, minerals, and protein.

Speaking of protein…

What Are Ways to Get Protein Without Meat?

There are many ways to get enough protein without meat. In fact, those who eat meat frequently may 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. For example, plant based beans chock in at around 7 grams of protein. 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 our industrialized society, protein deficiency is rare.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind if you primarily want to replace meat with fully plant-based (vegan) sources.

Lets unpack each of these points:

  1. You may want to increase your protein intake to at least 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram per day if you are a vegan or nearly vegan (Disclaimer: certain medical conditions require higher or lower amounts of protein. Talk to your doctor about appropriate protein amounts for you).

There is some supporting evidence that those consuming no/low amounts of meat, fish, eggs and dairy should increase their intake of plant-based protein.

Vegans may need to increase their protein intake to 0.9 grams of protein/kg instead of the 0.8 grams of protein/kg. In part, because the protein in plants have a lower digestibility than animal-based proteins, namely due to the phytate content.

But wait a second, isn’t’ that a bad thing? Not necessarily, remember, many of us are getting more protein than we need.

The lower digestibility shouldn’t concern you so much once you: 1. know how much protein you need 2. include rich sources of plant based protein at your meals, and 3. cook your grains and legumes well (this reduces the phytate content).

And, as dose of reassurance, you could include more “complete protein” foods regularly (foods that have all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities ie: tofu, edamame, tempeh).

2. Pay attention to protein sources high in lysine.

If you cut out animal products, but aren’t eating a variety of plant proteins, you might be low in lysine (an essential amino acid).

Remember how the amino acid content in plant based foods is often smaller in quantity as compared to meat? Well, lysine can be more difficult to get enough of – especially if you are not frequently consuming beans, soy or nuts. Other commonly eaten plant based foods are lower in lysine, such as rice, fruits, and vegetables.

To put this in perspective, lets look at an example:  beans have a good amount of lysine, but low amounts of methionine. Rice has good amount of methionine but low amounts of lysine. Including them both results in a a better mix of amino acids.

How much lysine rich plant based foods do you need to eat every day?

VeganHealth.org suggests vegans eat about  3-4 servings of foods high in lysine to meet the daily requirement.

Still concerned about protein? Talk to a Registered Dietitian about your meat free diet.

Examples of lysine rich meatless foods.

3. Bonus tip: track your protein in a nutrition app!

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.

I use 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, like lysine!

In summary: If you choose to cut out meat, you still have many options for foods rich in protein, including certain dairy products, fish (if you categorize it differently from meat), and plant based proteins.

If you are ready to go fully plant based (vegan) or heavily cut down on animal protein keep these tips in mind:

  • Eat a variety of foods
  • Cook your grains and beans well
  • Consider aiming for at least 0.9 g protein/kg per day
  • Ensure you meet your lysine needs with lysine rich foods.

As always, talk to your doctor about any concerns, 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 we 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 foods may have been supplemented in our modern world) contain vitamin B12 in varying levels are:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy

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, and even dementia.

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. 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.

Veganhealth.org has a great chart about vitamin B12 recommendations for vegans. Check it out here. As always, talk to your doctor before adding a supplement to your routine.

In Summary: Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin concentrated in meat and dairy products. Insufficient amounts can lead to several issues, including neurological problems. If you are cutting out meat you may not get enough. Ask your doctor if supplementation is right for you.

Iron

Has your doctor told you that you need to eat more meat to get enough iron? Not so fast!

Contrary to popular belief, the amount of iron in commonly consumed meat vs legumes is very similar.

So why should you pay attention to iron when cutting out meat products

A couple reasons (not a comprehensive list):

1. Iron in meat is better absorbed than iron from plants.

2. Some of us have higher iron requirements (for example: menstruating women)

Iron is important nutrient that helps transport oxygen to our tissues. So what are other sources of iron besides meat?

Certain varieties of seafood (like oysters, and sardines) tend to be high in iron. So if you are eating these foods regularly but cutting out meat, you are still getting a some of that more easily absorbed iron.

If you are still including dairy and eggs in your diet, don’t count on them to meet all of your iron requirements.

So what if you are cutting out seafood and meat?

If you are nearly vegan, you have find out more information on iron in my article Vegan for Beginners.

As I mentioned before, the iron in meat is more readily absorbed than the iron in plant foods. However, absorption of plant based iron can be increased with the following tips:

  • Get familiar with plant based sources of iron! Good sources include (not a comprehensive list): tofu, beans, chickpeas, lentils.
  • Consume vitamin C rich foods (this study used 25 milligrams of ascorbic acid. Example: there are about 56 milligrams of vitamin C, total ascorbic acid in approx 100 grams of raw strawberries) with your plant based iron containing foods.
  • Cook your grains and legumes well (reduce phytates (iron absorption inhibitors)).
  • For tea or coffee drinkers: consider consuming it about an hour or two after an iron rich meal instead of with the meal. This is because a substance called tannins in tea/coffee could inhibit iron absorption.

In Summary: Iron needs can be met without meat, but talk to your doctor if you are concerned, have higher iron needs or a medical condition. For more information about getting iron on a vegan diet, check out the iron section for our article Vegan for Beginners.

Zinc

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.

Meat contains significant amounts of this essential mineral and is probably the top source of zinc in your diet. So if you are ready to take the meat off your plate, give this nutrient some extra attention. A lack of zinc can impair your immune function, contribute to hair loss, and even cause food to taste different.

Certain types of seafood contain zinc.

However, if you are nearly vegan, you’ll want to regularly include plenty of whole food plant-based sources of zinc, such as oats, beans, nuts, and seeds. Don’t rely on fruit and salad greens to meet your zinc requirements. These are excellent foods, just not the best sources of zinc.

Vegans will especially want to keep in mind that phytate (a substance naturally found in plants) reduces zinc absorption. 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) have a reduced phytate content, and can be helpful maximizing your zinc absorption without meat.

As you may have predicted, even if you are soaking your nuts and buying sprouted bread, as you gradually add more plants to your diet, your intake of phytate generally goes up. 

Per the NIH (National Institute of Health) website, vegetarians may sometimes need up to 50% more of the RDA than those who are not vegetarian.

As always, talk to your doctor about any concerns.

In Summary: If you have cut out meat, you may want to try these tips:

  • Include plenty of foods high in zinc each day. Zinc containing foods that have protein (examples: beans, nuts), could increases zinc absorption.
  • Cook grains and legumes well.
  • Bonus tip: Include protein rich zinc sources as protein content increases zinc absorption.

Other Nutrients to Keep On Your Radar

Choline

Choline is a fairly new discovery, as new as the 90s. 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.

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.

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 inflammatory conditions, which may increase the risk of heart disease.

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. My personal favorites are quinoa and tofu. They set the foundation as a wonderful canvas to add a variety of flavors!

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:

If that’s you, or you have concerns about choline intake, ask your doctor if choline supplementation is right for you.

Graphic of Meatless Foods high in choline.
Note: While many would consider fish in the “meat,” category, because of the unique nutritional properties of fish, Plant Powered You separated them into different categories. To learn about going fish free, check out our article: No Fish Diet: What to Consider with Nutrition in Mind

In Summary: Choline is an essential nutrient that helps supports liver function. Choline is concentrated in meat, certain fish and eggs but can also be found in certain plant based foods. Familiarize yourself with these sources, and talk to your doctor if you are concerned especially if you are pregnant, on total parental nutrition, or have certain genetic alterations.

Selenium

Selenium is important for the functioning of our thyroid, immune system, and mood. Give this nutrient some attention before you blame your meat free diet on the blues!

One noteworthy note: this antioxidant/essential nutrient is abundantly found in meat and but can be even higher in in certain types of fish.

So if your giving up meat, but still eating fish routinely as a part of a varied diet, you may get a decent amount of selenium.

However, if you have cut or significantly reduced all fish and meat from your diet, are generally eating a mainly plant based diet, or concerned about selenium in general, know that the following plant based sources also contain selenium (disclaimer: not a comprehensive list):

  • Brazil nut (1 nut = about 91 mcg selenium (>100% the RDA for adults so do not over do this!)
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Couscous

Learn more in our post: Vegan for Beginners.

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.

Certain 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).

In Summary: Selenium is one important mineral for thyroid and immune system health. There are many instances in which zinc could become a nutrient of concern, so talk to your doctor if you about your meat free diet and whether you need to add any additional zinc.

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 may want to consider talking to our doctor about getting levels checked and supplementing if approved/appropriate.

Planning a No Meat Diet

Graphic showing nutrients to consider when eating less meat

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 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 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

Breakfast :

  • 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
  • orange

Lunch:

  • 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
  • Apple

Snack:

  • 1/2 cup plain low fat Yogurt with 1 cup Strawberries

Dinner:

  • 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.

Breakfast:

  • 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

Snack:

  • Trail Mix: – ½ cup Cheerios- 1 ounce Raisins  -1/2 ounce Peanuts

Lunch:

  • 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

Dinner:

  • 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)


    Sign up for our e-mail list here!

    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 fu
    ll confidence in you, because now you are that much more equipped to do it!

    Did you find this content helpful? Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments below, and have a plant-astic day!

Sharing is caring!

1 thought on “Can Humans Survive Without Meat?”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top