by Krystal Hawks, ETC blog contributor

Lately, it seems like every health-related article I read preaches about the advantages of going pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, etc. I, personally, am unsure of a huge lifestyle change like that, but I have to agree that any of those lifestyles, if done correctly and mindfully, can have a significant change in the overall health of Americans.

While I am hesitant about completely cutting animal products out of a healthy eating pattern (planning meals for a family, eating out, and ensuring you get all your vitamins and minerals can be extremely difficult!), bringing back the concept of “Meatless Mondays” (or any other day of the week, for that matter) can be a perfect blend of both worlds.

Meatless meals are built around vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, and grains instead of expensive meat and animal products. A plant-based diet puts more emphasis on plant-based proteins, which ultimately means more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients and less saturated fat and cholesterol. This type of diet, even for only one day a week, can help reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, as well as help prevent heart disease. By incorporating a few meatless meals a week and shifting to lean protein (chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, and other seafood) and dairy products (low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese) the rest of the week, you’ll be headed straight up the road to success!

I think a great starting point to this lifestyle shift would be trying one meatless dinner a week. Hold on though, before you freak, let me emphasize…your focus should not be on what you are subtracting from your diet, but what you are adding to it—beneficial foods like whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and veggies. Beans and legumes are great additions to casseroles and salads, and can be easily hidden in dishes for our picky eaters. Vegetarian refried beans work really well in burritos and tacos and tofu is a great meat alternative in stir-fry.

One thing to keep in mind during this meatless experiment, however, is to avoid becoming a starchatarian. Someone living solely off starches, like corn and potatoes, isn’t any healthier than another living off burgers and fries.

If your one meatless dinner a week goes well and you want to expand to a few meatless meals a week or a whole meatless day, there are some nutrients to keep in mind. These nutrients are readily available in animal products and it can be difficult to get enough of these on a meatless diet if you are not being mindful of the foods you are eating.

Iron

Focus on legumes, spinach, broccoli, dried fruits, and seeds. Meanwhile, add some foods rich in Vitamin C, like orange juice, to help with absorption.

 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Salmon and tuna are our go-to animal products, but try some walnuts and flaxseeds for a great plant-based source.

 

Zinc

Look for it in soy products, peanuts, and legumes.

 

Calcium & Vitamin D

Found in a variety of food sources, like leafy greens, these nutrients most readily absorbed from milk and fortified soy and nut milks

 

Vitamin B12

This vitamin is only found naturally in animal products! Investigate fortified foods like cereals and soymilk.

Going meatless for a meal or two is also an excellent time to experiment with whole grains you have never tried! Check out whole-wheat bread, whole-grain pasta, brown rice, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, or millet. Not only do these whole grains add a variety of vitamins and minerals, they also provide you with a lot of fiber, which is extremely helpful for normal bowel function.

Experimenting with whole grains can open up another world of foods for you to enjoy…trying different vegetables can too! Vegetables add a lot of texture and color to your diet. It’s easy to become stuck in a rut and grab your own personal stand-bys. I know, I certainly do! Make an effort to use this “Meatless Monday” as a test to try those leafy greens that you don’t normally gravitate towards. Pick a new vegetable each week and experiment with kale, collards, bok choy, broccoli, and any number of other vegetable types, colors, and textures!

As you go, try to really focus on how you feel physically and mentally throughout the day; everybody is different and everybody will respond differently. Making small changes, built upon one another is the most effective way to make big changes because at the end of the day, we are all doing our best. Don’t give up. Love yourself. And #eatthechocolate.

Krystal is an undergraduate at Kent State University studying Nutrition and Exercise Science. She has a passion for working out and making healthier alternatives to her family’s recipes. Her ultimate career goal is to become a Sports Dietitian and show active individuals the importance of a balanced diet, that it doesn’t have to be boring, and all the benefits of well-being and health!