Do You Need Meat at Every Meal?

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD  

Meat is often the center of restaurant meals, dinner recipes, and holiday feasts in the United States. America’s fondness for meat is apparent, but is it healthy? Even more, do you need to eat meat at every meal? 

There are arguments on both ends of the spectrum: that meat is essential for health and that humans evolved to eat animals, or that meat is unnecessary and potentially harmful to your health.  

While there is no clear understanding of how often you should eat meat or whether or not you should ditch it completely, it is apparent that meat is not necessary at every meal. Even more, incorporating more plant-based proteins into your diet may provide health benefits.  

Animal vs. plant proteins  

When you eat and digest protein, it breaks down into amino acids that your body uses for various functions or to build new proteins. There are certain amino acids that need to be obtained from food, known as essential, and others that the body can make on its own, known as nonessential.  

Animal proteins are complete, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids you need to get from your diet. On the other hand, most plant proteins are incomplete and do not have all of the essential amino acids. 

You might be thinking, does this mean you have to eat animal proteins to make sure you get all of the nutrients your body needs?  

Not exactly! If you only eat plant proteins, you can still get all of the amino acids you need from your diet by eating a variety of foods that balance each other. For example, beans and rice are complementary proteins, two incomplete proteins that together have all of the essential amino acids that make up a complete protein.  

However, you don’t need to eat complementary proteins together or even at the same meal. As long as you have complementary proteins within the same day, you will still provide your body with all of the amino acids it needs from food. For example, you could have beans at breakfast and rice at dinner.  

Other complementary proteins include peanut butter on wheat bread, pasta with beans, pea soup and whole wheat crackers, and hummus made with chickpeas and tahini. Even more, there are a few plant proteins that are complete on their own and do not need to be paired with another food, including quinoa, soy, and hemp.  

Depending on the type, plant proteins are often lower in fat and rich in fiber, a nutrient that animal foods lack. However, a serving of most plant proteins does not contain as much protein as a serving of meat. For example, one cup of black beans has 15 grams of protein for 227 calories while a three ounce serving of chicken breast has 25 grams of protein for 126 calories (12).  

Nevertheless, most Americans eat too much protein and not enough fiber. So, swapping meat for plant proteins at one or more meals can help you increase your fiber intake and reap the other benefits of eating plant foods discussed below.  

Plant-based proteins may provide additional health benefits 

The health effects of meat are controversial. Some studies suggest that eating too much meat can lead to an increased risk of being overweight or developing heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. Other studies show conflicting results and do not conclude that meat is linked to poor health outcomes (34).  

Most experts acknowledge that the type of meat you eat may make a big difference in how it affects your health. Eating meats that have been highly processed, fried, or come from animals that live in stressful conditions and receive inadequate diets may lead to more negative health outcomes than consuming meats that are not fried, cooked without added fat, or come from animals that were grass fed or raised in better conditions. 

Even more, some research suggests that the poor health outcomes associated with meat consumption are only connected to red, fatty or processed meats (3). However, it’s important to note that most studies on meat and its impact on health are observational and have produced conflicting results.  

On the other hand, the health benefits of eating whole plant foods are widely known and supported by research.  

Vegetarian and vegan diets are linked to better health outcomes and a decreased risk of early death, heart disease, some cancers, and obesity, among other benefits (567). This is likely because plant foods have beneficial compounds, fiber, and antioxidants that may improve health and prevent disease.  

Studies also show that you do not need to eat an entirely vegan or vegetarian diet to reap the benefits of plant foods. Just incorporating more plant foods and less animal foods may still provide health benefits (8).  

In other words, eating more plants is usually not a bad practice. And it may even protect against the chronic diseases and health issues that are possibly connected to excessive meat consumption.  

Can eating more plant proteins help with weight loss?  

Several studies have suggested that swapping meat for plants may promote weight loss. This may be because eating more plant foods can lead to greater satiety and less overall calorie consumption. Plus, when people start to center their meals around plants, they may be less likely to choose fried foods or options that are loaded with unnecessary calories and ingredients.  

In fact, a review of 12 studies found that those who ate vegetarian diets over the course of a few months lost more weight than those who had carnivorous styles of eating (7).Even if you do not follow a strict vegetarian diet, you can still benefit from adding more plants to your meals if you are trying to lost weight. 

It’s important to eat mostly unprocessed proteins 

Regardless of whether you get your protein from animals or plants, you should aim to consume proteins that are minimally processed. A veggie burger with a laundry list of additives is not as nutritious as black beans that you season yourself, a handful of almonds, or a baked chicken breast. If you are looking to eat more plant proteins, choose whole foods such as legumes, nuts, and seeds. 

For animal proteins, avoid fried options and look for lean cuts of meats that are grilled, baked, roasted, or broiled with minimal added fat. Meats that have been grass fed, pasture-raised, or raised without the use of hormones and antibiotics may offer additional benefits. Limit processed deli meats or high fat breakfast meats that are usually loaded with salt and other additives. 

Lastly, keep portion size in mind. A serving of meat is typically 3 to 5 ounces, or the size of a deck of cards. Recommended servings of plant-based proteins are typically ½ to 1 cup of beans, ¼ cup of nuts or seeds, and a couple of tablespoons of nut butters. Eating too much protein can increase overall calorie consumption. 

How to incorporate more plant proteins 

So, there you have it. While fresh, lean meats can be a nutritious addition to your diet, you don’t need to eat meat at every meal. Plus, incorporating more plants in place of meat may have health benefits.  

To get you started with incorporating more plant proteins, here are some tips!  

  • Get creative with beans and legumes. Pinto, black, kidney, garbanzo, and white beans can be spiced up in several different ways to add new flavors and textures to your meals. You can add them to chilis or stews, throw them on top of salads, or mix them in with ground meats. Or, try roasting them with olive oil and seasonings for a nutritious, crunchy snack. 

  • Don’t forget about nuts and seeds. Almonds, walnuts, hemp seeds, cashews, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pistachios, and other varieties of nuts and seeds provide protein, in addition to healthy fats and other nutrients. You can mix these into salads, smoothies, yogurt, and trail mixes for an added boost of plant protein. Nut butters are also a great option to pair with fresh veggies and fruits.  

  • Switch up your grains. Whole grains are highly nutritious, but some offer more protein than others. Incorporating quinoa and wild rice, two of the higher protein grains, into your meals can pack some extra plant-based protein, as well as fiber! As a bonus, quinoa is also one of the few complete plant proteins. 

  • Swap condiments for plant-based spreads. Hummus, made from protein-rich chickpeas, is a great substitution for mayo or other processed dressings and spreads. You can add it to sandwiches and wraps, and even mix it into salads. It also tastes great with raw veggies or even apple slices.  

Remember, you can get protein from both animal and plant foods, but the quality matters!  

Note from Healthy for Life Meals: Our menus include a wide variety of plant-based and lean animal proteins. Plus, we offer a completely vegetarian menu with 1500 calories a day! If you are interested in trying a vegetarian style of eating or simply incorporating more plant-based meals, get started with one of our made-from-scratch plans today.  






Stef Keegan