Meatless Mondays: A health perspective

Kristina DeMuth, Registered dietitian, Master of Public Health in Nutrition candidate at the University of Minnesota

Eating a plant-based diet that emphasizes whole plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, in place of animal products is associated with a number of positive health outcomes.

There is evidence that vegans and vegetarians have a lower body mass index and lower prevalence of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and a variety of cancers compared to those that eat meat. Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets have even been shown to reverse a number of these chronic health conditions, including the No. 1 killer in the United States — heart disease.

From a nutritional perspective, swapping meat with beans and legumes, even just one day a week, can help Americans meet dietary recommendations for fiber and potassium, which the average American often falls short on.

One cup of cooked lentils has almost three times more potassium than three ounces of cooked ground beef, with roughly the same amount calories. The same cup of lentils even provides a similar amount of protein as beef and about 16 grams of fiber, nearly half the daily fiber recommendation for adults — whereas meat provides no fiber.

Additionally, lentils provide much more iron than beef. While non-heme iron found in plant foods is not as well absorbed as heme iron prevalent in meat, pairing the plant iron with vitamin C-rich foods can help increase the non-heme iron absorption. Students should not be deficient in nutrients on Meatless Mondays if they are consuming an adequate amount of whole plant-based foods.

Eating more vegetarian or vegan meals would be less resource-intensive than a diet rich in meat, cheese and dairy. For example, producing one pound of beef requires 1,850 gallons of water, whereas a pound of vegetables requires only 39 gallons of water. With the severe droughts and water shortages plaguing families in California, the water footprint of our daily food choices should be a concern.

Implementing Meatless Mondays at the University of Minnesota would provide an opportunity to educate students about the nutritional benefits of a plant-based diet and environmental health issues, as well as help prevent some chronic diseases that plague our country today.

Moreover, it would allow the University and its students to continue being progressive leaders in our global community by applying evidence-based research, implementing sustainable food systems and recognizing that our food choices have implications beyond our bodies.