The first question most people in America might ask is, why include meat alternatives in my diet? The basis of a healthy diet is variety. While meat is an important part of healthy eating, we tend to allow it to crowd out other important food groups and over time this leads to an imbalance in nutrients. The obvious imbalance is in calories. When we eat large servings of meat (more than 3-4 oz) at most meals, we invariably consume more calories than we can burn which of course leads to being overweight.
But we also miss other important nutrients, for example potassium. Fruits and vegetables are very good sources of potassium. By contrast, meats are high in sodium, another mineral. Both of these minerals work together to regulate blood pressure. When our diet is high in sodium and low in potassium our blood pressure goes up. A landmark study, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) recommends moderate meat portions with lots of fruits and vegetables to lower blood pressure. It’s not just restricting sodium but adding more potassium and restoring balance.
Meats are not only the highest calorie item on most plates, the range of calories per ounce can vary widely. One cooked ounce (that’s about one bite) of roasted chicken contains 55 calories. One ounce of ribeye steak has 100 calories. So a 12 oz portion of steak is 1200 calories. And that doesn’t count any sauce or other items on the plate. If the average adult needs 1800-2000 calories per day, you can see the problem. The reason meat is so high in calories is because of the fat. Generally, all fats from meat are saturated. And meat is a source of cholesterol. So from a fat and sodium perspective, a diet based on meats raises our risk of heart disease.
Another obvious reason to reduce meat intake is cost. Meat is one of the most expensive items on our shopping list. Our parents and grandparents were well familiar with stretching the meat in recipes by adding pasta, beans, rice or other vegetables. Combination dishes that include modest amounts of meat are healthy and flavorful. This tactic also improves the nutritional value of the meal. The key is balance.
Meat alternatives are foods that we use to replace meat and bring back balance to our diet. For example a traditional meal of beans, greens and cornbread would be a flavorful meatless meal where beans are the meat alternative. A more exotic choice might be tofu. Tofu is the curd from coagulated soy milk. It’s high in protein, calcium and iron and it is one of few protein foods that has no cholesterol or saturated fat. It’s one of the best plant based protein foods available.
Countless studies have suggested that increasing consumption of plant-based foods like tofu, decreases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The same foods promote healthy complexion and hair, provide increased energy, and bring variety and valuable nutrients to our diet. Consuming tofu as a meat alternative lowers “bad” cholesterol and reduces heart disease risk. The isoflavone genistein in soy products reduces risk of breast and prostate cancer. For breast cancer survivors, consuming at least 10mg of soy foods per day can decrease breast cancer recurrence by 25%.
Tofu is a bland food that absorbs flavors very well. Look for recipes including tofu like the one listed today. This Tofu Steak recipe incorporates an intensely flavorful sauce and can provide an oriental flare to any meal. Serve it with steamed brown rice and a stir fry of snow peas, onions and fresh garlic. Your family or guests will rave and only you have to know that you provided a feast of health at this meal.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim Scallon hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.