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Meat as a Side Dish: Evidence-based research shows limiting or eliminating animal source foods has many health benefits

Jul 11, 2023

St. Joseph’s/Candler is launching a multi-part series examining the health benefits of reducing the amount of animal food sources you consume in your diet. It’s called, Meat as a Side Dish. While we respect everyone’s health decisions, including diet choices, we hope you find the information in these articles educational and maybe even a little inspiring.

Thinking of switching to a plant-based diet? Or maybe starting smaller – like with meatless Mondays? Whatever your goal may be, if you want to include more plant-based foods and cut back on animal sources, it’s easier than ever.

And research shows, if followed properly, healthier too.

Plant-based foods have numerous health benefits – not to mention environmental – that make it worth giving it a try. According to an evidence-based review by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a plant-based diet is associated with lower risk of heart disease (lower blood pressure and cholesterol), type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, depression and even Alzheimer’s disease.

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting or omitting processed meat (sausage, bacon, hot dogs, deli meats). Processed meat contains an excess of salt, saturated fat and chemicals that may lead to weight gain, increased risk for colon cancer and increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

The American Heart Association recommends making plant-based proteins and fish your first choices, and if you do eat meat, choose lean and unprocessed sources. Try to avoid red meat as much as possible. Research has linked red meat to colon cancer and cardiovascular disease.

One option we came up with, especially if you don’t want to eliminate meat entirely from your diet, is meat as a side dish.

“Try to think of meat as a side dish, instead of the largest part of your meal,” says Melissa Boncher, a clinical registered dietitian at the Nancy N. and J.C. Lewis Cancer & Research Pavilion. Boncher is a vegetarian. “A good way to start is with Meatless Mondays or cooking an occasional plant-based meal. Consider fish, veggies or tofu on sandwiches and in soups and salads.”

Meat doesn’t have to be unhealthy if you choose the right kind of meat – think your lean proteins like skinless chicken breast and lean ground turkey. And like everything in life, keep moderation and portion size in mind; so yes, like a side dish, agrees St. Joseph’s Hospital clinical registered dietitian Andera Manley, who’s a life-long vegetarian and now strictly vegan. Andrea Manley, dietitian

A good reason to reduce animal-based protein sources is to reduce your intake of saturated fat, which in excessive amounts, may lead to high cholesterol and heart disease. Some research supports that plant-based diets may contribute to improving overall cholesterol levels, LDL, VLDL (bad cholesterol levels), and increasing HDL (the good cholesterol level).

“Consider swapping meat for a plant-based protein two times per week. This could help your heart, but also the environment and your pocket book,” Manley says.

Coming Thursday: Part 2 of Meat as a Side Dish dives into plant-based protein sources

So how do you get started?

Manley suggests starting slow.

“If you eat meat at every meal, start by just eating meat once a day,” she says, “and then change it to three times a week and further on.”

To limit and eventually eliminate meat from your diet if that’s what you chose, Manley says to incorporate more fish and eggs or egg whites instead of meat. She also says not to be fearful of slowly adding vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds into your diet. Her favorites: edamame, tofu, legumes, nuts and nut butters.

Manley also recommends doing the research. Find reputable sources to learn about how to follow a plant-based diet so you do not become deficient in a particular micronutrient such as B12. Visit websites like and don’t be scared to pick up a couple of vegetarian or vegan cookbooks.

If you have questions about reducing the animal products you consume or transitioning to a plant-based diet, talk to a dietitian. They can help make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need to follow a healthy diet. 

How can we help you?