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Green challenges

Thinking global and acting local, Julie Grundy takes on any challenge we throw at her.

How to replace meat in your diet and stay healthy

A vegetarian stir-fry in a wok

Credit: Brian Snelson via Flickr under Creative Commons 2.0

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Sometimes if you tell people you’re doing a weekday vegetarian challenge, they get a little worried for your health. They think if you cut back on meat, you won’t get enough nutrients like protein, vitamin B12, zinc or iron. What they don’t know is that most people are eating too much meat to begin with, and so can cut back without missing out on anything essential.

According to the Department of Health, a single serve of meat each day is all that’s needed to keep you healthy - but that serve is only 60-100 grams. So that’s maybe half a cup of mince, or two small chops, or two slices of a roast. And yet when we look at recipe books or restaurants, the portions are usually much bigger, even double, the recommended size that’s good for our health.

The average Aussie is eating about 110kg of meat per year (and I’m sure you know someone who could easily eat more than that!). This is about three times what’s necessary, and might be contributing to higher rates of bowel cancer.

If you’re eating a couple of meals with meat from sustainable sources on weekend, you might not need to worry about nutrition at all. But I find that I still need to replace my weekday meat with something more substantial than just vegetables, or I get hungry again too soon. Since you don’t need huge quantities of meat in the first place, doing this is really easy. As a bonus, you’ll be getting more fibre and other vitamins besides B12 when you get your protein from non-meat sources.

A couple of eggs, less than half a cup of lentils or beans, a handful of peanuts or other nuts gives you the equivalent amount of nutrients. You can easily put these in salads, pasta, casseroles or eat them by themselves. I find that adding cheese or mushrooms to my meals also helps them feel more filling, although you have to watch the amount of cheese if you’re watching your weight.

When you’re ready to branch out, you can try tofu. It’s available in most supermarkets these days, in the chiller cabinets. I’ve had some delicious tofu in stir-fries, but if I’m cooking it for myself, I find it easiest to marinate and fry or grill it (similar to a steak or chop). It goes well with lots of different vegies, with Asian marindades, and rice or beans. My favourite tofu recipe is this Red Curry Tofu but this newer Barbecued Tofu looks like it’d be great in warm weather and you could put the leftovers in a salad sandwich if you liked.

There are meat substitutes too, but apart from the occasional home-made veggie burger I don’t quite see the point. They’re often over-processed with a lot of additives. There are also more adventurous soy products like seitan and tempeh - you’ll need to get a proper vegetarian cookbook for those as they’re a bit different from what most people are used to.

How are you replacing meat? If you’ve got any good recipes I’d love to hear them!