One of the hottest food trends over the past decade has been vegetarian versions of popular foods. This should come as no surprise, as there are now approximately 375 million vegetarians worldwide, and plant-based foods are a multibillion-dollar market. Beyond Meat, a company that arguably started this wave by introducing meatless “chicken” in 2013, is now worth over $10 billion.
Health food markets like Whole Foods unsurprisingly embraced the concept, but popular fast-food places, notorious for not-so-healthy food, have also jumped into the fray. Chains like Burger King, Carl’s Jr., and White Castle are among those that now offer meat-free options. Meatless Monday has also been in vogue in recent years, even though the idea of a weekday without meat was introduced way back in World War I. New York City’s public school system, America’s largest, started going meatless on Mondays in 2019.
So why has going meatless sprouted into a movement? When you look at the many potential benefits of vegetarian living—even if for only one day a week—it’s easy to see the magic (and science) that makes it so appealing.
Protecting the Earth and its animals
Meatless advocates will tell you that the lifestyle is first and foremost about being humane to animals,
but a close second is looking out for the planet. This is particularly true when it comes to beef production: cows are thought to create large amounts of greenhouse-effect-producing methane gas, and around 1,800 gallons of water is required to make just one pound of beef on average, per some sources. In contrast, crops like corn, potatoes, and wheat all use much less water: fewer than 135 gallons for every pound produced. This is not only far less than beef but also four to five times less than poultry or pork. So opting for plant-based foods is an environmentally friendly choice.
It’s just another meatless Monday
If the concept of going cold turkey on your meat- eating seems challenging, you can always start small: once a week is more palatable. And you may be surprised that this concept has been part of American history for over one hundred years.
After America entered World War I, the country asked its citizens to ration food for the war effort—and an easy way to do that was to have a different food group rationed each day. Tuesdays were dedicated to meat rationing. In 1943, the wartime idea was suggested again with a slight twist for alliteration’s sake, and Meatless Monday was born, with millions of Americans willingly joining the effort.
Flash-forward sixty years, and you’ll find the origins of the modern, more commonly known version of Meatless Monday. Ad executive Sid Lerner revived the slogan from World War II for a different twenty- first-century cause: to help the planet and humanity’s overall health. Instead of a national campaign, today it’s a global movement taking place in over forty countries—and one that can help you dip your toe into meatless eating.
Paradoxes: Protein, Processing, and Price
Like most things new and exciting, there’s usually some sort of downside, and it’s no different with going meatless. One of the first rebuttals you’ll hear from meat eaters, such as myself, is a concern about protein intake: namely, that without meat, we’ll get less protein. However, nature provides a ton of healthy proteins: nuts, beans, green peas, milk, and yogurt, to name a few, which can also translate into your fast food of choice. For example, the vegetarian version of White Castle’s classic without cheese offers 50 percent more protein than the original.
A bigger issue is that, as natural as these foods may seem, they are still processed, which is a red flag for some nutritionists. Plus, as nutritious as they may seem in some areas, they could be worse in others. For example, you’ll cut out most of the cholesterol from Burger King’s most popular burger if you opt for the veggie option, but you’ll also add more sodium while retaining almost the same amount of saturated fat.
And, finally, there’s the price. If you’re considering incorporating meat-free options into your daily or weekly routine, you can usually expect to pay more. At my local grocery store, for example, a package of Beyond Meat patties costs approximately twice per patty than its beef counterpart. The same holds true for fast food places.
For instance, Burger King’s aforementioned burger costs a dollar more than the beef equivalent. (Prices will vary, so check in your area.) If this proposition is a little too pricey for you on a regular basis, try making your own at home using recipes from the plethora of plant-based websites available, including mondaycampaigns.org.
Going meatless continues to be a popular global food trend that shows no signs of slowing down—and it’s easy to see why, considering the overall inherent health and environmental benefits. As with anything health-related, though, it mostly comes down to smart choices. Can you continue eating beef and chicken and still be healthy? Certainly—as long as you are selective and portion wisely.
Likewise, be smart when it comes to your meatless choices. Check the nutrition facts and ingredients lists, and compare them to the meat versions. Most importantly, consult with your doctor to determine if this lifestyle is right for you and your unique health care needs. All this can help ensure that, whether you do it weekly or more frequently, you get the most out meat-free eating.