Two impossible burgers are shown.
Newer versions of meatless burgers have an improved taste, attributable partly to a higher fat content. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Plant-based foods are having a moment.

It’s hard to navigate a supermarket meat aisle or restaurant menu without coming across brand names like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger.

These new plant-based meat alternatives are reigniting interest in meatless Monday, an easy way to eliminate 15% of weekly meat consumption.

It’s a simple meal-planning hack that can boost your health, said Holly Dykstra, RD, a Spectrum Health dietitian who specializes in helping patients battling cardiac problems.

“Eliminating even one day’s worth of meat can reduce intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, all of which may lead to more chronic inflammation and increased risk of disease,” Dykstra said.

The real nutritional magic, however, comes not from what we take out of Monday’s meals but what we put into them.

What are the best items to add? A wider variety of produce and other plant-based foods, all rich in nutrients and much-needed fiber.

“There’s no fiber in animal-based foods,” Dykstra said. “But it’s plentiful in plants. Fiber is good for building a healthy gut and heart. It helps manage cholesterol and blood sugar. And because it helps us feel satisfied after eating, it can help manage our weight, too.”

A century-old idea

A weekly meatless meal is not a new idea.

President Herbert Hoover started it back in 1917 as a way to help the war effort. (Back then, he combined meatless Tuesdays with wheat-less Wednesdays.) It resurfaced again during World War II.

But the concept got entirely new life in 2003, launched by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

The ongoing global effort encourages people to reduce their meat consumption by 15%, both to improve their health and help the planet.

“Cutting meat from just one day a week is a useful way to start on improving your health,” Dykstra said. “Research has shown that reducing meat intake helps people lower their risk for heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. They’re also less vulnerable to colon cancer.”

That adds up to a lower mortality rate.

A study that tracked 2,000 adults from 1987 to 2016 found that those who opt for healthier plant-based options stood a 16% to 32% lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease.

Just as importantly, the meatless Monday campaign aims to protect the planet.

Animal agriculture, especially beef, has a major impact on greenhouse gas, land use and loss of biodiversity. Grain-fed livestock, the bulk of America’s meat, is particularly damaging.

“Those environmental concerns are also a major reason so many people are looking to cut back on meat consumption,” Dykstra said.

A vegetarian herself, Dykstra gets that giving up meat entirely can be daunting. Her husband and her kids are carnivores.

One of the reasons it’s difficult for many people to follow meatless Mondays is that, too often, they simply subtract meat from the meal.

“So perhaps they’ll serve pasta and a plain sauce,” she said. “Not only is that missing out on protein, but it might not allow someone to love what plants bring to a meal by exploring different ingredients and flavors.”

Her advice for getting started:

Embrace beans

Legumes and pulses, the name of seeds inside a legume plant, are great places to start. Use these items to replace your meat ingredients. Experiment with lentils, chickpeas, navy beans, kidney beans and pinto beans, as well as peas.

Toss cooked pasta with white beans, garlic, spinach and olive oil, or make a split pea soup without the ham.

Vegetarian chili is a crowd-pleaser. Dykstra likes to use pinto and black beans or kidney beans to replace meat, along with standard chili ingredients.

“Top with diced avocado for bonus healthy fats and serve with a homemade cornbread muffin or whole-grain roll for a hearty, complete meal,” Dykstra said.

Simmer lentils with curry or other seasonings and serve with brown rice and vegetables.

Explore meat substitutes

Tofu and tempeh, both made from soy, are great options that are nutrient-dense. Seitan, made from wheat, is also versatile.

“Make a vegetable stir-fry using tofu instead of meat, and season it to taste,” Dykstra said.

Swap sandwich fillings

Use natural peanut butter and a small amount of jam on whole grain bread, or make a whole-grain wrap stuffed with hummus and vegetables.

Be trendy

Brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are gaining in popularity. While veggie burgers—mostly made from soy—have been around for decades, the new products are distinctly different.

“Rather than catering to vegetarians, they are made for meat lovers to enjoy, too,” Dykstra said. “Many people are choosing them for environmental reasons. They typically include a lot of fat, therefore the texture is similar to meat.”

An additional appeal, she said, is that many of these new products are made without gluten, which may appeal to another set of dietary concerns. An overall healthy diet is important for better health outcomes.

She urges patients to divide up their plates, whether they’re eating meat or plant-based options.

“Fill half of it with produce,” Dykstra said. “The other half would be more energy-dense foods that contain a lot of nutrients. That typically means a quarter of the plate is filled with a healthy starch and the remaining quarter with a lean or plant-based protein.”

A few other important points:

• Consider supplements. While it’s unlikely a small decrease in meat each week would create any nutritional deficiencies, those who always eat plant-based meals, like vegans or vegetarians, do have to be mindful about getting enough calcium and vitamin B12, Dykstra said.

• When planning meals, think of meat as a minor character, not a major star. “Try to highlight plant-based foods at meals more often,” she said.