May Cause Cancer - Now What?
10 Doctor-Approved Tips to Successfully and
Healthfully Reduce Your Meat Intake
Mary R. Wendt, MD
In the wake of the World Health Organization’s recent report that
processed meat causes cancer, you may be wondering how to reduce your meat
intake while still maintaining a balanced, satisfying diet. Here, I share 10
By now, most of us have heard the bad news. The
World Health Organization (WHO)
that bacon, sausages, hot dogs, cold cuts, and other types of processed meat
cause cancer (particularly colon cancer) at a similar rate to asbestos and
tobacco. As little as 50 grams a day (that’s just two slices of bacon!) can
increase your cancer risk by 18 percent. Other types of non-processed meat
are classified as “probably carcinogenic.”
Suddenly that low-fat turkey sandwich doesn’t seem like such a healthy lunch
choice after all. How can we protect ourselves from cancer-promoting foods
while still getting enough protein (and satisfying our taste buds)?
In our culture,
a diet (and in some households, a meal!) without meat seems nutritionally
imbalanced and incomplete. This is a myth. Not only is it perfectly healthy
to shift away from meat and toward more plant-based options, it’s also
easier and more palatable than you think.
thousands of patients toward better health via dietary modifications (not to
mention breaking my own addiction to barbecued ribs while transitioning to a
vegan diet), I know that changing what you put on your plate isn’t easy. No
matter how good your intentions are or how much you know about nutrition,
it’s difficult to break lifelong habits and ingrained beliefs about what’s
“good” for you.
Here, I share 10
tips to help you reduce your meat intake now—and lower your risk for serious
diseases like cancer later:
1. Do a 24-hour
food recall. First, get an accurate idea of how much meat you’re currently
eating. Instead of keeping a food log (which you’re prone to forget about
after Meal One), do a 24-hour food recall. Write down everything you ate for
breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and drinks for the past 24 hours. For many
people, seeing a typical day’s diet in black and white is eye-opening.
Even if you
don’t think you eat much meat, consider the WHO recommendations. Just 50
grams of processed meat, or a little under 2 ounces daily, increases your
risks. Bacon or sausage for breakfast, plus a deli sandwich at lunch, might
put you well over 50 grams—and that’s not even counting supper!
2. Stop thinking of
meat as the main event. Unless you grew up in a vegetarian or vegan
household, chances are you were raised to think of meat as the main dish and
everything else as “sides.” It can be helpful to mentally switch these
Consider meat a
condiment that you can sprinkle over beans, whole grains, or vegetables,
rather than the main dish. For instance, you might crumble a small amount of
chorizo into your vegetable soup or top your salad with a pinch or two of
3. Get over your
fear of carbs, too. Are you afraid that stepping away from meat will
inevitably lead to more carb consumption…and then to more body fat? This is
a common concern, but I promise that it’s unfounded.
more to a plant-based diet than bread, rice, and pasta. A balanced plate
includes fruits, vegetables, fiber, protein, and more. And anyway, not all
carbs are bad. You do want to stay away from simple carbohydrates (like
those found in white bread and white rice), which are easily broken down by
the body and quickly converted to fat—without leaving you satisfied.
However, complex carbohydrates (like those found in whole grain products)
will fill you up without filling you out.
4. Take the
transition slowly. There’s nothing pleasant about quitting your favorite
meats cold turkey (pun intended)—and anyway, this strategy is unlikely to be
successful in the long run. If you’re currently a committed carnivore, start
by eliminating meat from just one meal a day. After a few weeks, you can
move on to having meat only once per day—and after that, to one or more
meatless days each week.
No matter what
kind of dietary change you’re making, the key to lasting success is
sustainability. A slow, gradual transition gives your body and palate plenty
of time to get used to more plant-based options and keeps you from feeling
restricted and dissatisfied.
5. Stretch your
culinary muscles. As you cut back on the amount of meat you eat, you’ll want
to add new plant-based recipes to your kitchen repertoire. (Sorry—eating
more chips, French fries, candy, and other meatless junk food won’t do your
health many favors in the long run.) Also, variety is important both for
nutrition and your new diet’s sustainability.
Fortunately, finding recipes and learning new
cooking techniques has never been easier thanks to sites like Pinterest and
Epicurious, plant-based food blogs, YouTube tutorials, and more. If you
don’t want to spend time searching and prefer a more customized approach, my
Waisted program gives you access to
thousands of curated plant-based recipes.
6. Look for
satisfying substitutions. Instead of telling yourself, I can’t eat that,
ask, How can I make it healthier? Your quest to eat less meat (or even go
meat-free) won’t feel like a sacrifice if you can find a plant-based way to
replicate the flavors and dishes you’ve always loved.
cut meat out of my diet, I used to love making—and eating—Vietnamese pork
bundles. I mourned their loss for four whole years before I had the idea to
substitute pinto beans for the pork. Turns out their creamy goodness, and
even their coloring, mimics ground pork reasonably well. And bonus: Beans
are consistently linked to high productivity and longevity. By choosing a
bean over meat, I had not only found a way to extend my life, I was
improving its quality, too.
The point is,
you don’t have to look for an all-new repertoire of meatless recipes—just
get creative when preparing your old favorites. In addition to subbing beans
for meat, give meat-replacers like tofu, portobello mushrooms, lentils, and
eggplant a second (or first) chance.
7. Start the day
off right. Many of us view cured meats like bacon, sausage, and ham as a
breakfast staple. We may even have thought we were doing ourselves a favor
by avoiding sugary cereals and carbs. But based on the WHO’s report, it’s
wise to bid a (perhaps tearful) farewell to these old meaty favorites—or at
least enjoy them on a more limited basis.
breakfast altogether if your old go-to option is off the table. This meal is
a great place to start incorporating plant-based substitutions. You can try
vegetarian and vegan sausages and bacon if you prefer to start the day off
on a savory note. Personally, I was surprised by how close to the original
many of these copycats are. And don’t forget options like oatmeal, fruit
smoothies, and whole grain breads and cereals. All of these are healthy, and
once again, will fill you up without filling you out.
the power of association. If you really want to get serious about saying no
to meat, go on the offensive by associating something very yummy with
something even more yucky. Every time you bite off a piece of bacon, for
instance, picture a mouthful of chemical-laden smog. When you’re craving a
hot dog, conjure up a mental vision of a sludgy, disgusting landfill.
During my own
transition, I was frequently assailed by cravings for barbeque. So when I
smelled or just started fantasizing about this dish, I would think about
dirt and feces. Sometimes I’d even picture a little pig on a factory farm,
living his life in a crate, never getting a breath of fresh air and never
knowing what it felt like to stick his nose in some nice mud. This tactic
worked amazingly well!
9. Consider what makes cents. Face it: Many types and
cuts of meat are expensive! In fact,
over 20 percent
of the average American grocery bill is spent on meat (and meat prices are
continuing to rise).
So if you’re motivated by a good deal, you may find it helpful to remind
yourself of the money you’re saving by choosing plant-based options.
You might object
that fresh produce and other non-processed foods can also be pricey—and I
hear you! However, if you’re no longer funneling one-fifth or more of your
grocery budget toward meat, you’ll have a lot more to spend on these items.
that the cost savings aren’t limited to what’s (not) on your plate. For
instance, many of my patients find that they spend less on cosmetics because
a plant-based diet improves their hair and skin. And, of course, by eating
nutritiously you’re avoiding piles of medical bills in the future.
10. Find some
friends to share the journey. It’s a lot easier to make healthy transitions
when you’re working toward your goal with friends, old or new. Don’t
underestimate the power of support, encouragement, and commiseration.
If you can’t get
your family on board with a reduced-meat or no-meat diet, maybe you can swap
plant-based meal plans with a good friend or team up with a coworker to make
sure the break room is stocked with healthy lunch and snack options.
Together, we can take back our health. It starts with you and
the foods you choose to put in your body. No, transitioning to a plant-based
diet won’t be without its challenges, but isn’t your long-term health worth
it? And bonus: You can look forward to a healthier, leaner body now.
Mary R. Wendt,
MD, is the founder of Get Waisted and the author of
Waist Away: How to
Joyfully Lose Weight and Supercharge Your Life. She is an expert on making
the transition to plant-based nutrition and has 20 years of experience
practicing internal medicine in private and hospital practice. When she’s
not eating rice and beans from Chipotle, she’s searching for the latest
healthy choices available all over New York City.
To learn more, please visit
About the Book:
Waist Away: How to Joyfully Lose Weight and
Supercharge Your Life (Doctor Doctor Press, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-49749246-2,
$14.95) is available from
other online retailers.