Benefits of Cutting Back on Red MeatRemember when being a vegetarian was a political statement? These days, it’s a vote for a healthier heart. "Most women who develop coronary heart disease do so by age 45," says cardiologist Elsa-Grace Giardina, MD, director of the Center for Women’s Health at Columbia University. "A diet where most of the protein comes from non-animal sources may help jump-start you on the road to health." A large Harvard study published in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2004 found that women who ate eight or more servings a day of fruits and vegetables were 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who ate fewer than one and a half servings a day.And when unsaturated fats — those derived from plants — were eaten in place of carbohydrates, they helped reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good). In fact, for every extra serving of fruits and vegetables participants added to their diets, their risk of heart disease dropped by four percent.High in Saturated Fats & Harder to DigestCutting back on red meat at this point in your life just makes sense: Although meat is a good source of protein, zinc, vitamin B12, and selenium, you can also get those nutrients from plants. Red meat is also high in saturated fat, which clearly contributes to heart disease. And it’s a dense source of calories. As your metabolism slows and your caloric needs decrease, eating less meat is a painless way to keep your weight down.Finally, it may be easier to eat less beef now because of your changing tastes. "Fewer people over 45 that I see in my practice choose red meat," Giardina notes. "When I ask what they have for dinner, they say fish or chicken, not a burger or rib eye steak. There must be a physiological reason that these preferences change. It may be it’s harder to digest, or there’s something different with our enzyme system."Meat in ModerationBut if the thought of never eating beef again leaves you in dietary despair, hold on. We’re grown-ups, and we eat to enhance our well-being; that means consuming not just foods with antioxidants and other preventive elements but also those that make us feel good because they satisfy our senses and make our toes curl in pleasure. "If you want steak, have it," says John La Puma, MD, medical director of the Santa Barbara Institute for Medical Nutrition and Healthy Weight and a coauthor of The RealAge Diet. "There is a place in a healthy diet for red meat." La Puma believes that if you’re healthy, you can eat a 3- to 4-ounce serving of red meat once a week, but if you want to lose weight, you should limit it to once a month because of its calorie density. And if you have risk factors for heart disease, including elevated cholesterol, he suggests eating red meat a maximum of once a month.Whether you choose to cut back on your meat intake occasionally or altogether, the suggestions that follow can make the transition easier. For optimal nutrition over one week, La Puma recommends that you aim to have four dinners based on legumes or soy, two based on fish, and one on poultry or red meat. And don’t forget about grain-based meals; high-protein grains, such quinoa and brown rice (which offers a complete array of proteins when paired with beans), are satisfying substitutes. "People who eat the most whole grains have the least heart disease," La Puma notes.Tips for a Healthier DietGo for Meaty Flavor, Not MeatYour palate distinguishes sweet, salty, sour, and bitter flavors. In the 1980s, researchers isolated another taste sensation: umami, the earthy, meaty flavor found in beef, soy sauce, miso, fish sauce (nam pla, nuoc mam), mushrooms (shiitake, portobello), anchovies, and game. If you’ve designated tonight a meatless night, yet it’s red meat you crave, satisfy your taste by boosting umami instead: Try spooning marinated mushrooms over a salad, topping chicken with sauteed shiitake mushrooms, marinating chicken breasts in soy sauce, or adding nam pla to a stir-fry. Try the Other "Steak"The kind from swordfish, tuna, or salmon: The substantial texture of this cut can make a credible meat stand-in. Substitute SoyEat soy because it’s a low-fat protein alternative to meat, not because it’s a heart-protective food. According to La Puma, the FDA-backed claims that up to 50 grams of soy protein a day can reduce LDL cholesterol are now being questioned. "When eaten in place of a protein that is high in saturated fat, however, there is some heart benefit to be had from soy," he notes, "because you’re avoiding extra saturated fat." Choose the Better Beef"The healthiest cuts of beef end in the word loin — think tenderloin and sirloin," La Puma says. "These have the least saturated fat and the most protein per ounce."Swap Beef for PoultryWho knew? Duck breast has a meaty flavor and texture similar to beef, but far less saturated fat and fewer calories. It’s a great way to wean yourself off red meat. Just because it’s good for you doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good too.Treat Meat as a Condiment A stir-fry is the classic way to treat beef as a flavorful add-on rather than a meal’s centerpiece. The secret to making less meat feel and taste like more is to cook it with mushrooms and soy sauce; the savory umami flavor extends the sensation of meatiness. Noodles, rice, and vegetables pick up that meaty flavor, so every bite delivers umami pleasure, without additional fat. Another fool-your-palate approach is to make meat the topping of a salad.Plate It Properly "When you do choose to eat red meat, slice it thinly on an angle and fan it out on the plate to help it feed your eye and fill the plate," La Puma suggests. Serve vegetables alongside, and take alternate bites. "Your pleasure will last longer, you’ll taste the meat more clearly, and you’ll end up satisfied with less." Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2006.