Runner’s Guide on How to Eat Less Meat (Without Going Vegetarian)

A Runner's Guide on How to Eat Less Meat

Last week in my post on sustainable eating, a recurring theme that emerged in the comments was the cost of sustainably sourced meats. High-quality meat, particularly grass fed beef and organic poultry, cost more than their conventionally raised factory farmed counterparts. If you watch your grocery budget (like I do) and want to eat a more sustainable diet, one of the best ways to do so is eat less meat overall. You’ll have more room in your grocery budget to purchase high-quality meat and reap the health and environmental benefits of a meatless diet without going vegetarian.

There are nutritional concerns that full vegetarians and vegans must attend to, including adequate iron, vitamin B12, and protein intake. However, if you’re still eating meat (just less of it), you do not need to worry as much about these (although still eat nutrient-rich foods containing these, of course). If you are adopting a completely vegetarian/vegan diet or are concerned about protein intake or iron intake, please consult a certified nutritionist or registered dietician.

The question is, how to eat less meat without feeling deprived or affecting your running? Follow these practical and simple tips for how to eat less meat without going fully vegetarian. (I am not a nutritionist, so all of these tips are more practical and anecdotal.)

A Runner's Guide on How to Eat Less Meat

A Runner’s Guide on How to Eat Less Meat

Reduce Your Meat Portions and Add More Plant-Based Foods

Now when we make pork chops, chicken breasts, or other meats, I try to put some meat away for the next day. Not only does this simple practice reduce the amount of meat you eat, it also stretches your grocery budget – which is important if you are purchasing expensive high-quality meats.

Runners need to make sure they eat enough calories to support their activity, so don’t just reduce your meat portions without adding other nutrient-dense foods in its place. Fill 1/4 of your meal with meat and then add legumes, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, etc. Not only does this decrease the amount of meat you eat—it also increases the amount and variety of vitamins and nutrients at your meal.

You can also reduce your portion of meat at any meal by using meat more as a garnish than the main dish. It’s easy to do this on hearty grain-based meals such as rice bowls, risotto, pizza on a whole wheat crust, and stirfrys. A little beef, pork, chicken, fish, or lamb goes a long way in these dishes!

Try: Salmon and Mushroom Stuffed Potatoes

This Runner's Recipes: Salmon and Mushroom Stuffed Baked Potatoes

Explore International Cuisines

Many cultures eat more plant based foods and less meat than the average American diet. So when you’re looking to eat less meat, look to cuisines such as Mediterranean, Indian, or Asian. These cuisines feature hearty and satisfying meals with little to no meat – but with the the vibrant spices and complex flavor combinations you won’t notice. Ingredients such as tahini, halloumi (a Greek cheese), paneer (Indian cheese), chickpeas, lentils, coconut milk, and various whole grains add protein and fat. 

Don’t be intimidated about cooking international cuisines at home. Oftentimes, you can find substitutions for obscure ingredients and spices. With Pinterest and a plethora of food and cooking blogs, recipes for international dishes are easily accessible and often adapted to make in your own kitchen. What’s even better, when you make meals such as curries at home, you can control the spiciness more than you can in a restaurant. So be a bit adventurous in your cooking!

Try: Lentil and Mushroom Curry with Wild Rice

Vegetarian Lentil and Mushroom Curry with Wild Rice and Green Beans


Boost the Meaty Taste with Umami

One purchase we’ve made more and more at the grocery store as we try to eat more sustainably? Mushrooms. Mushrooms not only have a similar texture to meat, they also have an incredible meaty flavor thanks to umami.

Umami is one of the five basic tastes and the word means “pleasant savory taste” in Japanese. Meat offers the characteristic complex savory flavor of umami, so when you look to reduce your meat consumption, add other umami foods to your meals.

Umami foods include fish, spinach, mushrooms, eggplant, tomatoes, garlic/onions, and fermented foods (especially sauerkraut). Not only do these foods provide a substitute or supplement to the meat in your meal; they also contain prebiotics and/or probiotics for better gut health and a variety of vitamins and nutrients.

Try: Autumn Harvest Pizza with Butternut Squash, Mushrooms, and Arugula

Autumn Harvest Pizza

Designate Certain Meals or Day as Meatless

It’s the notion behind Meatless Monday or Fish Fridays: one day per week without meat will make a significant difference. A particular day of the week designated to eating meatless makes meal planning easier. You don’t have to think about what day to eat vegetarian or come to the end of the week and realize every meal has included meat. We all thrive on routine, so why not make a meatless day a habit?

Even better, you could opt for meatless breakfasts or meatless lunches most days of the week. A few years ago Mark Bittman released his diet book Vegan Before Six, and the concept behind this book (reap the benefits of both veganism and eating meat) is applicable for more sustainable eating. Save meat for dinner most days of the week and you’ll significantly be able to reduce your meat consumption. Just make sure you’re getting enough protein at breakfast and lunch with eggs, dairy, legumes, quinoa, nuts/seeds, and whole grains. For me personally, this method has been most effective in eating less meat.

Try: Coconut Pumpkin Chickpea Curry 

Enjoy pumpkin in a savory and spicy dish with this coconut and pumpkin chickpea curry with roasted cashews and brown basmati rice.

Meal Plan Around Your Workouts

The night before your long run may not be the best night of the week for a bean-based meatless meal. Pick your days for meatless eating around what works best for your work schedule and training plan. Meatless meals probably work best on rest days or on the nights before easy runs, when you can eat more fibrous foods such as legumes and do not need as much protein for muscle repair. Or, plan on meatless meals without beans or cheese (which can cause GI distress on the run) for the nights before a hard workout. 

Try: Roasted Root and Quinoa Buddha Bowl

Roasted Root Vegetable and Quinoa Buddha Bowl with Lemon Tahini Dressing and Pumpkin Seeds

Don’t Make It Complicated or Stressful

Food loses its joy once it because stressful. There’s already so much in life to stress about that we don’t need to add what we eat to the list. I always say to aim for improvements, not perfection, and this sentiment should apply to sustainable eating. If you miss a meatless day one week, don’t beat yourself up; just try again the next week.

Finding meatless recipes isn’t difficult, either. Pinterest abounds with vegetarian and vegan recipes and Buzzfeed frequently features tantalizing round ups of meatless meals. Vegetarian and vegan food bloggers abound, whether you’re looking for strictly meatless ones or those who balance meatless recipes with meat ones:

How Sweet It Is (not strictly vegetarian but she creates killer veggie burgers)
Naturally Ella
Roasted Root
Oh My Veggies
Minimalist Baker
Cookie and Kate

Focus on the Benefits

If you reduce your meat consumption with a mindset of deprivation, you will feel miserable (no one wants to be deprived). Rather, focus on the benefits of eating less meat, including all the nutritious foods that will fuel your running such as fish, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and of course vegetables and fruits. Create meatless meals similar to your preferred meat-based meals to please your palate and avoid the sense of a huge change in your diet. Food, after all, should be enjoyed!

Try: Coconut Banana Chocolate Chips Muffins

Whole Wheat Coconut Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

[Tweet “A runner’s guide to eating less meat (without going vegetarian) via @thisrunrecipes #fitfluential #sweatpink #runchat”]

What other tips would you add for eating less meat?
What are some of your favorite food blogs?

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24 Responses

  1. i gave up meat and poultry very easily which I still can’t believe. for me a vegetarian diet is easier and better for my running because you don’t have the meat to digest and the abundance of complex carbs fueled my muscles like never before. I also noticed how quickly they recovered versus when I was running on chicken/protein as my main source of fuel (I lived on chicken lol)…I think what makes it easier for transitioning to vegetarian is at first doing two of three meals a day meatless and then slowly switching over to all three meals. there are so many great meatless options which people fail to realize (funny I have two posts coming up on the subject!)

    1. Vegetarian meals are definitely a great way for runners to get enough complex carbohydrates, especially when there’s so much anti-carb diets out there that make some runners nervous about carbs. I’m excited to read your posts on meatless options! There really are more than people think and you don’t need to eat soy burgers/chicken to get that protein.

  2. I think that we all know that I am a greek yogurt/cottage cheese hound 😀 I eat tons of egg whites and nut butters during training, as well as whole grains. Then I look to seafood and chicken as my meat-meat sources.

  3. This is just the resource I have been looking for! I have been wanting to eat less meat day to day and just save it for special occasions so I love this guide. The biggest struggle for me is to meal plan around my workouts since I never know how my body may react to certain foods but I think that will just take time to figure out,

    1. Thank you – I’m glad you found it useful! Meal planning around workouts is such a great way to ease in any diet changes, especially meatless – I always plan to have chicken or fish the night before a long run and the veggie based meals the nights before easy runs just in case. Then once you know you can try plant-based meals before longer and longer runs.

  4. Great post! You are speaking my language. I always wanted to eat less meat, but I don’t think I could go full on vegetarian. I’m just not….creative enough with food to make sure I’m getting the protein and other nutrients I need.

    I love the tip about exploring international cuisines. I never would have thought of that! I think I should start trying to limit meat intake to one meal a day.

    1. I know I couldn’t go full vegetarian – but there’s definitely a full spectrum between vegetarian and eat-all-the-meat Paleo. With this you get best of both worlds! And thank you! International cuisines have so many different options – even when I was in England there were so many interesting meatless meals on the menus. If there’s a grocery store near you where you can buy spices in bulk that’s a great way to try different cuisines without spending a lot of money since you just buy the amount you need. I eat meat only once a day almost everyday so shoot me an email if you ever need some more tips – lots and lots of eggs I’ll say 🙂

  5. Due to gluten, tree nut, and avocado allergies, it’s tough for me to have a meatless day. I don’t eat red meat but do eat fish, poultry, pork, and duck. I try to eat humanely raised or organic, and do a lot of eggs and tofu as well, because my diet is protein heavy for a runner. Planning meals so it’s easier definitely helps as you mentioned!

    1. I imagine that is tough! Things like eating less meat are good overall but don’t work for everyone, of course – no diet does! Meal planning really does make eating the right foods to run so much easier!

  6. Umami! I learned a new word. I used to be a veggie in high school but mostly just for attention. I love meat but I don’t eat it too often anyway, just because I have to stretch out the meals to feed so many people (lots of grains, veggies).

    1. Umami is such a fun word! Lots of veggies and grains are the way to go to stretch meals, especially if the meat is from a good roast chicken that can go a long way (and then turn into stock for soup, yum). We do that a lot!

  7. My husband and I actually try and limit our meat once a week. I always feel better after we do that and he does too. These are great tips!

  8. I could never give up animal protein. I don’t eat too much red meat, but fish and chicken are a huge staple. I cannot eat too many carbohydrates thanks to my digestive system, but what you suggest is definitely on point for those trying to cut back!

    1. I could never give it up either – my body and taste buds don’t like completely vegetarian, which is why I wrote about eating less. Fish and chicken are huge staples – and better for health and the environment, not to mention so versatile and tasty 🙂

  9. Very interesting and helpful! I like the idea of eating more of the side dishes and less of the meat, and also trying to go meatless for breakfast and lunch. I did struggle with meat-free lunches during lent though. Thanks for sharing all these great recipes and resources!

  10. These are some great tips, and as a vegetarian, I love seeing posts like this! There are tons of ways to amp up the flavor in a dish without meat I have a good sized spice collection and it really makes a big difference.

  11. Hi Laura, I just found your blog! I’m trying to get back into running after being injured for a while.

    I don’t eat meat and you have great recommendations on meatless meals. 🙂 Spices, umami, and international cuisines are the way to go for lots of flavor!

    1. Hi Mary! Thank you for reading! I hope you’re doing well getting back into running and email me if you have any questions about it! 🙂 And thank you! Spices really do make meatless meals so much better, not to mention that many spices have so many health benefits!

  12. I mostly stopped eating meat the first time I lived by myself during my first round of grad school – so almost 8 years ago! I hate handling raw meat and don’t like the taste of meat enough to prepare it just for myself, so it kind of happened automatically. I probably eat it more often now because my husband prepares dinner once or twice a week and usually includes meat.

    I think finding new recipes to try is key if you’re trying to cut back on meat. I know I generally prefer dishes that are vegetarian to begin with to meat dishes that are modified to be meatless.

    1. Grad school was when I started eating more vegetarian meals – budget and just not wanting to cook. Husbands just prepare meat so well, don’t they? I definitely agree new recipes are key – it takes some shifting out of the traditional American approach to eating or the high protein hype of health and fitness magazines to rethink meatless eating.

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