January 2013 Issue

Meatless Monday
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 15 No. 1 P. 38

This growing campaign encourages people to increase their intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and dietitians are embracing it as a tool to promote healthful eating patterns.

What do Oprah Winfrey, Michael Pollan, and Mario Batali have in common? They’ve all jumped on the Meatless Monday bandwagon. Hospitals, colleges, restaurants, magazines, foodservice companies, workplaces, and entire communities are pledging their support for the program, too.

What’s Meatless Monday all about? It’s a nonprofit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, which is developed in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, with a simple message: By cutting out meat once per week, you can improve your health and reduce your carbon footprint. The initiative provides information and recipes to help people start each week with healthful, eco-friendly, meat-free alternatives.

Allison Righter, MSPH, RD, who coordinates the Meatless Monday science advisory at the Center for a Livable Future (CLF), reports that Meatless Monday began in 2003 in response to the release of the Healthy People 2010 report, which included goals to reduce dietary saturated fat by 15%. “Since saturated fat primarily comes from meat and animal products and since one day a week is just under 15% of the week, Meatless Monday was a practical method for helping people to meet those goals. Reducing meat consumption also has many other benefits, such as lowering the environmental burden of industrial food animal production, which is a major focus of CLF’s research,” Righter says.

Benefits Aplenty
There’s growing support for adopting a more plant-based diet, even in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which offer the general recommendation to eat a plant-based diet that focuses on consuming vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds with moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy.1

A position paper published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that a plant-based, vegetarian dietary pattern is completely healthful and nutritionally adequate for people throughout all stages of life and that it has several health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol and pressure levels and lower risk of heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.2

Semivegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, and vegan women have a lower risk of overweight and obesity than do omnivorous women, according to data from 55,459 healthy women participating in the Swedish Mammography Cohort, suggesting that advice to consume more plant foods and less animal products may help individuals control their weight.3

In a recent meta-analysis, Harvard researchers linked high processed-meat intake to a 42% higher risk of coronary heart disease.4 Data from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, which included more than 440,000 participants, revealed that eating a daily 100-g serving of red meat was linked with a 19% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and eating a daily 50-g serving of processed meat was associated with a 51% greater risk.5

The NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which included more than 500,000 men and women, found a significantly higher risk of cancers of the colorectum, esophagus, lung, and liver associated with red meat intake; an increased risk of colorectal and lung cancer was associated with higher intake of processed meat; and red and processed meat intake was associated with cancer mortality.6

In addition to health, people are interested in reducing their animal food intake for environmental benefits. Italian researchers performed a life cycle assessment to evaluate the “cradle-to-grave” environmental impact of several dietary patterns. They reported that an organic, vegan diet had the smallest environmental impact, while a conventionally farmed diet that included meat had the greatest impact on the environment—and the more meat consumed, the greater the impact. Beef was the food with the single greatest impact on the environment. Cattle require lots of feed, water, and fossil fuels to turn plants into protein, the scientists said. To produce 1 kcal from beef requires 40 kcal of fossil fuels, whereas producing 1 kcal from grains requires only 2.2 kcal of fuel.7

In an analysis for the public advocacy organization Environmental Working Group (EWG), greenhouse gas emissions generated by conventionally raising lamb, beef, pork, and farmed salmon and producing cheese far exceed those from other food choices, such as lentils and beans. The EWG found that eating less meat could significantly reduce a person’s carbon footprint. For example, if everyone in the United States ate no meat or cheese for just one day per week, it would be like taking 7.6 million cars off the road.8

The Meatless Monday message helps people ease into the concept of decreasing animal intake by selecting just one day per week to go meatless. “We’re not asking people to cut out meat from the diet,” Righter says. “This is all about moderation; it’s one simple tool to help people incorporate healthier—and also more environmentally sustainable—alternatives to meat into their diets just one day each week. It’s a platform to introduce new and often overlooked foods, and ideally this will trickle over into other days of the week and ultimately translate into healthier eating habits and dietary patterns over time.

“What I think is important to understand, especially for dietitians, is that people are consuming too much meat—more than what’s needed to achieve nutritional recommendations,” Righter continues. “We’re eating more than twice the EAR [estimated average requirement] or about 1 1/2 times the RDA [Recommended Dietary Allowance] for protein. The majority of our protein is coming from meat and animal products, which provide additional saturated fat and often not the same nutritional benefits of other plant-based proteins. This excess of meat and lack of health-protective plant foods is a huge problem in terms of its association with an increased risk of chronic diseases.”

Indeed, Meatless Monday appears to be an effective tool for promoting health. A nationwide survey conducted by FGI Research for Meatless Monday found that among those who are aware of the initiative, 36% say the campaign has influenced their decision to cut back or consider cutting back on meat. Of those influenced by Meatless Monday to reduce meat intake, 62% say they’ve tried to incorporate it in their weekly routine; 40% incorporate more meatless meals the rest of the week; 73% eat more vegetables; 64% eat more fruits; 42% eat more beans; 47% eat more whole grains; 50% experiment with new meatless recipes when they cook at home; and 42% try more meatless dishes when eating out.

Meatless Monday Takes Off
The Meatless Monday movement has grown dramatically in the past two years. Awareness of the campaign primarily is due to grassroots viral dissemination and support of participating organizations rather than advertising. According to the FGI Research survey, public awareness of Meatless Monday increased from 26% to 43% from November 2010 to July 2012. Meatless Monday has more than 35,000 Facebook likes and 18,000 Twitter followers as of July 2012. In addition, many organizations, such as the Food Network (more than 3 million Facebook likes and 1 million Twitter followers) and the Cooking Channel (more than 345,000 Facebook likes and 87,000 Twitter followers), post Meatless Monday content every week.

“Organizations have helped Meatless Monday become mainstream,” says Peggy Neu, president of The Monday Campaigns. “Sodexo was the first to join in 2011. They’re enormous, with 6,000 customers in the United States serving 10 million meals a day. As we’ve grown both in our awareness and number of people who say they’re practicing Meatless Monday, we have all of these companies and organizations offering a solution to what you can have instead of meat. Morningstar Farms was one of the first big brands to promote Meatless Monday, along with others, including the Mushroom Council and Birds Eye.”

High-profile chefs and restaurants have helped bring Meatless Monday to the forefront as well. “In the beginning, Meatless Monday was started in restaurants by pioneers like Mario Batali. Now it’s gone mainstream,” says Neu, who reports growing innovation in the restaurant world. Chefs are employing food stations, special menu features, and tasting menus to help promote Meatless Monday.

The campaign also has been a darling in the media. “The media, bloggers, and Food Network have all become active in Meatless Monday,” Neu says. “We’re not saying that people should give up meat entirely; we’re not saying to be vegetarian or vegan entirely. Our press is so good because what’s there to argue?”

Meatless Monday also is growing with schools, colleges, food distributors, worksite wellness programs, and insurance companies. “We’re even seeing Meatless Monday in communities, such as in Raleigh-Durham [North Carolina] and Aspen, Colorado, where community organizers go around and get schools, media, and events to support a communitywide gestalt.”

Employing Meatless Monday in Other Settings
Dietitians are getting excited about using Meatless Monday as a tool in various work settings. “Dietitians are involved in marketing, cooking classes, community, television, cooking demos, and blogs. They’re also involved in foodservice settings,” Neu says of the many ways dietitians use Meatless Monday to provide healthful eating messages.

“Meatless Monday can be used as a platform in any setting for dietitians to not only talk about nutrition but to raise awareness of larger issues related to our industrial food system,” Righter adds. “Food is connected to everything. This can help dietitians become well versed on these issues.”

Righter recently conducted an informal survey of dietitians regarding their knowledge and use of Meatless Monday in their work. “About half of the people I got responses from already had heard about the campaign and were using it in the classroom or with clients in some capacity,” she says. “However, a lot of people weren’t aware of it—either they’d never heard of it or they didn’t realize it was a campaign with its own website, social media, and all sorts of information, recipes, and resources.”

“It’s one strategy to help bring Americans in line with the Dietary Guidelines. Everyone’s on the same page; we’re all struggling to get people to eat more healthfully. Using Meatless Monday is an opportunity to introduce these plant-based foods, like vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. That’s one of the things that came back from our survey of dietitians. They believe Meatless Monday provides an opportunity for people to try new recipes and new foods,” Righter says.

Dana Dose, RD, CPT, a dietitian at Harrah's Health and Wellness Center in Lake Tahoe, California, uses Meatless Monday in her one-on-one sessions with clients. “I’ve also started the process of seeing if the on-site cafeteria for the employees will start offering additional meatless options on Mondays. Once that goes through, I’ll promote Meatless Monday throughout the property, especially in the employee cafeteria, by using signage and putting an article in the employee newsletter,” Dose says. “It’s great to be able to show people the positive impact they can have on the environment and their bodies when they go just one day without meat.”

Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RD, and Kathy Siegel, RD, CDN, cofounders of NutritionBabes.com, feature a meatless recipe category with 85 recipes on their website and blog, and they encourage their clients, readers, and listeners to consider forgoing meat one day per week. “By raising awareness of the benefits of decreasing meat consumption, we can open consumer’s minds to the potential positive effects on their health,” Harris-Pincus says. “The path to better health is traveled one step at a time, and removing meat from your meal plan one day per week can be one of those steps.”

Roberta Anding, MD, RD, LD, CDE, CSSD, director of sports nutrition at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, uses Meatless Monday as a tool in teaching an introductory nutrition course. “It dovetails with my lecture on vegetarian nutrition. From a clinical perspective, I use it to reduce the high calorie burden of my carnivore Texans. I’m contemplating writing about it for the Houston Texans Gameday magazine,” she adds.

Natalie Bates, a clinical nutrition student at the University of California, Davis, spent the past summer in an internship at Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center, where she created, promoted, and implemented a Meatless Monday program for the cafeteria. To kick it off, Bates created a presentation that was shown on the TV in the hospital cafeteria. She tested meatless recipes and worked with the chef to offer four different meatless entrées in the cafeteria on Meatless Monday. Bates made table tents that included recipe pictures and environmental and nutritional information. She also set up a table at the cafeteria entrance that showcased a poster promoting the campaign and that provided staff to answer people’s questions.

Bates distributed a survey about Meatless Monday to receive feedback from the cafeteria customers. “The survey indicated very mixed results. While some people were excited about having meatless options, others were upset that the cafeteria would try to influence their dietary choices,” she explains. “Those who were interested in eating healthfully were easy to convince to try Meatless Monday on a regular basis, and they liked the vegetarian options offered in the cafeteria that day. However, within the hostile audience, it was difficult to see any impact. I think the area of opportunity for people in the public health field is among the neutral/undecided individuals who are intrigued and open to the idea but haven’t been exposed to or received guidance for implementing Meatless Monday into their lives. Surprisingly, I found that emphasizing the environmental impact often can motivate people to participate in Meatless Monday who wouldn’t be interested in participating for health reasons.”

Getting Started
If you’d like to use Meatless Monday in your own practice, MeatlessMonday.com offers many great resources to get you started, such as information on nutritional and environmental benefits, articles, a recipe widget that can be placed on any website or blog, and a tool kit with promotional materials in a downloadable format.

So go ahead, jump on the Meatless Monday bandwagon and encourage your clients to take the ride for better health, too.

— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian, a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California, and author of The Plant-Powered Diet.


1. US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th ed. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 2010.

2. Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(7):1266-1282.

3. Newby PK, Tucker KL, Wolk A. Risk of overweight and obesity among semivegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81(6):1267-1274.

4. Micha R, Wallace SK, Mozaffarian D. Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes mellitus: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Circulation. 2010;121:2271-2283.

5. Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, et al. Red meat consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: 3 cohorts of US adults and an updated meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94(4):1088-1096.

6. Cross A, Leitzmann MF, Gail MH, et al. A prospective study of red and processed meat intake in relation to cancer risk. PLoS Med. 2007;4(12):e325.

7. Baroni L, Cenci L, Tettamanti M, Berati M. Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007;61(2):279-286.

8. Hamerschlag K. Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health. Environmental Working Group website. http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/meateaters/pdf/report_ewg_meat_eaters_guide_to_health_and_climate_2011.pdf. July 2011. Accessed May 10, 2012.