What Does It Mean To Eat A Flexitarian Diet—And How Can It Make A Difference?
Consciously Cutting Down On Meat
You can catch me eating cauliflower buffalo wings or seitan tacos at a local vegan eatery any day of the week. I love plant-based foods and feel healthier—both physically and mentally—when I consume them. But I don’t identify as vegan. Not even vegetarian. Amid all of the buzz about dietary habits, I’ve decided that being flexitarian (I swear it’s a real thing) is what works for me. This means I consciously try to reduce my meat consumption and eat mostly vegan meals—but occasionally consume meat, dairy, and seafood.
My boyfriend and sister are both vegan. The diehard types. They do this for ethical, environmental, and health reasons. It’s all too easy to feel guilty around them (and I’m around them all the time) when I do eat meat or dairy. Usually, I end up eating a lot of vegan food by virtue of spending time with them. Sometimes I think I just need to take the plunge and go vegan—and that’s definitely still an eventual possibility. But I haven’t done this yet, and I’m not alone. Only three percent of the population is vegan. Six percent are vegetarian. Unfortunately, that means more than 90% of Americans consume meat, and at an alarming and unsustainable average rate of 220+ pounds a year per person.
Meat Consumption Is Harming Our Planet
Meat and dairy provide just 18% of food calories and 37% of protein, but use 83% (the vast majority) of farmland and create 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to this article in The Guardian. Additionally, meat production and consumption contribute to factors that harm our land, water, and air, worsening the already serious problem of global warming.
Avoiding meat and dairy is the most substantial way we can reduce our environmental impact and care for our own health. Eating excessive amounts of meat can lead to an increased likelihood of stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers. And it goes without saying that animals suffer horribly under factory farming conditions.
Based on a study by British medical journal The Lancet, cutting down our meat consumption around the world by 50% will significantly impact the preservation of the planet and our ability to feed future generations. So, ideally we should all be eating half of the amount of meat we currently eat, at minimum.
Intentional Reduction Is Key
Even though there are more and more plant-based food options, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to immediately cut out all meat and dairy. A lot of people still won’t have access to fresh produce, farmer’s markets, and the abundance of vegan offerings certain parts of the country, like my home in Los Angeles, are fortunate to have. This especially applies to marginalized and vulnerable populations. The key to change is conscious, intentional reduction of meat consumption within your ability—and not punishing yourself when you do occasionally have a non-vegan meal. (If you do eat meat or dairy, try to ensure it comes from local, sustainable, and free-range sources.)
While cutting out all meat and dairy would certainly be effective, the all-or-nothing mentality people have surrounding meat eating can do more harm than good. It can deter people from even beginning their journey towards meat reduction. Don’t get me wrong: being a dedicated vegan or vegetarian is a wonderful thing. It takes strong values and even stronger discipline—and many people find great joy in it. It’s definitely something that can be done, and something that should be encouraged.
But, on the other hand, for someone who is considering cutting down on meat, it can be intimidating to feel like you have to either identify as a meat eater or not. This can lead to feelings of guilt or fear of “slipping up” when trying to cut out meat and not always being successful. My sister and boyfriend, when they’ve accidentally consumed dairy around me, have asked me to keep it a secret and say they feel awful. I tell them, it’s honestly totally cool. They’re abiding by their ethics as best as they can and an occasional and unintentional mistake should never be held against them.
Ways To Reduce Meat Intake
So how do you get started on pursuing a less meat-heavy diet?
1. Join the Meatless Monday Movement
Meatless Monday is a campaign meant to reduce meat consumption by 15% for our personal and global health. How do you participate? Simply don’t eat meat on Mondays. Look for great plant-based recipes on Meatless Monday’s website that are healthy and delicious. This is a great way for beginners to cut down on meat-heavy diets. When you feel comfortable doing so, challenge yourself to not eat meat several days of the week—or only eat meat once a week.
2. Experiment with New Types of Grains and Veggies
Check out this extensive list of grains and this list of veggies. Go to your local grocery store and pick out some greens you’ve never had and find a recipe. Chances are, you’ll discover something you really like, that’s also healthy and good for the environment. Take it to the next level by trying other countries’ meat-free cuisines. Check out this website with plant-based meal recipes from around the world such as vegan chow mein, meatless korma, Brazilian coconut curry, and more.
3. Fake It with Flavor and Fake Meat
Try cooking with meaty flavors like soy sauce or dried mushrooms. Seaweed, potato, and tomato all contain an umami or savory flavor that can help satisfy a craving for meat. There are also a range of vegan “meats” from tofu to tempeh to seitan. Try a variety of them and find out which ones you like. Many fast food restaurants are even offering meatless options now, from Impossible Burgers to Beyond Meat crumble tacos—it’s definitely worth a try!
4. Cut Out Processed and Red Meats
Processed and red meats should be eaten sparingly. The high levels of sodium and preservatives in processed meat, and the fat and cholesterol in red meat are bad news for your health. Cutting out these unhealthy choices and sticking to better ones, like fish and white meat, are good for your body and the environment.
There are plenty of other great resources for ways to cut down. Simply plug “ways to eat less meat” into a search engine and you’ll find endless guides and resources. Or, just do what you can. Maybe reduce your meat consumption in half or limit it to occasional meals instead of most meals. Any amount is better than nothing.
Like other aspects of life that require slowing down and evaluation, it’s time we all get intentional with what we eat. This looks different from person to person, but whatever it is, there shouldn’t be a fear of messing up. Reducing a little is better than not at all—and doing it consistently yields long-term results.
That’s the beauty of a flexitarian diet. To some, this can mean eating meat just once a day. To others, it’s eating meat once a week or less. Just remember it’s possible to eat in a conscious way that’s better for the environment, animals, and ourselves. With that in mind, bon appétit!
How do you cut down on your meat consumption? Share your tips with us in the comments below.
Belinda Cai is the Assistant Editor at The Good Trade. When she’s not writing, she’s exploring new places, hiking, and thrifting. Belinda got her master’s in journalism at the University of Southern California but originally hails from Cincinnati, Ohio. She loves the California sunshine and matcha lattes. Check out her website and Instagram.