For those following a vegetarian diet, the potential health benefits are huge. A balanced vegetarian diet has been shown to decrease body mass index and lower your risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and even cancer . Plus, with options like parmesan zucchini chips and spaghetti squash pie, veggie-centric food also happens to be delicious.
What’s more, eating meat is more than a personal health issue—it affects the wellbeing of our planet too. Recent research shows that agriculture and the livestock industry is third largest generator of greenhouse gases, right behind transportation. In fact, a 20 percent decrease in meat consumption throughout the U.S. would have the same energy saving impact as every American driver switching from a standard car to a Prius. This all kind of makes you question the wisdom of picking up a chicken sandwich after an eco-friendly bike commute, right?
But as Americans, we aren't giving up our steaks anytime soon. The average American downs more than to 200 pounds of meat, poultry, and fish every year, which is nearly 20 percent higher than rates from 50 years ago.
That being said, burgers taste good. Meat is pretty easy to cook, it's nourishing and familiar, and it makes ordering at a restaurant much easier. Plus, it's a good source of protein, one of the basic and necessary building blocks of a healthy body. Vegetarianism just isn’t for everybody, and that’s OK. So, what’s an environmentally and health conscious omnivore to do?
Meet the Flexitarian Diet
The term flexitarian, defined as a person "whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish," entered Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 2012, but it has quickly become one of the biggest health buzzwords today. That rise in popularity is thanks in large part to its use among healthy living advocates such as Mark Bittman, a food columnist for The New York Times and author of VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00, and Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian and author of The Flexitarian Diet.
So, is being a flexitarian really any different from being an omnivore, pescetarian, or just an ordinary meat eater? Flexitarians have gotten flak from vegetarians and vegans for being noncommittal or just plain lazy, but the dietary choice is more than being a vegetarian who cheats.
The flexitarian label suggests an active and purposeful movement away from a meat-heavy diet. It’s a healthier way of eating that includes significantly more whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables than the Standard American Diet (or SAD), says Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer of The Cleveland Clinic and co-founder of RealAge.
The main gist of the flexitarian diet is exactly what is sounds like: It's flexible. And in keeping with the flexible theme, there are various approaches. In VB6, Bittman says you can eat animal products every day if you choose, but only for dinner (i.e. after 6 p.m.). He'll eat plant-based, dairy-free breakfasts and lunches, but isn't afraid to indulge in steak au poivre for dinner.
Taking a different approach, Blatner offers three levels of flexitarianism: beginner, advanced, and expert. Beginners start with two meatless days per week (or cutting down to fewer than 26 ounces of meat or poultry per week). You gradually decrease the amount of meat you eat until you reach expert level: five meatless every week, which means you're consuming about nine ounces of meat or poultry per week. Blatner focuses on eating fruits, veggies, nuts, and plant-based proteins, but she'll have pot roast or pork chops for dinner occasionally.
Another way of thinking of meat, especially red meat, is to consider it an "occasional side dish," Roizen says. He recommends cutting down your portion of red meat to about four ounces per week for optimal health.
Though the exact amounts vary slightly, both Blatner and Bittman agree that the most important part of flexitarianism is not how many meatless days or meals, but how many more vegetarian meals (or full days) you have. Flexitarianism isn’t a cleanse plan or diet with a shelf life, Blatner says. It’s about building a mindset that promotes healthy eating habits for the rest of your life.
Will Eating This Way Really Make Me Healthier?
Research leans toward yes. Flexitarians (also known as semi-vegetarians) have been found to not only have lower BMIs than full-fledged carnivores, but also are at a lower risk for type 2 diabetes and have lower mortality rates.
In a different study, after following a flexitarian diet for just four weeks, the total cholesterol levels of the participants dropped almost 20 points—and LDL (bad cholesterol) dropped almost 15 points. Lower BMIs and cholesterol means that flexitarians will likely have lower blood pressure and healthier hearts, Roizen says.
Plus, some studies suggest that a red-meat-heavy diet may increase your risk of cancers, while plant-based diets are generally considered to reduce your risk of many types of cancer. “Plant-based food has less saturated fat, more fiber, and more phytochemicals, which could lower risk of cancers like breast, colon or gut cancers,” Roizen explains.
Even better news: Switching from the SAD to a vegetarian diet could add years (up to 13 more!) to your life, Roizen says. “Animal products promote inflammation in the body, slow your metabolism, and may even slow your immune system," he says.
So why aren't more people jumping on the flexitarian train? Often it’s miscommunication about what is actually necessary for a healthy diet. The biggest hurdle is the protein myth: Most omnivores don’t think they will be able to get enough protein in their diet without meat at most meals.
In VB6, Bittman explains that barring extreme athletes, like CrossFitters and marathon runners (though he's a marathoner and a flexitarian himself), most Americans actually eat two to three times more protein than they really need per day.
"It’s almost impossible in this country to be protein-deficient unless you are literally only eating white rice," says Keith Roach, MD, chief medical officer of Sharecare and a triathlete who has finished over 20 Olympic-distance triathlons.
Moreover, virtually all of the protein you do need can come from plants. There are plenty of delicious, simple options for vegetarian sources of complete protein, like quinoa, soy products, rice and beans, and a good old PB&J sandwich.
How to Start Straight Flexin'
So it’s simple, right? Just eat less meat and poof—you’ll be healthier, happier, and have basically saved the world. Batman’s got nothing on you.
Not so fast. Technically, a “plant-based” diet could consist of Pop Tarts for breakfast, cheesy nachos (hold the meat!) for lunch, and a veggie burger slathered in mayo and onion rings at dinner, washed down with a large Coke (it’s vegan!).
As all of these flexitarian advocates point out, it’s not just about eating less animal products, but also making smart food choices in general. This means minimally-processed, nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy.
To get started, try these easy ways to cut back on meat in your own diet.
- Load up on greens. For a salad that actually fills you up, mix three to four cups of lettuce, kale, or arugula with tons of other veggies like carrots, beets, corn, broccoli, and onions, along with a plant-based protein (or two).
- Sub a cup of beans or lentils for the chicken, beef, or pork on a salad or in a rice bowl—they're just as filling and usually cheaper!
- Eat legumes, like white beans, lentils, and chickpeas, Bittman suggests in VB6. For filling snacks, he goes for nuts and nut butters (in moderation).
- Try meat substitutes—tofu, tempeh, and other soy-based products—along with tons of veggies, whole grains, and fruits, Blatner suggests in The Flexitarian Diet.
- Focus on eating “calorie-poor but nutrient-rich,” Roizen says. This means bulking up your meals with fiber-rich veggies and plenty of other protein sources like those listed above.
- Don't forget about quinoa, a super-versatile grain that also contains a good amount of protein (8g per cup, cooked) and can take on almost any flavor—from sweet to savory.
Being flexible isn't just for yogis. The flexitarian lifestyle is appealing for multiple reasons—it helps you maintain an optimal weight, decreases your environmental impact, and may even lengthen your life span.
Plus, a diet lower in animal products and junk food and higher in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and minimally-processed grains is pretty easy to follow. (And it's less expensive than a meat-heavy diet.) Best of all, you don't have to turn down your grandma's famous pot roast or a juicy hamburger at your next backyard BBQ.
Remember, it's not an all-or-nothing approach. Instead, like many things in life, moderation is key. “It's important not to be absolute, but provide people choices,” Roach says. “No matter how small the change, it will likely be better than the current standard.”