In 2006, a Harris Interactive survey indicated that those who simply never eat meat are more common in this country than strict vegetarians, accounting for seven percent of the population. A flexitarian is someone who eats vegetarian meals most of the time, but occasionally allows fish, fowl and meat for nutritional or social reasons. While some vegetarians and vegans may not approve of those choices, flexitarianism may actually just be a slow and gradual way for those raised on animal products to transition to complete vegetarianism.
Red meat has been the subject of cautionary and sometimes alarming health studies over the past few years. As scientists target the causes of heart disease—the top killer of Americans—red meat stays in their crosshairs. Writing for CNN’s Paging Dr. Gupta Blog, A. Chris Gajilan outlines some of meat’s shortcomings, as well as statistics showing our decreased interest in eating meat. “The average per capita beef consumption was highest from 1970 to 1975,” he tells us.
CNN.com also publishes an article from Cooking Light magazine that labels flexitarianism one of “5 healthy food trends worth following,” and notes that “Because the emphasis is on produce rather than protein, flexitarians are more likely than most Americans to meet the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables and the vitamins and minerals they contain.”
High levels of LDL cholesterol and saturated fats can lead to stroke, heart disease and diabetes. The American Diabetics Association’s “Meal Plan” notes that saturated fats are “found mostly in meat, milk, and eggs,” indicating that going vegetarian (or at least flexitarian) may be a healthier alternative to a diet rich in red meat and animal products.
Cutting down on your meat consumption may not only be good for your health, but the planet’s health as well. In a column for The Huffington Post, environmental activist Laurie David refers to a 2006 report by the United Nations
, which found that “18 percent of global warming emissions come from raising cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys and other animals we eat.”
Soy is a key component of any vegetarian or flexitarian diet. Soymilk, a nutrient-filled alternative to cow’s milk, has become a very popular beverage. In fact, Dean Foods, the largest producer of dairy products in the U.S., bought soymilk producer Silk and its parent company White Wave in 2002, realizing how lucrative the dairy-free market was becoming. Soy is also the primary ingredient of tofu, an Asian staple now popular here.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates vegetarianism and animal-free research practices, tackles some of the most frequently asked questions about going vegetarian on its site. Most people are concerned about alternative sources for the nutrients one finds in meat. Others may wonder what risks a vegetarian diet may pose to children, or whether there are risks associated with a soy-heavy diet. Check out the PCRM’s FAQ to get these and more questions answered.
Meat does contain nutrients that bodies will miss if not conscientiously supplemented by whole grains, milk or soy products, and, of course, vegetables. The Food Network reminds meat-free eaters of the specific nutrients and vitamins that they need to find sources for when meat is out of the picture, and suggests several grocery purchases that include them.
Flexitarians exist because some people love meat so much, they find it hard to give it up completely. It’s easy to understand their point of view. Meat is delicious, filling and, in many ways, nutritious: steak is a staple for athletes that provides iron, B vitamins, and protein. For aspiring flexitarians, there are ways that meat can be enjoyed that will lessen some of the risks associated with meat’s fat and cholesterol levels. Watch a video from WebMD, “Four Rules for Healthy Meat Eating,” for important tips.
Sites like Eat Wild has resources for enjoying grass-fed meat and poultry, which many consider to be healthier—though more expensive—than grain-fed livestock. The site includes a directory of “pasture-based farms” around the country, and information about the benefits of grass feeding.
While the flexitarian movement might not be big enough yet to have whole sites devoted to it, blogs like Almost Vegetarian
and books like “The Flexitarian Table
” are catered to those straddling two diets, or transitioning toward complete vegetarianism.