Paleo-style diets, strict food plans and rigid regimes are so 2016. As awareness grows regarding the repercussions of eating a meat-focused diet, flexatarianism continues to pick up speed as a sensible—and doable—way to cut back on meat by eating loosely vegetarian. Whole Foods predicts the flexitarian diet to be one of the biggest food trends of 2017.
Flexitarian is a hybrid term that combines flexible and vegetarian. The term has been around for several decades, but rose into prominence with registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner’s 2009 book "The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life." She suggests minimizing meat without eliminating it altogether. You can still reap the health benefits associated with a plant-based diet, she says, but not feel like you “cheated” when the urge for a burger or sushi hits.
It also means that when you are at an event, such as a family dinner or a friend’s house, where meat is being served, you don’t have to bail or bring your own food. Its wing-it m.o. allows you to be included in a wider circle of social activities and travel through life less restrictively.
Blatner describes a flexitarian “as someone who wakes up each morning with every intention of being a vegetarian, but who may encounter a situation that causes him or her to eat meat.” Going off the wagon is grandfathered in, so you don’t have to feel like being a vegetarian is an all or nothing prospect—it’s more like a suggested baseline.
There are number of reasons why flexitarianism is steadily crossing over into the mainstream. Four different factors are creating a Zeitgeist less favorable to meat: Rising meat prices combined with struggling economy, a growing awareness of the environmental impacts of eating meat, animal welfare issues becoming more prominent, and concerns regarding about the health impacts of eating meat.
Plus, flexitarianism appeals to millennials, who love the combo of personal choice funneling into a larger purpose. A study published last year predicted that a flexitarian diet could reduce global mortality by up to 10 percent and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70 percent. Another recent study suggests those who consume a mainly plant-based diet weigh 15 percent less than those more willing to indulge their carnivorous cravings.
It doesn’t take much to feel the impacts of eschewing meat, be it a meatless day, such as meatless Monday, or a daily meatless meal. A 2013 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health presents a compelling case for the flexitarian approach: The study found that eating a full day of vegetarian meals just once a week could reduce the average intake of saturated fat by up to 15 percent, reducing the risk of heart attacks, strokes and cancer.
Better meat alternatives
In general, meat is having to face a popularity slump. In the last decade, annual meat consumption per person has fallen 15 percent, coinciding with a doubling of the number of new vegetarian products on the market in the past five years. The flexitarian trend offers an especially savvy opportunity for high-quality meat alternatives. According to Euromonitor International, a research firm, sales of meat substitutes are up to more than $1 billion in the United States this year from about $850 million in 2012.
As receptivity to vegetarian products increases, so do expectations. In general, there is more willingness to consume meat alternatives—but they need to taste good. We are not talking your average Gardenburger here. Consumers want the gustatory illusion of beef, minus the actual beef.
In response, meat substitutes have become radically more sophisticated. A recent article in the New York Times noted “the addition of heme, an iron-rich molecule contained in blood (which the company produces in bulk using fermented yeast), it is designed to look, smell, sizzle and taste like a beef burger.” New technological breakthroughs are driving the development of meat substitutes that closely mimic the taste or at least texture of meat products.
Want to start but afraid of going whole hog? Here are some tips to make the leap:
Opt for micro portions
The easiest way to start consuming less meat is to taper off slowly. Continue eating your typical meals, but change up the portions by reducing the amount of meat and and increasing the grains, vegetables and fruit. Try cutting your meat portion in half.
Incorporate meatless meals
Blatner suggests ramping up gradually, by aiming to make roughly a third of your meals each week vegetarian. After you acclimatize, the next push would be to add a few more vegetarian meals. The final stage would be eating at least two thirds of the week’s meals vegetarian, and seeing if you could make some days completely meat-free.
Eat meatless one day a week
Another way to ease out of daily meat consumption is to eat meatless once a week. You’ll be in good company: Meatless Monday, which launched in 2003, is now a global movement, embraced in over 40 countries, with a simple message of foregoing meat one day a week.