'Flexitarian'? What on earth is one of those? Well it may well be something that describes your diet, or at the very least someone you know. I use the word "diet" to mean food choices and preferences, not as a faddy and restrictive weight-loss plan - although weight-loss could well be a by-product a Flexitarian diet. A Flexitarian, put simply, describes someone who eats a mainly vegetarian or vegan diet but will eat meat and fish occasionally.
The Flexitarian approach seems to be gaining momentum with many of my friends and family as they opt for the veggie pizza over the pepperoni one. It's a similar picture in the UK with more and more people turning vegan and vegetarian than ever before, but for some committing to an entirely plant-based diet feels too restrictive and a bridge too far. Instead cutting down on meat feels more attractive and achievable.
So what is it about the Flexitarian diet that has led to such a growing trend?
1 It's beneficial to our health
There is mounting evidence that suggests eating a more plant-based diet is beneficial to our health. It has been found to reduce our risk of developing preventable diseases such as Type II Diabetes, obesity, some cancers and heart disease. Also, the amount of anti-biotics pumped into animals to rid them of diseases some experts say are making humans immune to antibiotics and threaten human life.
Scientists in this field can't seem to agree whether cutting meat out of our diets completely is really the best way to eat, as eating certain meats and fish can bring particular health benefits and essential nutrients. Where the research tends to agree is that eating meat in moderation, and red and processed meats even less so, will promote better health and longevity, and reduces the risk of these terrible diseases. A Flexitarian diet addresses this way of eating beautifully.
2 It's better for the environment
We cannot ignore our growing awareness of climate change and its impact on the planet. About a third of the crops grown worldwide are used to feed the animals that then end up on our plate. This is a really inefficient way of feeding the planet, especially given the millions of people across the world who are starving or malnourished. It has been predicted that if the world's demand for meat continues to grow at the rate it is currently, meat consumption is set to double within the next few decades. This is unsustainable.
Cattle farming is the main offender in terms of harming the environment due to the pollutant Methane gas cows emit. It's thought to be more damaging to the environment than the world's whole transportation system. Shocking right? And dairy products don't get off scot-free. In the UK the majority of our dairy products comes from cows - cheese, butter, milk, cream - and will have just as much an impact on the environment as those reared for meat.
The good news is by significantly reducing our meat consumption it will drastically reduce our carbon footprint and you will be doing your bit to help prevent climate change.
3 It's kinder to animals
This may or may not be a motivator for reducing the amount of meat you eat but I'm sure most agree that the meat industry isn't a particularly great experience for the animals involved. Understatement. In particular industrial farming can mean that animals are kept in appalling overcrowded and cramped conditions with little room to move around or stretch. Some have no access to sunlight or fresh air, and many of them develop diseases and injuries from being kept in such conditions.
There is some good news. A growing number of farmers are rearing animals for meat in more ethical and humane ways. This means animals have a better quality of life by having enough space to move, they have free range access to the outdoors and are fed on better diets. Some believe that there is no such thing as humane ways of killing and eating animals for food. And they may be right. But surely keeping animals in better conditions when they are alive is more ethical.
Reducing our meat consumption and therefore reducing the demand for meat will mean there is less need for animals to be reared on a mass scale and in such terrible conditions. When farmed in smaller numbers less methane is released into the atmosphere, less land is needed to rear them and fewer numbers of animals are killed. Rearing animals in fewer numbers can mean costs go up but on days you do eat meat, opting for higher welfare produce is the best way to buy to meat.
4 It's nutritious
Meat is essentially a protein so when we omit this from our plate we need to be replacing it with a nutritious plant-based protein. The best ones are beans, pulses, nuts, seeds and soya. Other sources of protein are rice, cheese, yoghurt and bread believe it or not. Make sure you vary the protein in your diet and avoid replacing them for refined carbs.
It is entirely possible to get all your nutrients from a plant-based diet alone but it can be difficult to consume the right levels of nutrients. Iron, Zinc and Vitamin B12, which are found in abundance in meat, fish, eggs and dairy, are particularly tricky if you eat an exclusively plant-based diet. Deficiencies in these essential nutrients can cause anemia and damage to your nervous system. If you are wanting to reduce your meat consumption or eliminate it completely from your diet then make sure you understand the nutrients in the foods you eat and ensure you get a balanced diet.
5 It could help you lose weight
A Flexitrain diet can help in you efforts to lose weight. It's important to remember that a vegetarian or vegan diet, or even a gluten free diet, is not necessarily healthier. Eating a predominantly plant-based diet supplemented by meat on occasions means you are more likely to eat more vegetables and fruit, which are generally lower and better quality calories compared with some meat products. This is, of course, provided you don't fill up on sugary foods, refined carbohydrates and some processed foods. The Flexitarian is about based meals around vegetables rather than meat, which is a good recipe for any weight loss regime.
6 It tastes great
Many people like eating meat at most mealtimes due to its texture and flavour, making a meal more satisfying and filling. However, more and more people are experimenting with different protein alternatives, and I don’t just mean processed meat substitutes. Again, I mean beans, pulses, lentils, and 'meatier' textures food like tofu, jack fruit and seitan, along with crunchier textures like nuts, seeds and raw foods. Clever use of herbs, spices and dressings can really bring a dish to life and make your meal satisfying and satiating.
7 It's money saving
You may have noticed that you've not been getting as much bang for your buck when it comes to your supermarket shop. Beans and lentil are considerably cheaper than meat, and cheap meat, unless of course you find it in the reduced section, let's face it you've really got to ask yourself why and how have they been able to make these cost savings. The ugly truth is cheap meat often comes from animals that are reared in poor, cramped conditions and fed on rubbish, literally. Splashing out on the highest welfare meat you can afford, and ideally bought from your local butcher, may feel like an extravagance but as Flexitarians only eat meat occasionally it becomes an intermittent luxury rather than an everyday expense.
8 It's achievable
Nobody likes to fail, right? We need to cut ourselves some slack sometimes. Nobody is perfect and to strive for which can be counter-intuitive. But achieving at something means you are more likely to stick to it. In my view the Flexitarian approach is completely achievable and puts you (and your conscience) in control. It's great if you like to eat meat but care about your health, the environment and the animals but to give up meat completely leaves you feeling daunted and deprived. That's not what eating should be about. You'll only go and have a binge session at the first fast food outlet you see. Now don't get me started on that one!
More and more restaurants are responding to people's desire to cut down on meat or cut it out completely and now have vegan menus. Even Meat Liquor in Bristol has a vegan burger. This means you can still go out and you have choice about what you wish you eat. There's still a way to go but it's heading in the right direction.
9 You will be making a difference
Believe it or not you will be making a difference if you adopt Flexitarian eating habits. One study said cutting out meat just once a week makes more of an impact on the environment than giving up your car. The Flexitarian approach gives you the freedom to eat what you want, within reason, but do so with a conscience. Understanding your impact that eating meat and meat products has on our health and the environment may lead you to start opting for vegetarian meals more often.
10 You can have your 'steak' and eat it
As a Flexitarian you really have the best of both worlds. You can enjoy a plant-based diet most of the time whilst getting your meat fix every so often. If you've been invited to your Auntie Matilda's who insists every meal is 'meat and two veg' then you can have your meat fix without creating a fuss - unless you want to that is. So you really can have your 'steak' and eat it!
So there we have it. Flexitarian really is the way forward for all these reasons. Whatever your motivation is for reducing the amount of meat you eat, you will be joining the growing number of people adopting this lifestyle as well.