Can’t do vegetarian? Try flexitarian, which also has health benefits

From black bean burgers on restaurant menus to eight varieties of hummus at the supermarket, the meatless movement shows no signs of slowing down.

The first real blip of vegetarianism in the United States started in 1971 when Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet, and explained that meat-based diets can be harmful for our planet and our health. Lappé wrote about ways to reduce food waste and enhance sustainability, but her ideas weren’t widely acted upon; she was ahead of her time.Becoming a flexitarian will also have health benefits.

Fast-forward 45 years, and these same issues routinely make headline news as worries about our food supply escalate. Lappé’s ideas are now being recycled as a new wave of concerned citizens, especially millennials, turn to meat-free eating for better health – both for ourselves and the planet. But this time, the momentum may be strong enough to make some changes.

Lappé was only 27 when she wrote Diet for a Small Planet. If you’re 27 these days, you’re considered a millennial, the generation known for being socially aware, civic-minded and environmentally conscious. Their buying power is affecting what we see on restaurant menus and in supermarkets.

Sales are soaring for once-fringe items such as veggie burgers and almond milk. The number of new vegetarian product launches has doubled over the past five years.

The trend toward avoiding meat occurs at a time when the toll that meat production takes on the planet is becoming clearer. As people become aware that meat production requires unsustainable levels of water, land and energy use, more Americans are choosing to leave meat off their plates. Annual meat consumption per person has fallen 15 per cent in the past 10 years, and when we do eat meat, it’s often environmentally friendly, organic, grass-fed, antibiotic-free and hormone-free (all areas in which sales have increased).

But let’s face it. If you love perfectly seared steaks or covet your beer-can chicken, the idea of eating tofu hot dogs may not be all that appealing. What if you’re concerned about the environment but still want to eat a burger once in a while? Meat-free eating has expanded into something more flexible and inclusive, giving everyone a chance to choose healthful and sustainable meals without giving up meat entirely. It’s called the “flexitarian” diet.

While 7.3 million Americans are vegetarian, an additional 22.8 million are flexitarian, meaning they primarily eat a vegetarian diet, but enjoy meat occasionally. This part-time vegetarian diet has broader appeal because it helps us balance food cravings with health and global sustainability.

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