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Going vegetarian offers a heap of benefits to your health and our planet, but it isn’t always easy or convenient. There are the shared meals with friends, the sausage sizzles out the front of the shops and the free canapes at work functions you need to navigate. And then, of course, there’s bacon.
But here’s the thing. You don’t have to give up meat altogether to reap the rewards — instead, you can simply eat less. A ‘flexitarian’ diet aims to reduce the amount of meat you eat but still allows for an occasional sausage or side of bacon. It’s moderate and achievable.
‘With a flexitarian diet, you eat mainly plants but still consume meat on occasion,’ says Dr Sonia Nuttman from Deakin University’s Faculty of Health. ‘It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.’
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a flexitarian is ‘one whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish’. The aim is to focus on plant-based meals rather than not eating the meat served as part of a meat-based meal. Think meals made with tofu, eggs, chickpeas and lentils instead of steak, chops and salmon.
One study suggests flexitarians – or “semi-vegetarians” – eat a vegetarian diet or significantly reduce meat intake at least three days a week.
The term was first coined in 1998 and these days it’s an increasingly popular way to eat. ‘There aren’t any official reports to indicate the number of Australians who are flexitarian, but plant-based diets are definitely on the rise,’ Dr Nuttman says.
In fact, 2019 statistics indicate that around 2.5 million Australians – comprising 12% of the population – are vegetarian or almost vegetarian, up from under 2.2 million in 2014 and 1.7 million in 2012.
First up, the health benefits. A recent review of the literature identified a range of important health benefits associated with a flexitarian diet, including better weight management, lower blood pressure, better metabolic health and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. There’s also evidence that going flexitarian may aid the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease.
Add to that the flurry of international research linking red and processed meats with bowel cancer. As such, the Cancer Council recommends consuming a maximum of 455g per week of red meat and avoiding processed meats like ham and salami — which means going flexitarian makes even more sense.
'With a flexitarian diet, you eat mainly plants but still consume meat on occasion. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition.'
Dr Sonia Nuttman,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University
Then there are the environmental benefits, especially when it comes to red meat. ‘Commercial beef farming is highly damaging for the environment, consuming vast quantities of water and grain to nourish cattle,’ Dr Nuttman says.
What’s more, just like what happens when food waste rots in landfill, cows burp methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. So potent, in fact, that if you add up all of the burping a cow does in its lifetime, a 230kg beef steak is responsible for about a whopping five kilos of greenhouse gas.
While fish and chicken have a much smaller environmental footprint, they still require more energy and resources and release a lot more carbon emissions than most plant-based foods.
Start small and slowly reduce the amount of meat you consume, says Dr Nuttman. ‘Initiatives like Meat Free Monday, which challenges us to incorporate one meat-free day in the week, are a good way to start,’ she says. ‘Then you can cut out meat on another day as you start to adjust.’
Delicious and easy-to-cook vegetarian dishes will also help with the transition. Falafels, stir-fries, pasta bakes, burgers, dumplings and nachos are just some of your favourite dishes that can make the transition with you. ‘There are so many free recipes online and you can borrow books from the library for inspiration,’ Dr Nuttman says.
Even though “fake meats” like pork-free bacon and tofu-based sausages might seem like a great alternative, new research suggests they’re highly processed and high in salt. In other words, not very healthy.
As for the meat you still eat on occasion, Dr Nuttman says organic and biodynamic meats, sustainably sourced fish and purchasing from food cooperatives are better choices for your health and that of the environment.
If possible, choose grass-fed over grain-fed, which uses less resources to produce and contains more nutrients. Plus, it means grains can be used to feed the world’s poor. ‘If you can source meat that is grass-fed it will make a difference for the planet, your health and for social equity,’ Dr Nuttman says.
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