By Michele Wojciechowski
Beef, chicken, pork…we love to load up on all that stuff. In fact, the average American eats more than 200 pounds of meat per year, more than three times the global average, according to Brian Kateman of the Reducetarian Foundation https://www.reducetarian.org/ and editor of The Reducetarian Solution: How the Surprisingly Simple Act of Reducing the Amount of Meat in Your Diet Can Transform Your Health and the Planet (TarcherPerigee).
“Conventional animal agriculture accounts for 87% of the water consumed annually in the US, with meat production using a large portion of this number,” says Kateman. “It takes nearly 400 gallons of water to produce 1 kilogram of beef, making its water footprint 20 times larger than that of plant-based foods.”
Water usage is only part of the problem. “Producing a kilogram of protein from kidney beans required approximately 18 times less land, 10 times less water, nine times less fuel, 12 times less fertilizer and 10 times less pesticide in comparison to producing the same amount of protein from beef,” says Kristie Middleton, senior food policy director for The Humane Society of the United States and author of Meat-Less: Transform the Way You Eat and Live—One Meal at a Time (Da Capo). She adds, “Pork and chicken may have smaller footprints than beef, but they’re still larger than most plant-based foods.”
Not surprisingly, plant-based foods have the lowest carbon footprint. “It makes sense since plants are able to be eaten in their natural state and require less input or processing than animal products,” notes Middleton.
Eating animals doesn’t do you any favors, either. “Meat consumption is associated with weight gain,” Middleton says. “In contrast, plant foods tend to be lower in fat and calories and higher in fiber, which is associated with a lower body mass index (BMI, a measure of obesity).”
Not on the vegan bandwagon yet? Take heart: Just reducing, as opposed to eliminating, the amount of animal-based foods you eat can improve the planet’s prospects as well as your own well-being.
Kateman says that a reducetarian—a word he coined—is someone who is deliberately and mindfully eating less meat (including red meat, poultry and seafood) while also consuming less dairy and fewer eggs, regardless of the degree of reduction or motivation for cutting back.
“They play around with Meatless Mondays, veggie-heavy lunches, smaller protein portions, vegetarianism and veganism to see what works best for them,” he says. Reducetarians include vegans (who eat no animal products), vegetarians (no meat), flexitarian or mostly vegetarian (a small amount of meat), semi-vegetarian (some meat) and anyone else who reduces the number of animal foods in their diets.
Here are some simple steps to becoming a certified reducetarian.
Set Goals for Meat Reduction
For example, start by not eating meat for lunch if you’re having it for dinner or only eat meat on the weekends. The key is to stick with foods you already love—just swap out the meat.
“Choose a veggie burrito instead of a chicken burrito or vegetable curry instead of lamb curry. When you have a craving for a specific meaty meal, put a spin on a plant-based version of it—like cauliflower wings instead of buffalo wings,” suggests Kateman. “And remember—guacamole and margaritas are vegan.”
Check Out Options
Middleton recommends picking up cookbooks with plant-based recipes and checking out like-minded blogs to find and try new dishes. Also, try different restaurants; Middleton says Indian and Thai restaurants have lots of great-tasting plant-based options such as tofu and vegetable curry or spicy peanut noodles.
“The key is to do what feels right for you at your own pace, which will make it more sustainable,” Middleton notes. “Every meat meal you replace with a plant-based meal adds up to make a difference.”
While change can be tough, Middleton says, it can be more fun—and you’re more likely to succeed—if you have the support of friends and family. Perhaps you can even get someone to join you!
“Make a Meatless Monday pact or commit to eating vegan whenever you’re together. This will increase your likelihood of success, plus your impact will be increased by the friends joining you on the journey,” Middleton advises.
Advantages of Eating More Plants
Eating less meat might take some getting used to, but it can pay at least two sweet dividends:
Living Better and Longer: “With less meat and more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and plant-based proteins such as beans and lentils, reducetarians live longer, healthier and happier lives,” claims Kateman. He cites the work of Michael Orlich, MD, of California’s Loma Linda University; Orlich found that among nearly 74,000 Seventh-Day Adventists—whose religion encourages but does not demand, vegetarianism—those eating less meat had a 15% lower risk of death compared with typical omnivores. “In fact, eating few animal products and more whole, plant-based foods is one of the lifestyle habits that unites the people living to 100 and beyond,” says Kateman. “Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that enjoying a plant-based diet could add as many as four years to your life!”
Living More Cheaply: Many Millennials are choosing to eat more plant-based foods simply to save money, says Kateman. “One study found that vegetarians save on average $750 per year on their grocery bills in comparison to typical omnivores. At restaurants—from high-end to fast food chains—plant-based dishes are the least expensive.”
Two Reducetarians Explain Their Choices
Chelsea Allen, 25, of Atlanta, and Megan Kurtik, 26, of Baltimore, have both eliminated meat from their diets except on certain occasions, like holidays, or when it’s the only option available.
Allen says she began reducing meat in her diet in 2014. “I was halfway through earning my degree in environmental studies, which eventually exposed me to enough overwhelming evidence that human consumption of meat was negatively impacting the environment that I had to quit. Reducing my carbon footprint was the main reason I quit, alongside the horrors of factory farming as the American industry,” she explains.
Allen took it slow by cooking new recipes and eating less meat each week until she quit eating it entirely. “Eating out is less of a problem in a big city like Atlanta, where restaurant choices are endless, and any place is bound to have vegetarian options,” she notes.
However, Allen did have problems with her family, who would ask how she would get her protein and even bought meat dishes and tried to get her to eat them. After she refused to eat meat for a few visits, she says they gave up.
Kurtik stopped eating meat for the same reasons as Allen.
“It wasn’t really difficult, as it was a decision I feel strongly about. I understand that some go meatless as a fad or diet, but it meant more to be a part of something greater than that. I wanted to give more to the earth than take. I think that’s important,” she says, adding that the benefits include seeing her skin become clearer since she went meatless.
“I enjoy life and knowing that my life isn’t negatively impacting others,” Kurtik says. “We all have a right to this earth.”