Let’s Meat Halfway

Can the flexitarian diet save your waistline—and the planet?

Daniel Jones eats a small steak every six to eight weeks. He enjoys seafood when he’s on the coast. Recently, it was clam chowder in New Hampshire.

But mostly, he consumes what he calls a plant-based diet.

To be honest, Jones has it a little easier than the rest of us. He works at his family’s longtime restaurant, the Fort Collins health food institution known as Rainbow Restaurant, with its sunny patio and its persistent use of tofu and tempeh.

“I work full time, and I eat breakfast and lunch there each day I work,” he says. “And I often take home a meal for dinner.”

Passionate about the restaurant and the lifestyle it promotes, Jones has become a flexitarian without really trying. He hadn’t heard the term until recently, but says it perfectly defines his eating habits: a mostly vegetarian diet with occasional carnivorous splurges.

“When I looked it up, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what I am,’” he says. “I just find that it’s a nice way to balance your diet. If you are more mindful on a regular basis, it’s good to occasionally indulge and eat whatever is in front of you.”

Research shows that more and more Americans are adopting a flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diet. These regimens bestow on eaters countless health benefits while providing them the flexibility to down a burger every now and then. Studies have shown that a flexitarian diet can help with weight loss, metabolic health, improved blood pressure and cholesterol and diabetes prevention.

Beyond the health implications, consuming less meat has also become an environmental practice, just like switching to LEDs or buying hybrid cars. That’s because meat production takes unsustainable amounts of water, land and energy; livestock alone contributes 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. One study even asserted that adopting a flexitarian diet on a mass level can reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70 percent and decrease global mortality by up to 10 percent.

“In today’s society and environment, it’s something we all need to be aware of,” Jones says of the environmental benefits of vegetarianism. “I’m not saying everyone should totally give up meat. Some people do advocate that. I’m saying it’s something we should be increasingly thinking about.”

And more people are thinking about how they can support the global good, become healthier and still get the added benefit of wings or carnitas every so often. About 7 million Americans are vegetarian while nearly 23 million consider themselves flexitarian. And when these semi-vegetarians eat meat, they are increasingly searching out organic, free-range, hormone- and antibiotic-free options.

However, having a small steak every two months may be too restrictive for some people used to eating meat daily. The glorious thing about a flexitarian diet is that it’s, well, flexible. Renowned foodie Mark Bittman’s latest book, VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health… for Good, is one way to introduce your household to a more plant-based diet. You eat a vegan diet until 6 p.m., and then you eat a normal, omnivore dinner with all good things in moderation.

Or simply start observing Meatless Mondays, a movement that’s become a classic in school cafeterias everywhere.

The point is if people love fried chicken, burgers and pepperoni-spotted pizzas, they don’t have to completely abandon them to get the health and environmental benefits of vegetarianism. And let’s be honest, it’s not always practical or appealing to be a full-time vegan.

Jones gets this. Growing up in his childhood home, both the household and the restaurant were vegetarian.

“But as an adult, it morphed,” he says. “When I went to college, it was really hard to be a vegetarian. The things they were doing with tofu, you didn’t want to eat it. So I started eating whatever. These days, I eat a really balanced diet. It’s just a nice way to live.”

The restaurant has transitioned too. More than 20 years ago, it began serving meat. Today, the menu has a smattering of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.

But when the average American is expected to eat 220 pounds of red meat and chicken this year, it may be time to rethink how much meat is enough meat.

“We are very focused on a plant-based diet and ingredients and recipes, but there is room for everything in moderation,” he says.

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