According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, vegetarians have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and asthma. While simple recipes abound for tasty meatless fare, vegetarianism is a leap that many aren’t prepared to take. But you can still have many of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet without trading your turkey for Tofurkey by trying "flexitarianism" on for size. Flexitarians, or semi-vegetarians, are "sometimes" vegetarians, meaning people who reduce some of their meat consumption and fill the gap with other plant-based food groups—eating a mostly vegetarian diet, yet remaining flexible.
Although the name is new, the idea is not. In fact, a few generations ago, meat was most often eaten in side-dish portions, while other food groups took center stage. Beans, vegetables and grains supplied the bulk of a meal, while the meat supplied the flavor. This might sound backward, but many nutrition experts agree that our health would benefit if we took this "old-fashioned" approach to eating.
Eating less meat and more grains, beans, fruits and veggies means you’ll be consuming fewer calories, less saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher amounts of vitamins, minerals and fiber. And that adds up to a lot of health benefits. On average, people who eat less meat are leaner, less apt to weight gain than people who eat the most meat, less prone to cancer, especially colorectal cancer, and suffer from fewer heart problems.
Another benefit is that you’ll save money, as meat costs more per pound than most foods.
Committing to a 100 percent vegetarian diet isn’t necessary to achieve the health benefits that vegetarians enjoy. There aren’t specific guidelines for exactly how much meat to cut out to achieve these benefits, but cutting back even slightly is a positive change. A national health campaign known as Meatless Monday promotes cutting out meat one day each week, but you could try meatless lunches during the week for the same effect.
Now, replacing a sirloin steak with a can of pinto beans might not appeal to you. But how does roasted tomato-eggplant ratatouille with rice, or spicy black bean chili and cheesy cornbread sound? There are many meals like these that taste so good you won’t even think to ask "where’s the beef?" Eggplant parmesan, pasta salad, bean burritos and vegetable fajitas are some good examples. Admittedly, a flexitarian diet will call on your creativity. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Stock up on vegetarian cookbooks. Some good ones to try include Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison and The New Moosewood Cookbook, by Molly Katzen. These and many other titles are available at your local library, so you can check them out before you commit.
- If you’re cooking at home, make your main course meatless and serve meat on the side. You could have vegetarian lasagna and a salad topped with cubed chicken, roasted eggplant and zucchini sandwiches with antipasto, or spinach frittata and a side of organic sausage.
- Pick a meatless day each week. Or go vegetarian during the week and omnivore on the weekends. This will give your body a break from processing all that cholesterol and saturated fat, and balance your overall caloric and fat intake.
- Try some meat substitutes. Most vegetarians enjoy cold cuts as much as anyone, but theirs are made from soy, and are lower in fat and cholesterol-free.
- When dining out, scour the menu for vegetarian options—restaurants usually offer at least one. If not, choose an entrée that is served with veggies and grains—like pasta or stir-fry.
- Fill up in the garden. Imagine your dinner plate is divided in quarters. Fill two quarters with veggies, one quarter with grains and the last quarter with meat.
- Eat your veggies first. Along with vitamins, they’re also loaded with fiber, which will begin to satiate you before you dig into the meat.
- Bank your meals for the future. If you go to a restaurant and order a steak, order a take-away container along with it. Cut off a section about the size of a deck of playing cards, and that’s your dinner. The rest will make a great lunch tomorrow and maybe even more—all for the price of one meal.
- Skimp on cheese. There is a common pitfall for anyone attempting a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet—substituting one saturated fat (meat) for another (cheese). Remember that cheese is high in saturated fat too, and can contribute to health problems if over-consumed. Rely on vegetables and whole grains to fill in the gap instead.
- Check out MeatlessMonday for more ideas and recipes.