Try a Flexitarian Diet for Better Health and a Better Food Budget

Choosing to eat less meat — and eating grass-fed meat when you do — is key to a flexitarian diet, and it will help the environment as well as you and your family.

| June/July 2014

Ten years ago in America, you could eat meat — all 203.2 pounds of it per capita per year — without drawing much attention from your fellow diners. After all, eating meat defined who we were as Americans. As historian Roger Horowitz writes in Putting Meat on the American Table, “Eating meat has been an integral part of the American diet since settlement,” and our daily habit of 6 to 8 ounces of animal protein “has been a defining feature of our society.”

Just a decade ago, vegetarians were outliers and vegans a rare curiosity. The notion of choosing plants over flesh was often the signature of coastal health nuts and the spiritually inclined — not Middle America. From 2004 to 2007, per capita meat consumption (beef, lamb, pork and poultry) remained steady at well above 200 pounds per year. A “flexitarian” diet wasn’t yet in our lexicon. (The word was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2012.)

And then a recession happened on the way to the dinner table. In 2008, Americans ate less than 200 pounds of meat annually for the first time in seven years. Although steadily waning since the 1980s, per capita consumption of the quintessential American meat — beef — dropped to a 50-year low, to 62.1 pounds. By 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported per capita meat consumption was down to 186.6 pounds.

Still, the economy is not the sole reason behind the challenge to the meat-y status quo. The past five years have witnessed a collective shift in perception and attitudes about meat for sundry reasons, including concerns about animal welfare, food safety, personal health and environmental impact. Some celebrities — Bill Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres and Mike Tyson among them — have publicly given up meat. Vegetarians and vegans have “come out” (how Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan described his dietary shift) and are a slowly growing demographic. According to the results of a 2012 Gallup poll, 5 percent of those surveyed described themselves as vegetarian. For the first time, Gallup asked respondents whether they considered themselves vegan. Two percent did.

A 2012 NPR-Truven Health Analytics poll showed 56 percent of respondents said they eat meat no more than one to four times per week — a striking shift from the American tradition of meat three times a day, seven days a week.

We’re hardly breaking up with meat — at the current rate, we’re still eating 8 ounces a day, substantially more than the American Heart Association’s recommended 3 to 6 ounces of daily lean meat consumption per day. But bite by bite, our appetite for meat is tapering off.

7/9/2014 6:38:15 AM

Everything old is new again. The Flexitarian diet is essentially the one Thomas Jefferson followed. He used meat as a flavoring or a side dish, not as the main course.

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