Photograph by Taylor Kennedy-Sitka Pro, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Waiter, the burger seems to be missing from my platter.
Photograph by Taylor Kennedy-Sitka Pro, Nat Geo Image Collection
The Plate

To Really Reduce Meat in Your Diet, Don’t Go Cold Turkey

There are, most of us agree, excellent reasons for committing to a meatless diet. For one thing, our passion for meat has a negative impact on the environment. Of the 40 percent of the earth’s surface used for agriculture, a whopping third is used just to grow animal (not people) food. In the United States, studies show, raising livestock accounts for 55 percent of land erosion, 37 percent of pesticide use, and 50 percent of antibiotic consumption. Globally, livestock are responsible for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—flatulent cows are doing the atmosphere no good—and food animals, collectively, slurp up about a third of the world’s fresh water.

Since many food animals are raised in wretched conditions on factory farms, meat-eating forces us to contend with the moral issue of animal cruelty. (See Ethical Eating.) And, on a purely personal level, there’s the issue of our own health and well-being. A wealth of medical evidence shows that people whose diets are low in saturated fats—as found in meat and high-fat dairy products—and high in fruits and vegetables tend to lead healthier, longer lives.

So why aren’t we all vegetarians? Adopting and sticking to a vegetarian lifestyle is much easier said than done. Polls show that just 2 to 3 percent of Americans are vegetarian or vegan, and indications are that even for these, an all-veggie lifestyle is often a short-lived fling. Over half of vegetarians and vegans, one study found, fell off the vegetable wagon within the first year, and 84 percent ultimately went back to eating meat. (See When Vegetarianism Went Mainstream.)

For those in the throes of vegetarian or vegan New Year’s resolutions, however, there’s no need for despair. Brian Kateman and Tyler Alterman, co-founders of the reducetarian movement, argue that rather than a draconian attempt to cut out meat altogether, most people may find it easier and more congenial to simply eat a little less of it.

The run-of-the-mill American eats 270 pounds of meat a year—including some 50 billion annual hamburgers—for an average of three per person per week. It’s a challenge for such habitual meat-eaters to drop their burgers cold in favor of broccoli, but the good news is that reducetarians don’t have to. While the ideal is to eat as little meat as possible, even cutting back by a limited amount confers health and environmental benefits. In other words, reducetarians (Kateman and Alterman invented the word) attempt to reduce the overall amount of meat in their diets, but don’t beat themselves up over the occasional T-bone steak or chicken salad sandwich. “We want to encourage people to do what they can and to live comfortably with their food choices,” Kateman says. “And even small steps help.”

For those who like a little structure to new food endeavors, the reducetarian website suggests a number of strategies for cutting back on meat. Novice reducetarians might try eliminating meat from their diets for just one day a week. For example, commit to a Meatless Monday (see Make Meatless Monday about Inspiration, Not Deprivation), or adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet during the week, but save the weekend for stuffed pork chops and beef bourguignon. Or try simply reducing the amount of meat in family recipes. Halve the meat content, for example, in your favorite chili or spaghetti sauce.

Kateman also refers would-be reducetarians to Mark Bittman’s VB6: Eat Vegan Before Six, which recommends plant-based meals for breakfast and lunch, followed by whatever floats your boat for dinner (provided you lay off processed foods and excess sugar); and to Matthew Glover and Jane Land’s Veganuary, in which participants pledge to get their feet wet by following a vegan diet for one month, in January. (See here for 31 yummy vegan recipes, one for each day of Veganuary.)

Kateman himself is a dedicated reducetarian. (See his TEDx talk.) “I started out by eating a few meat meals each week. Now I’m down to one or two. My energy levels are higher, and I’ve tried a lot of foods that I hadn’t encountered previously. It’s a great experience personally. And, on a broader scale, I believe that reducetarianism can contribute to reducing our carbon and water footprints and enhancing biodiversity.”

Reducetarianism. Might not be a bad pick for 2016’s Word of the Year.