As we welcome February with open arms, thousands of people across the UK will also be waving goodbye to Veganuary and a month of sticking to a plant-based diet. If Veganuary has inspired you to quit meat for good, more power to you. But if you aren’t ready to go cold turkey just yet (pun intended), cutting down on meat could also be beneficial.
Switching to a flexitarian diet means committing to only eating meat occasionally, such as at the weekend. If that’s a step too far for you, you could alternatively pledge to take part in Meat Free Mondays throughout 2018.
London-based writer Katie Teehan decided to try flexitarianism a year ago and now sticks to a vegetarian diet on weekdays, eating fish just once per week and meat when the mood takes her.
“I decided to drastically cut down on my meat intake for a mixture of ethical, environmental and health reasons,” Katie tells HuffPost UK. “It’s made me a lot more adventurous in what I cook. I find Asian food like curries, ramen and stir fries are super easy to make without meat - it doesn’t feel like you’re ‘swapping’ meat for veg.”
Not only does this new diet make her think outside the box, but makes her healthier, too. “The biggest upside is I’m easily getting more than my five-a-day now, I probably hit eight or 10 most days. I still have meat if I’m really craving it, but most of the time I really don’t miss it,” she says.
In 2015, the consumption of certain meat was widely linked to cancer risk after the World Health Organisation classed processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans”, adding red meat is “probably” carcinogenic, with associations mainly with bowel cancer. However, nutrition consultant Charlotte Stirling-Reed says it’s important to put this into perspective.
“Eating too much in the way of red and processed meat could increase your risk of getting cancer. However, it doesn’t mean that you will get cancer if you eat these or that having a bacon sandwich is the end of the world. It’s simply suggesting that these foods should be eaten in moderation, especially processed meat,” she tells HuffPost UK.
But cutting down on meat can have a beneficial impact on your health longterm. It stands to reason that if you’re a high meat eater and you’re replacing meat with alternatives in the diet, you may be increasing other beneficial foods such as vegetables, plant-based proteins and whole-grains.
“This is likely to have an impact on fibre intakes and may lead to improvements in digestive health, depending on what your diet was like before,” Charlotte says.
Having a more varied diet could not only boost your energy, but also boost your bank balance, according to Dominika Piasecka from the Vegan Society.
“The vast majority of people in the world have access to an abundance of food, it’s just the case of making the choice between animal and plant-based products. Meat, dairy and eggs are some of the most expensive products on the market, while staples like rice, vegetables and beans fall into the more affordable category,” she tells HuffPost UK. “A bit of planning before shopping, avoiding ready-made and processed foods, and taking control of your spending habits can go a long way in ensuring you don’t overspend on food.”
Since cutting down on meat and saving money, Katie says she’s been able to improve the quality of animal products she’s consuming. She now buys fish from a local organic market and has turned her back on cheap supermarket meat, visiting her local butcher instead. “It’s affordable when you only buy it every now and then,” she says.
Adisa Azapagic, professor of sustainable chemical engineering at The University Manchester, says cutting down on meat can also be beneficial to the environment.
“Red meat, such as beef and lamb, has high carbon footprint because cows and sheep burp methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas, contributing to global warming and climate change,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Therefore, cutting down on beef and lamb can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and related climate change impacts.”
If you are going to eat meat, she recommends eating poultry, which has the lowest carbon footprint of all meats. Although she says cutting down on the amount of meat altogether will also benefit the environment.
Professor Azapagic has also created the handy graphic below which enables you to see how different food types compare when it comes to their carbon footprint, so you can make informed decisions about your choices. It shows how many kilograms of CO2 emissions are generated per kilogram of food.
If you’re thinking of cutting down on the amount of meat you consume, Charlotte says it’s important to consider how you are going to replace the nutrients in your diet that meat provides.
“If you don’t do this and cut meat out without considering where you’re going to get your iron, zinc, B vitamins and protein from, then you could end up deficient,” she says. “This means adding in foods such as dairy, lentils, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, nut butters and meat alternatives such as soy, Quorn and tofu.”
Making the switch is a decision Katie hasn’t looked back on. “I think being flexitarian rather than 100% vegetarian or vegan is easier to do psychologically,” she says. “I’m not banning anything, I know I can have it if I want, but more often than not I’m happy without.”