Vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, pescetarian, fruitarian. These labels get a bad rap. They're too easily dismissed, unfairly lumbered with preachy connotations and greeted with eye-rolling and mockery. They conjure up ideas of hemp trousers and unwashed hair, or at the very least, that person at a party who bores you with their favourite mung-bean recipe. I'm guilty of some of these preconceptions myself. But what if the non-meat-eaters of the world are the ones who have it sussed? What if we'll all be vegetarians in the future, because we'll have no other choice?
I don't like the word flexitarian. It sounds pretentious and smug; I wouldn't blame anyone for rolling their eyes when they hear it. But for the purposes of description, that's what I have recently become, eating mostly vegetarian or vegan meals with meat, fish and dairy products as occasional treats. My reasons for this are ethical and environmental, and stem from a growing realisation that eating meat every day is unsustainable. That is an inescapable, if often-ignored fact.
The intensively farmed meat industry does so much more harm than good. If we all went without animal products for just a few days each week, it would have an enormously positive impact. On our health: researchers at Oxford University found that 45,000 lives a year would be saved in the UK alone if we reduced our meat intake - 31,000 of those from heart disease, 9,000 from cancer (saving the NHS £1.2billion a year). On animal welfare: more than 60 billion animals are farmed and killed for food every year - many of whom spend their lives suffering horrific cruelty. And on the environment: almost a third of the entire planet is used for livestock and feed production, generating 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. If everyone in the world ate as much meat as those of us in the West, we would need five more planets just to keep us all fed.
In an ideal world, we'd all ban animal products from our diets completely - if you already do that, that's great. I admire the willpower it takes. But if, like me, you want to make more eco-friendly choices or you're feeling guilt about the cruel treatment of animals that are farmed for meat, but you can't bring yourself to promise you'll never again taste your mum's roast chicken? Or every now and then, you crave a juicy steak? Or you just really, really love cheese? Maybe you don't have to impose a blanket ban to make a difference. All it takes is little changes. Quality meat over large quantities of meat. Realising you are allowed to order the veggie option even if you're not a vegetarian. Making veg or grains the focus of most meals, instead of chicken or beef. Joining the growing numbers of flexitarians among us, walking around like regular people.
In 50, even 20 years time, we may well look back and cringe at our once-unquestioning adoption of carnivorous diets. It comes down to simple resources - our planet cannot sustain so many meat eaters. Since when did eating meat at every meal become an ingrained right for so many of us, anyway? Years ago it was considered a treat - it was expensive to rear and buy meat. Now you can get a whole chicken in a supermarket for £2. That chicken was once alive. Because we can buy its carcass for £2, it probably had a horrible life. But do you know what's even cheaper than crappy supermarket meat? Vegetables. And grains. And nuts. And lots of delicious, nutritious food that's great for our health and our wallets.
I've never been one to go cold-turkey (excuse the pun). Cutting something out completely only makes it more desirable. But being a more conscious eater doesn't have to be about strict rules, if you don't want it to be. If you really want meat now and then, have meat, just get it from a reputable source. Supermarkets are for kitchen roll and tins of beans. Chat to your local butcher and ask them to tell you where their meat comes from. Embrace grains (bulgar wheat is cheap, tasty, full of protein and way more sustainable than quinoa) and weird and wonderful vegetables (just braise some celeriac in a little olive oil and tell me you can tell there's no actual cream in it). Maybe you end up being veggie two days a week; maybe flexitarianism acts as a gateway to a full-on vegan diet. Either way, you're making an important difference that will extend far beyond the January detox.