Vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian – all limit meat consumption, but what exactly is the difference between these diets? And do we need all of them? While the trend to reduce meat consumption is gaining in popularity, thanks to initiatives such as “meat-free Mondays” and alternative diets becoming more widespread, per capita meat consumption in Western Europe has been increasing in the last years. European agriculture is drifting towards a destructive model, with more than 70% of EU farmland being used to produce food for livestock, according to Greenpeace. Reducing our meat consumption can have positive effects not just for our planet, but also for our health and wellbeing.
If you love a juicy cheeseburger, you may wonder why anyone would choose to go meat-free. Some of the reasons include, but are not limited to:
- Numerous health benefits of a plant-based diet (reversing the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers)
- The environmental impacts of factory farming
- Animal-rights advocacy
- The high cost of a meat-based diet
Learn about the differences between the various plant-based diets, so you don’t accidentally and embarrassingly offer a vegan a buttery pastry with cheese instead of steak because they “don’t eat meat”.
A vegetarian is someone who refrains from eating all types of meat, whether it be poultry, red meat or fish. This may also include abstention of by-products of animals processed for food. There are several sub-types of vegetarians:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: eliminates meat, fish and poultry but allows eggs and dairy products.
- Lacto-vegetarian: eliminates meat, fish, poultry and eggs but allows dairy products.
- Ovo-vegetarian: eliminates meat, fish, poultry and dairy products but allows eggs.
The vegetarian diet is the most common one that avoids meat products.
A vegan diet eliminates meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products, as well as other animal-derived products, such as honey (though this one is somewhat controversial). Vegans also avoid products containing rennet, gelatine, collagen and other types of animal proteins as well as stocks and fats derived from animals.
Veganism also goes further than just dietary choices. Strict vegans avoid any products that involve the use of animals. These include leather goods, wool, silk, beeswax, cosmetics tested on animals, latex products that contain casein (a protein derived from milk), and certain soaps and candles derived from animal fats.
A flexitarian diet is probably best defined as a part-time vegetarian. People on a flexitarian diet eat mostly vegetarian but occasionally also eat meat, which can include fish, poultry or red meat. If a flexitarian does decide to consume meat, they will oftentimes choose free-range, organic or grass-fed animal products. The definition of a flexitarian diet is somewhat problematic because “occasional” animal food consumption could mean once a month, once a week or more, but the main premise is the reduction of animal products. The flexitarian diet is the most flexible of diets (that’s where the name comes from) and you get the best of both worlds if you are not ready to make a full commitment to one diet. There are also no hard rules about what you’re allowed to eat and what you can’t, which some people feel more comfortable with as it doesn’t put them in a box.
MOVING AWAY FROM MEAT
It is important to remember that just because you’re vegan or vegetarian doesn’t automatically mean that you eat a “healthy” diet. In fact, one of the most important aspects of any diet is for it to be balanced. Replacing meat with high-carbohydrate foods or high-sugar foods won’t provide you with the health benefits of a meat-free lifestyle. If you’re interested in starting to eat less meat, here are some easy ways on how to do it:
- Prioritise fresh and colourful fruits and vegetables. Add some fruits or veggies to your breakfast and load up on the vegetables for your lunch and dinner. Don’t forget that fruits and veggies make for great snacks too that are quick to prepare and easy to carry with you.
- Focus on the foods you’re adding, instead of what you’re avoiding. A simple mental shift can help us view our new choices as more including and less limiting. Think of all the foods that you are probably not eating enough of. These may include beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. They are great ways to get protein and are filling too. Try some chili sin carne, or homemade hummus instead of meat or ham.
- Don’t forget the grains. Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice or amaranth pack a lot of nutrients and help keep your blood sugar stable.
- Consider meat a side, rather than the main part of the meal. Keep meal portions small and let the plant-based food be the star on your plate.
Reducing meat consumption has many benefits, and you don’t necessarily need to go for an all-or-nothing approach to reap these benefits. Making small steps towards a more plant-based diet might be a better strategy than going cold-turkey if you’re not sure you can keep up with it. Think of your food choices as plant-forward and go from there.