Becoming Flexitarian: 3 Tips for Eating Less Meat

Jul. 21, 2016

Vegetables on forksEating a plant-based diet has many advantages, including reducing your risk for certain types of cancer. While some people choose to go completely vegetarian or vegan, you don’t have to eliminate all meat from your diet to reap some of these benefits. Occasional animal products are OK, and this idea has helped feed a trend: being flexitarian.

While this term is loosely defined and individual interpretations of it vary, the idea behind it is to focus more on plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and less on meat. Wilmot Cancer Institute’s registered dietitians, Joanna Lipp and Sue Czap, share three tips for adopting a flexitarian diet.

Find the best approach for you.

One commonly used option is having “Meatless Mondays,” where you take out meat from your diet for one whole day per week. If this sounds too challenging, another option is to simply eat less meat on a regular basis, by having smaller portions of meat each day. The MyPlate website explains this concept and, in general, recommends no more than one-quarter of your plate be filled with animal proteins.

It’s important to remember, though, that extremes from day to day are not ideal. Going vegan one day and meat-only the next day likely won’t help reduce your overall meat consumption. Consistency matters and, when it comes to health and cancer risk reduction, the idea is to eat more plant-based foods than meat on a regular basis, over the long term.

When you eat foods from animal protein sources, choose those that are high quality.

Some animal proteins tend to be better than plants at providing long-chain omega-3s, which can be found in cold-water fish like salmon, trout and sardines. Vitamin B12 is another important nutrient that’s harder to find in plants but readily be found in meat, fish and eggs. If you’re going flexitarian, keep these items in your diet.

Be cautious of processed vegetarian products now widely available in grocery stores. 

The number of vegan or vegetarian processed foods offered in grocery stores has soared in recent years. You can find tofu hot dogs, soy nuggets and even vegan “cheese,” but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea to eat these foods in large quantities. While meat-free, they lack the variety a plant-based diet needs and also tend to have fewer important nutrients found in whole foods.

Instead of processed vegetarian or vegan items, try getting back to basics by using dry or canned beans, minimally processed grains (such as quinoa, farro, and barley) and, of course, plenty of colorful vegetables and some fruits to make your own entrees, side dishes and salads.

For guidance, cancer survivors, patients and caregivers are invited to join us for our Cooking for Wellness class at Gilda’s Club once a month. You can also find the class’s recipes on our Cooking for Wellness blog.