Is there a single change to your diet that would have the greatest positive impact on your health? It is reducing the amount of red meat you eat per week and replacing those calories with extra fruits and vegetables.
Although red meat is the principal source of protein in a traditional American diet, research has linked its consumption with an increased risk for cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. By simply eliminating meat from your diet, you can add up to 1.5 years to your life expectancy. Combined with other pieces of a healthy lifestyle you could gain as much as a full 7 years.
But Americans love their steaks and hamburgers. Are there any dietary alternatives to the full, all or nothing, vegetarian diet? Fortunately there is - the flexitarian diet.
A flexitarian diet is also plant based but without a complete rejection of meat and animal products. With four or more meatless meals per week, its approach to meat as an occasional side dish or garnish is much more adaptable to a family's dietary requirements and a busy schedule.
It is estimated that true vegetarians account for 3 percent of the American population, the number of flexitarians could be as high as 40 percent. These include many people who eat mainly vegetarian dishes at home but are happy to eat meat dishes when eating out at restaurants or when they sit down for a meal at the homes of family and friends.
The health advantages are demonstrated by a study showing that following a flexitarian diet for just four weeks decreases the total cholesterol levels of participants by almost 20 points. Other studies show a balanced vegetarian diet also lowers the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and even cancer.
The diet’s flexibility also helps with implementation, letting the “consumer” slowly add plant-based foods while they cut back on red meat. The threshold for a beginner flexitarian generally starts at two meatless days per week (a total of 26 ounces of meat or poultry per week) slowly advancing to the expert level with five or more meatless days a week (9 ounces of meat or poultry per week).
Are there any disadvantages to becoming a flexitarian? A full vegan has to be sensitive to avoiding deficiencies in such micronutrients as vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc. But eating meat just once a week protects the flexitarian from this risk.
Another potential negative factor is that the low fat content of a plant based diet increases the odds of getting hungry between meals. That is easily countered by increasing the use of healthy oils (olive oil) and cheeses in cooking and snacking on nuts (with the added benefit of their healthy oils).
If you decide to embark on the flexitarian journey you will not only be improving your health, but that of your environment. A quarter-pound hamburger (equivalent to slightly less than one meatless day) requires almost seven pounds of grain and forage, 53 gallons of water for drinking and irrigating feed crops, 75 square feet for grazing and growing those feed crops and 1,000 BTUs of fossil fuel energy for feed production, enough to power the average microwave for 18 minutes.
The best news is that you can multiply this benefit by five when you reach the expert level!