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Can America Go Vegetarian, or Are We Addicted to Meat?

Omnivores like to argue that a meal without meat doesn’t feel like a meal, but the vegetarian lifestyle is growing in popularity—maybe with good reason. Veggie restaurants are on the rise, and tasty protein-alternatives are readily available in local grocery stores. A diet full of plants, fruits, and grains and low in animal fat can go a long way toward maintaining a healthy weight and enviable cholesterol levels. And research increasingly suggests that vegetarianism might not only be good for your body—it’s also good for the environment.

So what’s a meat-lover to do? If you are not ready to completely forgo your steak tips, some nutritionists suggest a healthy alternative is to go vegetarian—with a side of meat.

Vegetarians themselves come in several varieties, from vegans who eat no animal products at all, to ovo-vegetarians, who eat dairy and eggs, to others who split the difference. The choices are often not only based on health concerns, but also involve moral and ethical beliefs. The odds an adult is a vegetarian of some kind are 1 in 31.36. Far fewer people—1 in 229—report being vegan.

While vegans and vegetarians need to be sure to get enough protein and essential nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium, their diets have possible advantages. Plant-based meals, which tend to be low in saturated fat and cholesterol, are associated with lower blood pressure and overall cholesterol rates. And veggie-only eaters might be at less risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancers.

Vegetarianism has advantages for the planet, too, because plant-based diets tend to require less land and energy for production than those with a hefty portion of meat. But there might be some good news for die-hard carnivores who want to be environmentally conscious, while still allowing themselves the occasional cheeseburger. Other research shows that a diet based largely on plants, but with a small amount of meat and dairy, might in fact be the most energy—and land—efficient of all. That’s because fruits and vegetables require high-quality land for production, while animals can live on lower quality, more readily available land. Therefore, while a fully vegetarian diet is still better for the planet than a heavily carnivorous one, there is a happy medium.

This is good news for the growing population of “part-time vegetarians.” Also known as “ flexitarians,” these diners eat mostly plant-based meals, but indulge in a bit of meat here and there.

Food writer Mark Bittman, who is not a vegetarian, argues for “flexitarianism,” because, as he points out, given the environmental costs, the amount of meat consumed in the current average American diet isn’t sustainable in the long term. Bittman, like many Americans, feels that a zero-tolerance meat policy just isn’t realistic for him personally, but he’s learned to compromise, using a diet he calls “vegan before 6:00 p.m.”

So for those who want to cut down on meat, but who feel that soy milk in your morning coffee just doesn’t cut it, there’s no need to despair. A willingness to cut down on your weekly burger-intake may well have lasting benefits, for both your body and your planet.

Originally published on Book of Odds