Health Reasons Spur Interest
VRG's research shows that health -- including disease prevention and weight management -- is the leading motivation for the consumption of vegetarian foods. In a 1998 survey of readers of VRG's Vegetarian Journal, 82% reported that they were interested in vegetarianism because of health reasons, versus 75% who were interested because of ethics, concern for the environment, or animal rights.
Anila Nijhawan, RD, a clinical dietitian and certified diabetes instructor at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill., says she has been "totally" flexitarian since she was a 5-year-old child in India. Nijhawan doesn't recall the exact moment she decided not to eat meat anymore, but was told that as a child she accompanied her father to the butcher shop and never touched meat again after that.
Though her preference is to follow a strictly vegetarian diet, Nijhawan began including fish in her diet several years ago for health reasons. Instead of ordering pasta in a restaurant, she'll now order salmon. "If someone said red meat would keep my arteries open, maybe I'd add that too, but for now, it's just fish," Nijhawan says, adding that she does cook chicken for her family and will occasionally make a lamb curry for guests. She recommends limiting meat intake to two to three times per week.
Flexitarianism -- if we can use that as a term -- is part of a trend to rediscover plant-based eating as an option, says William Hart, PhD, associate professor of human nutrition at St. Louis University. "I like the idea," he says.
It may be easier to maintain your current weight on a vegetarian-based diet because the high-fiber content makes you feel fuller more quickly, and that means you might take in fewer calories. Hart nonetheless admits that we're a nation of carnivores. "There's a huge amount of meat -- and good quality meat at that -- available in this country," he says, adding that there's nothing wrong with eating a 4-ounce steak. "Meat represents a lot of nutrients in a compact package," he tells WebMD. "It's the 12- or 16-ounce steaks -- or even larger portions -- that get us into trouble."