Brian Kateman, like many once-vegetarians, wasn’t perfect. But he wasn’t trying to be. One Thanksgiving during his college years, Kateman recalls reaching for a piece of turkey, which he permitted himself because of the special occasion. His older sister, predictably, started making fun of him.
“In that moment I tried to explain that it wasn’t about being perfect, it wasn’t about purity,” Kateman said. In his view, the more compassionate meals he could eat, the better—but a few pieces of turkey weren’t going to make or break his activism.
Regardless of philosophy and intent, being a vegetarian who sometimes eats meat leaves one open to ridicule. After another, similar incident involving a hangover, an iHOP, and some bacon, Kateman realized the term “vegetarian” just didn’t suit him. But that didn’t mean he wanted to eat a lot of meat, or that he wasn’t invested in the environmental and animal rights issues that prompted him to go vegetarian in the first place.
And so Kateman, along with his friend and fellow environmentally-concerned citizen Tyler Altermann, came up with the term “reducetarian” in the summer of 2014. Less than three years later, they’ve laid the groundwork for what they hope is a movement: they’ve founded a nonprofit organization called the Reducetarian Foundation, they have a summit planned this spring to gather environmental, animal, and health advocates in conversation, and they had a book—The Reducetarian Solution—published last month.
A collection of essays by scholars, scientists, and lifestyle writers ranging from animal rights theorist Peter Singer to comedian Myq Kaplan, the book covers practically every aspect of meat imaginable, from its modern and anthropological history, to its effects on microbes in the human gut, to numerous tactics for eating less of it, along with vegetarian and low-meat recipes. Kateman’s hope is to include those who may feel alienated by a call to “go vegetarian” (or vegan) but are still interested in eating in a way that better serves the environment, animals, and their own health. “When we lead with an all-or-nothing pitch, there are a lot of people who throw their hands up and say they’re going to do absolutely nothing,” he told Gizmodo.
Reducetarianism is, basically, vegetarianism-lite. But is the simply reducing one’s meat consumption enough, as Kateman’s new book boldly declares, to “transform your health and the planet?”
There’s no shortage of evidence that consuming too much meat is bad for humans and the environment. There are concerns about the carcinogenic properties of processed meats, and the saturated fat and cholesterol in animal products increasing your risk for heart disease. Then there’s the fact that animal agriculture is responsible for an estimated 18% of all climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions. And of course, the industrial-scale production of meat, eggs, and dairy leads to the suffering of billions of animals a year, many of which live in extreme confinement and are subject to deeply inhumane practices.
But meat-eating (and egg- and dairy-eating, for that matter) is a timeworn tradition, and calls to abandon animal products en masse clearly haven’t won over the majority of Americans.
That’s why reducetarians are taking a more moderate approach, inviting people of all dietary habits to progressively cut their animal product consumption relative to their own diet. Kateman, who considers vegetarians and vegans to be reducetarians as well, says he is “actively on a mission to get vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians, as well as environmentalists and health advocates and animal advocates to realize that they’re all on the same team.”
Indeed, infighting between the groups Kateman mentions is both real and, arguably, counterproductive. Criticizing a mostly-vegetarian person for eating bacon once, while ignoring the average American, who eats nearly 300 pounds of meat per year, won’t make the biggest impact, he says.
Michelle McMacken, MD, an attending physician at NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue and director of the Bellevue Adult Weight Management Clinic, advocates for a plant-based diet. But for her, reducetarianism also has merit, because “health-wise, people do benefit from any movement they make away from a diet heavy in animal products towards one that favors plants, and they tend to benefit in proportion to how much they change.”
McMacken advises serious reducetarians to make concrete resolutions, “such as eating meat only once a day instead of twice, or switching from dairy to nondairy milk—rather than just generally aspiring to eat fewer animal products.”
“But,” she added, “we also know that a fully or nearly 100% plant-based diet is the only diet that has ever been shown to actually reverse heart disease, the number one killer of Americans.”
Dr. Nisha Jhalani, a cardiologist at New York Presbyterian-Columbia University Medical Center and Director of the Women’s Heart Health Initiative at the Cardiovascular Research Foundation, acknowledges the heart-healthy merits of a meat-free diet, but doesn’t encourage full vegetarianism or veganism as fervently as McMacken.
“What’s more important [than cutting meat out completely] from a cardiovascular perspective is an overall healthy lifestyle, something that can be maintained long term,” Jhalani told Gizmodo.
Regardless of whether cutting down on burgers will save your life or improve your health, not many more generations are going to need a Lipitor prescription if the planet keeps warming at the rate that it is. Given that animal agriculture is a leading source of greenhouse gas production, generating 65% our nitrous oxide, 37% of our methane, and 64% of our ammonia emissions, all of which contribute to global warming at higher rates than CO2, meat seems like a good place to start making changes.
But could simply cutting back on the ham sandwiches really make a difference to our fast-warming planet?
The 2014 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which called for a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, stated that dietary changes could have a substantial role in reducing emissions. And while the think tank Chatham House affirmed that reducing meat consumption was necessary to curb the effects of climate change in their own report later that year, the study did not claim that all meat eating needs to cease in order to limit warming to the internationally agreed-upon target of 2 degrees Celsius.
But the occasional Meatless Monday probably won’t put us within that margin, either. Oxford researchers last year estimated that the World Health Organization’s dietary guidelines (which do not put a specific cap on meat intake), if followed universally, would make an impact but still not keep greenhouse gas emissions low enough to avoid a significant rise in global temperatures. That said, even the study’s lead author, Dr. Marco Springmann, can appreciate that some change is better than none.
“Livestock is responsible for the majority of all food-related emissions, so any move towards more sustainable and well-balanced plant-based diets is a step into the right direction,” Springmann told Gizmodo via email.
In a perfect world, people would learn how their dietary habits are harmful, and they’d change their behavior. But meat-eating persists. “Most people don’t choose foods based on ethics or environmental issues, they choose food primarily based on convenience, and taste, and to some degree on social norms,” Kateman said. Even when people want to eat ethically, the difficulty or impracticality of doing so can be a major barrier.
One of the ways the Reducetarian Foundation is targeting this issue is by promoting non-meat and cultured (lab-grown) meat alternatives, both of which are discussed in the book, in hopes that these options become more convenient, affordable, and viable in the future. Lab-grown meat, of course, is still years from hitting grocery store shelves, although we’ve come a long way from the first $330,000 stem-cell burger several years back. And other, more realistic meat substitutes are now beginning to creep into the consumer market, like the much-hyped Impossible Burger. Kateman’s hope is that widening non-meat options, along with psychological tricks like nudging and reframing, might start to change consumer behavior.
If this sounds a little diabolical, maybe it is. Several essays in the book discuss science-backed ways to sway human behavior, particularly an explainer by psychologist Per Espen Stokes and behavioral researcher Bradley Swain on how small changes in the presentation of different options affect people’s choices. For instance, Stokes and Swain write, one study in Oslo found that when a restaurant gave its vegetarian options fancier-sounding names, people ordered them more often.
But generally, The Reducetarian Solution focuses on helping people who want to reduce their meat consumption trick their brains. Author Tania Luna’s essay discusses how to hack your dopamine pathways when shopping and cooking, thus making new choices more exciting than frightening. Meal Mentor CEO Lindsay Nixon’s essay encourages readers to think of their dietary changes as choices, not restrictions, with the idea that telling yourself you “can’t have” something is a surefire path to frustration.
Good intentions often aren’t enough for people to make tough lifestyle changes. Will a softer approach to vegetarianism, though lacking in fanfare, help tip the scales back in the planet’s favor?
Tough to say, but maybe it’s worth a shot. Decreased bacon sales might not save the world, but apathy sure won’t, either.
Ariana DiValentino is a writer and filmmaker based in New York.