A resolution you can keep: Here's how to eat less meat in 2024

Experts explain why you should eat less meat in 2024 — and how to do it and enjoy it

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 1, 2024 12:00PM (EST)

Chilli Cauliflower steaks (Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse)
Chilli Cauliflower steaks (Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse)

I don't make New Year's resolutions — I disappoint myself enough all year round as it is — but I do like setting modest goals. Making small changes that are achievable and that I can stick with has always been far more constructive to my well-being than setting arbitrary aims I'm never going to achieve anyway. That's why this year, I'm not going to become a vegan. I'm not even going to become a vegetarian. I'm just going to try lean more in to where I've been going for a while now, and consume fewer animal products. That doesn't sound like such a big lift, right? You can try it too, and there are a lot of good reasons to.

First, there's our increasingly hot planet to think about. As Naoki Nitta wrote earlier this year, "Research shows that even a modest skew away from meat-based diets can shrink an individual’s carbon footprint as much as 75%." The journal Science of the Total Environment estimates that "Replacing beef with beans in the US could free up 42% of US cropland and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 334 mmt [million metric tons], accomplishing 75% of the 2020 carbon reduction target." 

Then there are the physical benefits. When an otherwise healthy family member got some shocking results on a lipid panel recently, the doctor's advice was unambiguous — dramatically reduce meat and dairy consumption, or go on daily medication. It was an easy call. Non-meat eaters are also less likely to be obese or experience heart disease, and may have lower risks for diabetes 2 and certain cancers. A more plant-based diet can also be easier on the wallet. It's not just about opting out of pricey steaks, either. Egg prices have risen 70% over the past year, and milk prices are also on the upswing. 

And then there are animals themselves. The ecosystem and ethics around eating animals are complex, but it is a whole lot easier to feel part of a more respectful, sustainable system when you just eat less meat and know where it's coming from. 

Yet for all of the compelling reasons to prioritize non meat and dairy options in our diets, it can be challenging to put into practice. Americans eat the most meat per capita of any nation on earth — and despite the increasing amount of vegan options available at the supermarket, our meat consumption is rising.

In my own life, I don't need a steak a day, but I don't want to eliminate anything entirely. It can be frustrating, though. I don't like most meat and dairy substitutes, and am as skeptical of their purported health benefits as I am of the taste (not to mention the cost). The notion of swapping out a great prosciutto with an ersatz version is just never going to happen for me. I likewise know that I feel better when I keep fish and eggs in my dietary rotation. I also just really love butter. Writing in 2019, Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, explained it simply. "Not all animal-based foods are bad," he said. "Conversely, many of the worst foods are plant-based."

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So what we do to gently tweak our habits in a different direction, especially when we're living and cooking with other people whose tastes and needs may be different?

"There are lots of strategies available for people who would like to decrease their consumption of animal products without a feeling of deprivation," says Sarah Skovran, a registered dietitian nutritionist and personal trainer with a private practice in Maine. "One is to incorporate something many people have already heard of: Meatless Monday. This gives you a chance to experiment with new recipes or ways of eating, knowing that the very next day you'll be returning to things you're used to. Chances are that during these Mondays, you'll find things you like just as much as you're old stand-bys, and you might decide to eat that way more often." 

Skrovan also advises heading off hunger. "Make sure you're hitting all your nutritional needs," she advises. "For a lot of people, fullness is affected by how much protein and fat they're eating. Incorporating high protein foods like tofu, beans, and quinoa, as well as healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and nut butter, and avocado can help to ensure you don't feel hungry even when you know you're eating plenty." And if you're meal planning with family members with different diets, she suggests "Make most of the meal plant-based, then add the protein at the end to individual servings. Have a veggie stir-fry, then add meat for some people and tofu for others. Make a BLT, using bacon for some people and tempeh or mushroom bacon for others." It doesn't have to be complicated — when I made a vegan chili with corn chips for my family recently, I put shredded cheddar and vegan cheddar for the table for people to top their bowls as they chose.

"One of the simplest ways that you can cut your meat consumption is to target specific types of meat."

Another easy to implement tactic is to start with just one thing. "One of the simplest ways that you can cut your meat consumption in a way that will be good for your health and the environment without going cold turkey is to target specific types of meat," says Catherine Rall, a registered dietician with the wellness company Happy V. "Generally speaking, beef is one of the most environmentally intensive meats to produce. Cows need a lot of arable land that could be used more efficiently for other purposes. They also need huge amounts of water and feed, which in turn require more land. Beef is also much higher in saturated fats and cholesterol than most other options. Opting for chicken instead of beef is one simple change you can make to your diet that will lead to a big impact." 

"These things may look like meat but for most people,   they'll only be a reminder of what you're missing out on."

It's tempting to want to go big, but building small habits that can be maintained is a more durable strategy. "When deciding to eat less meat, most people take the nuclear option and decide to go fully vegan," notes Joe Johnson, a certified personal trainer and weight loss coach for his company 9 to 5 Nutrition. "This can lead to resentment and eventually quitting veganism due to the limiting nature of this nutritional philosophy."

Instead, he suggests limiting consumption of animal products to certain times or days. "For example," he says, "it's unlikely you eat much meat at breakfast or lunch anyway, so create a rule that you can only eat meat after 5 pm. Once you're comfortable with this, you can then limit meat to only certain weekdays — keep adding restrictions until you're comfortable with your level of consumption." He also recommends avoiding meat substitutes. "These things may look like meat but for most people," he says, "they'll only be a reminder of what you're missing out on. Rather than pining after meat in this way, indulge in great vegan or veggie recipes." This makes complete sense to me — I'd so much rather have a platter of olives and nuts and roasted peppers than an "impossible" anything.

Making changes, especially during this high pressure time of year, can feel daunting. There's also something about the idea of eating less of something that feels intrinsically — and boringly — austere. So rather than focus on what's being reduced, I'm trying to consider what's being gained. "It's about mindset more than anything," says vegan chef and personal trainer Christy Morgan." When families or partners are doing it together, it has to be a new adventure you are embarking on — something that is exciting rather than a punishment." And having pleasurable new adventures feels like a resolution I can enjoy sticking with.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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