Why Avid Omnivores Go Meatless for May

Reducing meat consumption benefits health and the environment
heart-shaped bowl of produce wrapped by a stethescope

My family loves food. Our diet consists of traditional home-cooked meals that include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, while still making room for delicious extras like artisan pizza, steak, fancy cheeses, and even those occasional indulgences like fast food tacos, French fries, or pie. In past lives, both my husband and I have been vegetarian, although we currently enjoy a more diverse diet.

Yet, despite our love of eating, for one month a year we choose to give up a food group we love for the health of ourselves and our planet and go meatless for the month of May. Here’s why we do it and how you can too.

Eating meat has links to environmental damage

It would be easy to assume that the environmental damage associated with meat would be primarily focused on the welfare of the animal itself. The facts, however, show that eating meat involves many different processes and industries which can all contribute to environmental harm along the way—from the feed, to cultivation, to transportation and processing.

For example, when livestock is fed corn or soybeans, it’s highly likely that these plants have been produced using pesticides. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that in the U.S. alone, growing livestock feed requires 167 million pounds of pesticides and 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer each year. And let’s not forget other adverse impacts whose diversity and scope is vast: deforestation and the ensuing destruction of those wildlife habitats due to the large space needs of cattle ranching; the extensive use of antibiotics in cattle populations that has led to antibiotic resistant bacteria which can reach consumers; and the fact that all the grain that could be used to feed humans is being fed to animals whose sole purpose is to feed people.

Eating meat has consequences for health

Taking a break from meat was not motivated solely by environmental impacts. Working in the company of NDs as I do regularly puts the effects of food choices on my radar and cultivates an increasing desire for and knowledge about maintaining my family’s health. Like many parents, gravity, sleep deprivation, age, and metabolism have conspired to catch up with both myself and my husband to add on some extra pounds. Focusing on plant-based meals has been a consistent tool to help us stay leaner.

Different meat will have different effects on your health and the environment too. The American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention recommend choosing fish, poultry, or beans instead of red or processed meat. Red meats especially have higher concentrations of saturated and trans fats, which have been associated with increased cholesterol and heart risk. When opting for the occasional serving of red meat, always aim for leaner cuts like sirloin, and be wary of those processed meat products with an unnaturally red tinge such as hot dogs, sausages, and most deli meats as they’ve been classified as a carcinogen by The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO).

For all meat options, purchase from local providers with ethical farming practices such as certified organic, grass-fed, and cruelty-free.

The process: changing the family diet

So how does a family of three omnivores, including one 3-year-old, make the switch for Meatless May?

For us, switching to a mostly plant-based diet isn’t that difficult. Despite our omnivore status, we’re already very veggie-forward, and you could call our everyday diet a bit “flexitarian.” A week or so ahead of time, I start stocking the freezer with tasty veg-forward meals and on May 1st, we stop eating meat. In past years we’ve gone heavily vegan, but this year we’re a bit closer to 50% vegetarian/50% vegan. Whatever the end of the diet spectrum we’re leaning toward, in order not to be wasteful to either our budget or the environment, we would also finish any meat or dairy that’s in the refrigerator, and then simply not buy more.

Many families who are used to eating meat every day will find it challenging to go meatless without help. It’s perfectly fine to start out slowly and find meals that keep you growing your meatless menu repertoire! Some of the things that have worked for us:

  • Try a vegetarian or vegan food box delivery service for recipe inspiration that you can easily duplicate.

  • Experiment with different meat alternatives. Test a few different brands to find one that works for your family.

  • There are so many flavourful recipes for meatless mains like burgers and meatballs. Try making just one at a time until you find a winner!

  • Enjoy dinner out at a great vegan or vegetarian restaurant in your area and see how they prepare their food. Ask what spices they use. Learn from their techniques to craft your own meals.

  • Start simple! A whole month isn’t really beginner territory. If you’re new to plant-based eating, start with Meatless Monday. Take it one meal at a time.

The path to reducing meat will likely hit a few bumps along the way. Yes, there may be some cravings. Day 8 seems to be a tough turning point in our house, but this change is no different than the issues that come with any other dietary or lifestyle change. Before long, you don’t even notice anymore.

Does a temporary change really make a difference?

Personally, we notice that we just feel better and often get a boost of energy too. More broadly, the facts bear out that even small changes have an impact:

It’s possible to be a happy omnivore and not eat meat every day. There are myriad reasons for both your own health and the environment to take a break for a meal, a day, or even, like us, an entire month.