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Eco Etiquette: Can You Be A Weekday Vegetarian?

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

My friend just told me at lunch that she's a weekday vegetarian. Is this a real thing? And isn't it kind of hypocritical?

-Addison

Hypocritical? Maybe. Effective? Yes.

To hardcore veggies, calling yourself a weekday vegetarian may be like saying you're a little bit pregnant: Impossible. After all, if you're ethically opposed to eating animals, the idea of scarfing seitan on Tuesday and then polishing off a porterhouse on Sunday would be tantamount to blasphemy.

But the number of people who count themselves in that category is a small one: 1.3 percent of the US population. (That statistic refers to the number of vegans, who by and large cite ethical reasons for their dietary choices.) That's why I think that the idea of becoming a part-time vegetarian is, for the most part, a brilliant one. It proffers a more moderate approach for the other 99 percent of us who aren't quite ready to quit turkey, um, cold turkey.

From an environmental perspective, I take issue with an all-or-nothing approach to meat eating. We don't insist that people ride their bikes exclusively, or only shop at the farmers market, or never travel by airplane; why should meat consumption be any different?

TreeHugger founder Graham Hill agrees with me. He originated the "weekday vegetarian" concept and outlined it rather eloquently at the TED conference last February. It works just the way it sounds: "Nothing with a face," as Hill says, Monday through Friday; on the weekend, feel free to add bacon to your French toast if that's your fancy.

If that sounds shocking, consider this: By forcing people to place a check mark next to "vegetarian" or "carnivore," we're missing the opportunity to encourage people to merely reduce their meat intake. That in and of itself is actually a lofty goal: The world has doubled its per capita meat consumption since 1961, and is expected to double it again by 2050.

All of this, of course, takes an enormous toll on the environment. Nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to the livestock industry. (That's more than cars, planes, and trains combined.) It takes 1,500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. And manure seepage from factory farms has turned many of our once-thriving waterways into nitrogen-flooded dead zones.

More ominously, a new report by the National Academy of Sciences warns that livestock farming alone may push us to the brink of climate change and habitat destruction by the middle of this century. But the researchers suggest that cutting worldwide meat consumption by 19 to 42 percent could help us avert some of the most catastrophic consequences. A weekday vegetarian diet curtails meat consumption by 70 percent.

Reduce, but not eliminate, most of the meat from your diet, and you'll also reap some serious health benefits: A recent study found a Mediterranean diet slashed diabetes risk by 52 percent, compared with a regular low-fat diet. (Remember that a true Mediterranean diet is largely plant-based; real Italians do not frequent dining establishments that serve ziti bolognese in a Never Ending Pasta Bowl.)

So knowing all these things, wouldn't it just be more effective for all of us to become real vegetarians? Of course. But from a psychological standpoint, most people find smaller changes infinitely more doable. Take the runaway success of the Meatless Monday campaign, for instance, which encourages people to give up meat just one day a week; or Mark Bittman's New York Times bestseller Food Matters, which emphasizes a reduced-meat diet.

And let's not forget that making smaller changes can often lead to larger ones. I began Meatless Mondays over a year-and-a-half ago; a few months after that, I began buying meat in smaller portions; and shortly after that, I stopped eating meat at breakfast and lunch. I've now reduced my overall meat consumption by about 75 percent, all from committing to one change that I made week after week. Become a weekday vegetarian, and it's not that much of a stretch to becoming a full-time vegetarian.

For some, I suppose, being a weekday vegetarian could potentially backfire, as it often does for weekday dieters; the weekend could turn into a 48-hour burger binge. But unlike calorie-counting, a vegetarian diet doesn't have to be synonymous with starvation. (Pizza and donuts, after all, are meat-free. But don't eat those.)

What's more, many people who add more plant-based foods to their diet say they start to lose their taste for meat. But why not just give it a try and see? Saturday, after all, is right around the corner.

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