Would you go Reducetarian?
Vegetarian diets have benefits for both your body and the planet, but the all-or-nothing approach puts many people off. Here, our reporter discovers a new compromise
As a child, I was a very fussy eater. When it came to flavour, I usually opted out; the weekly family Chinese takeaway involved plain rice with no sauce, I was scared of cheese, I didn't even like pizza (what kid doesn't like pizza?), my burgers came with nothing but ketchup... and people laugh in disbelief when I tell them that I didn't even taste tomato soup - possibly the least offensive soup flavour in existence - until I was in my late teens. As for vegetables? No chance. In short, I was my mother's worst nightmare. Sorry about that, Mam.
My palate was forced to evolve 15 years ago when I decided to become vegetarian (necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and there are only so many bowls of pasta you can eat). Although I was cutting out meat, contrarily, my appetite, adventurousness and the range of foods that I eat has expanded more than ever before.
As I never ate much meat as a child, it wasn't a huge sacrifice to give it up but convenience was an issue, even back in 2002. Over the last five years or so, however, being a vegetarian in Ireland has become increasingly easy - particularly as people are more conscious than ever of how they fuel their bodies.
Even so, there are still some who are reluctant to commit to a full-time vegetarian lifestyle change, for various reasons. Perhaps they're put off by their perceived 'preachiness' of the movement; perhaps they're concerned about how they will replace meat in their diet, or maybe they simply enjoy the taste of meat too much.
This is where Brian Kateman and the Reducetarian Foundation come in.
Although it might sound like some new-fangled buzz word dreamed up by a bored millennial, there is solid reasoning behind the movement. Growing up in Staten Island, Kateman doesn't recall a particularly nutritious childhood - but being surrounded by nature in the New York borough had an impact on him during his college years. "I was that guy on campus that was telling people that they should recycle, and take shorter showers, and use refillable cups of water instead of using plastic bottles all of the time," he recalls, laughing. "But it wasn't until I read a book called The Ethics of What We Eat that I made the connection between food and many of the issues that I cared about - not only environmental issues, but human health problems and the many animals that suffer on factory farms."
Kateman, who has compiled a book of essays on the matter by various experts and thinkers called The Reducetarian Solution, adopted a vegetarian lifestyle at first.
"In a lot of ways, it went really well: I felt happy; I felt healthy. I was enjoying exploring new foods that I hadn't ever thought to eat before," he explains. "The problem was, I wasn't always perfect about it. I remember one Thanksgiving in particular, grabbing a piece of turkey on the table, and my sister called me out, saying, 'I thought you were a vegetarian, Brian?' In that moment, I explained that it's not about all-or-nothing; there's a whole range of food choices, not just vegan and omnivore - and that we should be encouraging people to make small changes in their diet.
"I was really proud of the fact that I was primarily eating plant-based foods, especially given that the average American eats 275lb of meat a year, so it just didn't make sense to criticise me for not being perfect, when most people weren't doing their part at all."
Coining the term 'reducetarian' - those who make a mindful decision to reduce their intake of animal products by at least 10pc - back in 2014 was key, he says. "I remember thinking, 'Know what? I'm really tired of being called a lazy vegan or a cheating vegetarian; I've gotta find a word that better describes what I am.'
"I came across terms like 'semi-vegetarian' and 'mostly vegetarian' and 'flexitarian', but they still didn't get at this idea that there were a lot of people in the world who were eating large amounts of animal products and who might be intimidated by the idea of going vegan or vegetarian. So I thought, 'Why don't we encourage those people to simply cut back? Whether that be 10pc or 20pc or 30pc - that's going to make a huge difference to both their health and the planet.'"
California native and mother-of-two Vivienne Parry has been living in Dublin for 20 years. Having followed a vegetarian lifestyle for 10 years because she was "concerned about the impact the meat industry was having on the planet and people", she returned to eating meat around the time she got pregnant, for various reasons.
Although she had never heard of the term 'reducetarian' before, for all intents and purposes, she is one. Her family doesn't eat beef or pork at home, and "we also try to eat at least three to four non-meat meals a week", she says.
"Most of the meat we eat is free-range poultry. There are a lot of alternatives available now, making it easier to keep your protein up. My husband and youngest child love meat but have agreed to cut back and to not eat beef - at home, anyway.
"I think more needs to be done to educate people and children about alternatives so we could all learn to reduce our intake of meat and also the level of food waste we produce."
One of the main tenets of the reducetarian movement focuses on its health benefits. Kateman speaks passionately about convincing his own parents to reduce their intake to minimise their chances of diseases like cancer, obesity and diabetes - and dietitian and Health & Living columnist Orla Walsh agrees that there are many pros to following such a plan.
"The plant-based approach means focusing your diet on plants - it doesn't necessarily mean you're cutting out animal produce completely," she says. "Eating more fruit, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds is a recipe for better health. Fish are nutritional powerhouses that supply a myriad of health benefits and Irish people don't eat enough fish!
"There are many reasons people may keep some animal produce in their diet. Food is more than just fuel; it tastes good. Perhaps the idea of never having steak again is too much for some people to bear."
The vegetarian lifestyle comes with baggage for some, but has the craze for protein fuelled by gym bunnies who are obsessed with eggs, avocados and shake supplements pushed back the progress made by the movement in recent years?
"Protein is required at every meal, and the amount that is required increases with age," explains Walsh. "People may follow one trend or another but as a dietitian, I would advocate following the evidence, which highlights the need for as much variety as possible within a diet. Generally speaking, the more naturally occurring food we eat, the healthier our body will be."
There is no question that there are now many options for vegetarians, vegans and those who may be consciously or unconsciously following a reducetarian diet - particularly in Dublin. Gone are the days when the long-established Cornucopia was the only reliable vegetarian option in the city; over the last few years, an increasing number of plant-based restaurants, cafés and pop-ups have emerged, many of them documented on Facebook groups like the extremely useful 'Vegi and Vegan Dublin'.
One of them is Veginity (veginity.com) a plant-based food truck which opened last July and operates from a warehouse in Dublin's Portobello. It's the brainchild of Australian chef Mark Senn, who became vegetarian 21 years ago, and it regularly hosts themed cuisine weeks - recently including Japanese, Mexican and Indian fare on its menu.
Senn believes that the success of his restaurant is down to several factors. "People are becoming more aware of what they eat, where their food comes from, what they put in their bodies," he says. "We do get a lot of vegetarians and vegans, but I'd say it's 50pc veggies to non-veggies.
"With our menu constantly changing, not only do we do things that are plant-based but we also do things that are harder to find in Dublin - for example, for our Goodbye Summer BBQ weekend, we had a couple of vegans bring in eight meat-eating friends. The next night, one of those meat- eaters brought back five meat-eating mates who all enjoyed themselves. So people are willing to try new things if they can find them."
One of Veginity's main draws is offering plant-based versions of well-known dishes, such as their plant-based fish and chips. "I've been cooking for 20 years and the one thing I've learnt is that people love to try new things - but if there is a certain familiarity with something, they're more likely to make the connection with the dish," he says.
"If I called it 'Cassava Flake' as I originally did, 95pc of people wouldn't get the connection and walk past without trying it. By calling it 'plant-based fish', they get what the product is and are intrigued about how it's achieved."
Outside of Dublin, the plant-based revolution is taking hold, too. If you're wondering whether there's a sustainable market for a plant-based café in Sligo, wonder no more: Sweet Beat (sweetbeat.ie) recently celebrated its second birthday and, judging by the bustling trade on a recent visit, it is thriving.
Owner and chef Carolanne Rushe trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School and was inspired to open Sweet Beat's doors after road-testing various dishes in the food-market sector during a stint in South Africa in 2014.
"When we opened the doors, there were some who thought we wouldn't last and our location was too far away from the main streets in town - but it wasn't long before word started to get out," she says.
"We change our menu daily to give customers lots of choice and show them that there is so much we can do with vegetables. We have a huge range of treats, both baked goods and raw cakes, and lots of takeaway options; really, it's everyday food, but just better for you."
Although she's a vegetarian herself, Rushe has even managed to get her dad on board with her creations. "In summer, most of our produce comes from the local organic farmers, which adds so much quality to our food. We've just started selling 'sausage' rolls too, which are going down a treat. I recently brought my dad in for a cuppa and a sausage roll before he went off on his deliveries and he was so delighted," she laughs. "Dad is our delivery man and now also eats a predominantly plant-based diet."
As for Brian Kateman, the man behind the reducetarian movement? He's practising what he preaches by doing the best he can to reduce his intake - with a caveat: 'nobody's perfect'.
"When I first started this reducetarian journey, I never thought that I would go vegetarian or vegan," he says. "At the time, I liked the taste of meat; I liked the smell of it - it was part of my everyday experience. But the more time goes on and the more friends I have that are in this movement, the more I'm enjoying eating plant-based meals and finding ways to tweak what I really liked before.
"For example, I love buffalo wings, but now I make buffalo cauliflower, which is one of the recipes in the book. But y'know, I just never sweat the small stuff.
"If I'm at a party and somebody offers me a cookie, I don't waste time asking them, 'Hey, is this cookie vegan?' I just put it in my mouth, enjoy it and call it a day - and then the following day, maybe two of my three meals will be plant-based," he laughs. "It really doesn't have to be a big deal."
'The Reducetarian Solution', edited by Brian Kateman, and pubished by TarcherPerigee is available now. For more, see reducitarian.org