The Reducetarian Diet’s Benefits and Challenges

There’s a curious logic to environmentalism. We praise, in most cases, those who make incremental lifestyle adjustments to support environmental causes: turning off the lights before leaving your home or driving an electric vehicle is seen as a meaningful—albeit small—step, even if you don’t give up electricity for good. You don’t have to cook your meal with flint.

However, the logic of this argument breaks down when animal products are used. Reduced meat consumption is seen as compromise and a somewhat shameful way to get around the problem. “Meatless Monday” is often accused of sloganeering, and “humane slaughter” is considered an oxymoron. But interestingly enough, the feelings between the accuser and the accused tend to be mutual: even those who have drastically cut their meat consumption—say, to once a year—often can’t shake a sense of complicity themselves. Many vegetarians feel guilty for being non-vegetarian. Brian Kateman is the leader of the reducetarian movement. He aims to end this guilt.

Inadequate labels

The Reducetarian Foundation stresses the value of “the small changes in personal and institutional behavior that collectively result in a significant difference in the world.” Kateman, a Staten Island native, grew up with the standard meat-heavy American diet. But in 2010, when he was a junior in college, he was exposed to the philosopher Peter Singer’s views on animal welfare, he became aware of the ethical and environmental consequences of eating animals.

However, even as Kateman’s meat consumption was nearing zero, others around him were alert less to his ethical commitment than to violations thereof. He remembers one Thanksgiving when he, as a gesture to honor his family’s tradition, took a slice of turkey, only to be immediately teased by his sister: “I thought you were a vegetarian, Brian?”

Kateman stopped calling himself a vegetarian, but other labels—like “cheating vegetarian” and “lazy vegan”—were defined in terms of negativity. Neutral terms like “semi-vegetarian,” “mostly vegetarian,” and “flexitarian” didn’t quite cut it because they were, in Kateman’s words, “static,” and did not propel further efforts to reduce meat, ideally to zero. Worse still, terms like “mostly vegetarian” set too high a bar that most people find it hard to aspire to. These phrases can mentally exhaust people, even before they make any change.

Then, in 2014, Kateman was having his weekly lunch with his friend Tyler Alterman when Alterman, upon seeing that Kateman had brought a chicken salad, asked the now familiar question: “Aren’t you a vegetarian?” Alterman’s tone, however, was neither accusatory nor sarcastic but cautiously inquisitive: Alterman had also been reducing meat but found the existing labels inadequate. The two of them came up with the term “reducetarian” after many brainstorming sessions.

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Is there a reducetarian movement?

As he explains in his 2014 TED talk, Kateman observed that most people find it difficult to go 100% vegan or vegetarian, but their efforts to reduce meat or dairy products aren’t appreciated because existing labels are “all or nothing.” Even those who decide to eat meat very infrequently would be ridiculed for calling themselves a “vegetarian.” As a result, many give up the effort to reduce meat altogether.

The flexitarian way of eating allows you to eat meat, dairy, and plant-based foods. So how’s a reducetarian different from a flexitarian? “A flexitarian is someone who primarily eats plant-based foods with the occasional inclusion of animal products. You can think of them as mostly vegan or vegetarian,” Kateman told me. “‘Reducetarian’ is an umbrella term. But it primarily describes someone who eats way too many animal products and made a decision to cut back.” (Kateman, who has degrees in evolutionary biology and conservation biology, does not have a background in medicine or nutrition.)

For example, let’s say that a person eats 200 lbs of meat each year. However, this is less than what the U.S. average annual meat intake is. Cutting back meat by 10%—eating 180 pounds a year—makes the person a reducetarian. “Those people have made an incredible step to cut back on the amount of animal products that they consume,” Kateman says. “But they are absolutely not flexitarian, because flexitarians primarily eat plant-based foods.” Under this definition, vegetarians and vegans are reducetarians—they reduced their meat consumption to zero.

In order to spread this message, The Reducetarian Foundation was founded in 2015. It conducts advocacy activities like fundraising and outreach, produces contents via multiple channels including college clubs and influential thought leaders, and holds an annual conference. It also conducts research on the best ways to communicate the message.

An essay collection Reducetarian SolutionsKateman published a 2017 book called. It showed how the idea attracted a diverse group of thinkers. What is notable about the book is not just its impressive roster of contributors and endorsements—Jeffrey Sachs, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins—but their political and philosophical non-alignment. It’s rare to see a marketing guru (Seth Godin), an environmental writer-cum-activist (Bill McKibben), a self-described libertarian (Michael Shermer), and a writer of feminist critical theory (Carol J. Adams) in a single book arguing for the same cause.

Reducetarian Movement Benefits

From a planet perspective, the first order effect is greater when one person, who used to eat 200 pounds of meat, reduces consumption by half—again, still by no means a vegetarian—than when five people eating 10 pounds of meat go fully vegan. It’s simple math, really: 100 pounds are a higher number than 50 pounds.

Plant-based diets have many benefits for health, including preventing cardiovascular disease and decreasing cholesterol. They also reduce the chance of developing cognitive impairment or dementia. The time taken to observe the positive effects of plant-based foods varies from one person to another. According to Dr. Benjamin P. Ha—a physician based in Southern California who co-authored Doctors Need a Nutritional Update: Plant-Based Diets—some improvements can be seen within days. “If you are truly going with a 100% whole-food, plant-based diet—with no animal protein, no dairy, very little processed foods—you can see tremendous improvement in your cholesterol just in 10 days,” Ha says, taking cholesterol as an example that a lot of patients worry about. “If you do a pre-test of baseline cholesterol, then eat a plant-based diet for 10 days, and do a post-test, often you’ll see a 20%, 30%, 40% reduction in baseline cholesterol.”

Importantly, Ha emphasized that being a vegetarian isn’t synonymous with embracing a plant-based diet. He noticed among his patients that there’s much confusion about what plant-based nutrition means. “People come to me and say, ‘Well, I’m going to start eating soy hotdogs.’ Unfortunately, that’s not going to benefit your health any more than what you’re eating now,” Ha says. “It’s not about being a vegan or vegetarian. It’s really about eating unprocessed, plant-based, whole foods.”

Moreover, curbing animal agriculture can alleviate the water crisis—a pound of beef needs nearly 40 times more water than starchy vegetables—and the prevalent exploitation of factory farm workers. It’s estimated that more than 70 billion land animals are slaughtered every year for food, and some quick math tells us that the number of animals killed every 10 hours equals the total number of deaths from World War II (which happened over six years). Consuming meat also harms biodiversity. All in all, it’s good for you, good for other humans, clearly good for animals being slaughtered for meat, and even good for animals that aren’tBeing slaughtered to make meat.

Learn More The Inside Story of Lab-Grown Meat Industry: Vegan Documentarian

Problems with the reducetarian movement

The opposition’s vehemence has been as loud as those who supported it over the years. Once, at an animal rights conference, Kateman saw a sign that read, “Brian Kateman speaking at an animal rights conference is like Donald Trump speaking at a women’s rights conference.”

Kateman is not interested in building coalitions, choosing to support one side. He prefers to keep an open alliance with opposing forces. The unwavering credo of the reducetarian movement may well be “inclusivity” of different philosophical views. Many times during his keynote speeches at the Reducetarian Summit—an annual conference for supporters of the reducetarian movement—Kateman has warned against Freud’s idea of the narcissism of small difference—how similar ideas that strive for the same goal (namely, reducing meat consumption) can lead to the most fierce divisiveness.

While Marion Nestle, a professor emerita of nutrition and food studies at N.Y.U., commends the movement’s inclusivity—encompassing vegan, vegetarian, and just eat-less-meat approaches—she also points to the way in which it could be a pitfall. “Social movements are not famous for inclusivity. Participators with extreme ideological views tend to exclude centrists. So framing this movement as centrist may appear as a strength, but it has an inherent weakness in political non-viability,” Nestle told me. “The reducetarian movement calls for common ground among meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters. That alone is asking for a lot.”

After two years, the 4th Reducetarian Summit was held in San Francisco in May. It attested to its value. A registered Republican senator, card-carrying Democrats representatives, non-profit organization members, scientists and researchers from multinational corporations such as Danone are just a few of the many people who attended the 4th Reducetarian Summit. They all shared the common goal to make California a better place.

Kateman, in person is not self-serious or evangelical. He would be the first to admit that eating less meat is not a new concept; however, Kateman’s nomenclatural recast framed an existing idea into a movement.

There’s no shortage of signs that paint a hopeful cultural seismograph for the plant-based future of food: the public’s interest in plant-based meat is rapidly growing, and sales of plant-based foods are climbing every year. These incremental shifts may be the essence of reducetarianism: the small, individual seismic waves that we make can cause a much-needed earthquake.

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