Cutting down on your meat consumption can be good for your health — and the environment's. But you don't have to go full vegan or vegetarian to feel the effects.

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On Nutrition

In case you haven’t noticed, plants are hot. Think plant milk, plant protein, plant-based diets — vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian. But what does it all mean? And why should you care?

For starters: your health. Research showing that a plant-based diet can improve health and lower your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer is abundant and growing.

But what qualifies as plant-based? One common misconception is that plant-based means vegan. That may be true of products like plant-based “meats,” “milks” and protein powders made from soy, peas, rice and hemp. But when it comes to dietary patterns, plant-based just means that the base, or foundation, of your diet is plants — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses (beans and lentils), nuts and seeds. Maybe “plant-forward” is a better way to think of it.

A plant-based diet can also be better for the environment. A study published Oct. 10 in the journal Nature looked at how changes to food production and consumption patterns could protect the planet. Globally, the food system contributes significantly to climate change, loss of biodiversity, water pollution and other environmental ills. The authors found that a flexitarian diet, especially when combined with reducing food waste and increasing efficiency of farming and other food-production technologies, may help.

So what is a flexitarian diet? Eating flexitarian means choosing mostly plant-based foods, with moderate amounts of fish, poultry, dairy and eggs, and small amounts of red meat. Consumer research shows that more and more people want to reduce the amount of meat they eat but don’t want to give it up completely. They’re going flexitarian, even if they don’t actually call themselves that.

It’s true that vegan diets, which include no animal-based foods at all, and vegetarian diets, which include dairy and/or and eggs, have less impact on the environment than flexitarian diets. But flexitarian diets are exactly like they sound — more flexible — and eating plant-based isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. If you’ve thought about going vegetarian but don’t want to give up meat entirely, flexitarian is a middle way. Here are some tips to get started:

Aim to eat one meatless meal a day — or about seven per week — then gradually increase the number of meatless meals. In her book “The Flexitarian Diet,” registered dietitian nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner calls an “expert flexitarian” someone who limits animal protein of all types to nine ounces — or eats at least 15 meatless meals — per week.

Prioritize whole or minimally processed plant-based foods. Many food products boast pea protein and other plant-based ingredients, but are highly processed and may not be as healthful as they claim.

Understand what you’re getting — and not getting. If you swap soy foods for some of the meat in your diet, tofu and tempeh are traditional (read: time-tested), less-processed sources than foods containing soy protein isolate as a major ingredient. Some plant-based “milks,” such as almond, rice and coconut, contain only a small fraction of the protein you get from dairy milk or soy milk.

Eat more beans and lentils. They’re the most environmentally sustainable sources of protein, as they have low water needs and can adapt to climates and soils where most crops won’t grow.

Don’t feel ready — or inclined — to bring meatless meals into your repertoire? Experiment with reducing the amount of meat you eat in a meal, filling the gaps with more vegetables. Stir-fries and entree salads are two easy ways to do this.

Remember that you don’t have to put a label on how you eat — just eat more plants!