There was a time when giving up meat, even for a few days at a time, sounded to me like an arduous challenge. For years, I struggled with the occasional abstinence from meat that’s a part of my religious practice, gazing dolefully at the place on my plate where beans or eggs replaced bacon or steak. These days, however, when Fish Friday rolls around (or Meatless Monday… or Tofu Tuesday), I barely bat an eye.

You see, over the last several years, I’ve gradually become a flexitarian. It’s not a new religion I’ve converted to. Rather, Flexitarianism is a pattern of eating derived from the words “flexible” and “vegetarian.” I like to think of it as semi-vegetarianism (though, if you’re a hard-core vegetarian, you might just think of it as “cheating”). Essentially, flexitarians eat a meat-free diet most of the time — but not always.

Having observed a flexitarian diet for quite some time now, I’ve come to see it as the best of both worlds. I reap many of the benefits of a plant-based diet without the rigidity of full-time meatlessness. If you, too, desire the health rewards of reducing meat in your diet, but don’t feel ready to jump in whole hog — or, shall we say, whole tofu — you can expect gains for your health, your finances, and even the environment.

For years, researchers have seen a correlation between a vegetarian diet and relief from chronic health conditions. Increasingly, scientific literature shows that near vegetarianism can offer similar disease protection. Flexitarians lower their risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke by up to 20 percent, dramatically reduce their chances of developing type 2 diabetes, and have better blood sugar control even when they do have diabetes. Plus, since cancer has repeatedly been linked to meat consumption (especially red and processed meats), flexitarians also enjoy better odds of dodging the Big C. These encouraging results could have to do in part with the fact that flexitarians tend to maintain a healthier weight: On average, they weigh 15 percent less than their carnivorous counterparts.

Besides helping your health, going flexitarian can also impact your wallet. One study that compared sample government recommendations for vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets found that vegetarians could expect to save almost $750/year. Semi-vegetarianism can even make a positive difference for the planet; consuming less meat spares some of the land degradation, methane emissions, and copious water usage associated with the conventional production of livestock.

All these benefits stem from cutting back on meat, but continuing to eat it occasionally offers its own advantages. Knowing that a slice of pepperoni pizza won’t derail your diet eliminates the anxiety of wondering what might be served at a party and whether you can “safely” eat it. Likewise, family gatherings, work events, and restaurant meals don’t have to feel like a minefield. And, as a flexitarian, there’s no need for family and friends to make special accommodations when you join the crowd.

Keeping meat in your diet here and there also means benefitting from the valuable nutrition it can offer. After all, meat isn’t some edible abomination (unless you have strong feelings about it morally) — human beings have been eating it since time immemorial for good reason. Meat contains important nutrients you don’t want to miss, like protein, B-vitamins, iron, zinc, and magnesium.

If you’re considering transitioning to a flexitarian lifestyle, the switchover can be gradual and smooth. Since it’s your call how much meat you continue to consume, your version of this diet may look different from someone else’s. Options like eating meat only on weekends, once a week, or on special occasions all fall under its umbrella. Perhaps you simply feel your way day by day, situation by situation; that’s the beauty of flexitarianism.

Think the flexitarian diet would work for your lifestyle? Tweet us @BritandCo!

(Photo via Getty)