Can you be plant-based and still eat meat?

Many people are interested in eating more plant-based foods for health or ethical reasons, but don’t want to fully give up meat. This leads to an important question: can you follow a mostly plant-based diet and still occasionally eat meat? The short answer is yes, you can be plant-based and still eat some meat, especially if you focus on reducing your overall meat intake. However, there are some important caveats and things to consider when taking this approach.

Defining plant-based and vegetarian diets

First, it’s helpful to define what constitutes a plant-based or vegetarian diet. A vegetarian diet is one that avoids all meat, poultry, and fish. However, there are several types of vegetarian diets:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Eats dairy products and eggs, but avoids meat, poultry, and fish.
  • Lacto vegetarian: Eats dairy products, but avoids eggs, meat, poultry, and fish.
  • Ovo vegetarian: Eats eggs, but avoids dairy products, meat, poultry, and fish.
  • Vegan: Avoids all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey.

A plant-based diet is a diet focused on foods derived from plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. The term “plant-based diet” is sometimes used interchangeably with “vegan diet” but can also include some animal products in moderation, such as dairy and eggs.

So in summary:

  • Vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry, and fish.
  • Plant-based diets emphasize plant foods but may include some animal products.
  • Vegan diets exclude all animal products.

This shows there can be flexibility in how plant-based eating is defined, which allows for incorporating some meat while still adhering to a mostly plant-based diet.

Health benefits of plant-based diets

Research shows that eating more plant foods and less meat has health advantages:

Lower risk of chronic diseases

Many studies link plant-based diets with lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers. This may be because plant foods contain beneficial nutrients and compounds like fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Diets higher in meat, especially processed red meats, have been linked to increased disease risk.

Healthy body weight

Plant foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provide filling fiber and tend to be lower in calories than meat and cheese. This can help with achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight.

Improved gut health

Fiber nourishes healthy gut bacteria which support digestion and immunity. Most Americans don’t get enough fiber, so upping plant foods can improve gut health.

Lower blood pressure and cholesterol

Plant protein sources like beans, nuts and seeds have been linked to reduced blood pressure and LDL “bad” cholesterol. Limiting saturated fat from meat can also support healthy cholesterol levels.

How much meat is OK on a mostly plant-based diet?

There’s no absolute rule for how much meat you can eat while still adhering to a mostly plant-based diet. However, health experts and guidelines recommend limiting, not eliminating, meat:

  • The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 ounces of lean meat per day as part of an overall healthy dietary pattern.
  • A 2021 study found limiting red meat to 1-2 servings per week provided health and longevity benefits.
  • Environmental experts advise reducing meat intake to no more than 1-3 modest servings per week.

So while occasional meat servings can fit into a mostly plant-based diet, the focus should remain on whole, minimally processed plant foods. Think meat and dairy as garnishes rather than main dishes.

Some ways to incorporate occasional meat servings include:

  • Building meals around plant proteins like beans or tofu and adding smaller meat portions as a side or flavoring.
  • Enjoying meat-centric meals only 1-2 times per week while making other meals meatless.
  • Using meat alternates like mushroom or eggplant to replace half the ground meat in dishes like burgers or tacos.
  • Choosing lower impact meats like chicken, fish and shellfish over red or processed meat.
  • Flavoring dishes with bacon bits, ham hocks or bone broth instead of meat as main dish.

The key is balance – if the majority of your meals and snacks are plant centered and minimally processed, an occasional serving of meat can fit into an overall healthy plant-based eating style.

Ethics of eating meat on a plant-based diet

For many plant-based eaters, ethics are important too. Can you still call your diet “plant-based” or “vegetarian” if you sometimes eat meat? This depends on your reasons and definitions.

If your main motivation is:

  • Personal health: Occasional small servings of meat are unlikely to negate the health perks of a mostly plant-based diet. Some even suggest it allows for long term sustainability.
  • Animal welfare: Eating meat occasionally but making better selections (e.g. local over factory farms) can reduce contribution to industrial systems many find ethically troubling. But any meat intake contributes to animal agriculture.
  • Environmental concerns: Research shows reducing meat intake substantially lessens diet-related environmental impact, even if not eliminating meat completely. But meatless meals have the lowest eco-footprint.

So depending on your reasons, meat in moderation may or may not align with your ethics. This is an individual decision based on your motivations and definitions.

Labels like “plant-based” or “vegetarian”

Some argue that if you eat meat occasionally, you should opt for labels like “plant-forward” or “flexitarian.” However, there are no universal definitions, and self-identification is personal. Polling shows many vegetarians eat meat sporadically, so occasional meat may not preclude calling your diet “mostly vegetarian” or “plant-based.” In the end, you get to decide what descriptor fits you best.

Making a mostly plant-based, occasional meat diet work

Here are some tips for successfully incorporating some meat into an overall plant-based eating pattern:

Choose your “splurge” foods

Decide which animal products are most important to you, whether that’s cheese, burgers, sushi or holiday ham. Then save indulgences for these.

Learn easy plant-based recipes

Build a rotating repertoire of meals that are satisfying without meat, like veggie chili, lentil curries, and bean soups. This makes meatless eating automatic.

Try meat substitutes

Explore plant proteins and realistic mock meats if you like mimicking the taste and texture of meat.

Enjoy veg-centric cuisines

Try cuisines focused on vegetables, grains and beans, like Middle Eastern, Indian, Thai and Ethiopian food. This provides new flavors beyond meat-based dishes.

Plan ahead for social events

If attending a potluck or restaurant with limited options, eat plant-based beforehand so you don’t feel deprived or overindulge on meat there.

Set a “meat budget”

Allot yourself a set number of meat servings per week or month to provide structure. Adjust as needed to find your balance.

See occasional meat as a “bonus”

Rather than making meat the star player, view it as an extra treat alongside more plentiful plants.

Sample meal plan

Here is a sample week of meals for a mostly plant-based diet with occasional meat:

Day Breakfast Lunch Dinner
Monday Oatmeal with berries and flaxseed Bean and veggie burrito Veggie stir fry with tofu over rice
Tuesday Avocado toast Lentil soup Veggie chili with turkey meatballs
Wednesday Tofu veggie scramble Falafel pita with hummus Vegetable curry over quinoa
Thursday Smoothie bowl Chickpea salad sandwich Veggie pizza with dairy cheese
Friday Overnight oats Minestrone soup Fish tacos with pico de gallo
Saturday Tofu breakfast burrito Grain bowl with roasted veggies Pasta primavera
Sunday Scrambled eggs and fruit Lentil salad Veggie pot pie

This sample menu incorporates 1-2 optional meat or fish servings per week, focused on sides, toppings or combining with plant proteins. The remaining meals are vegetarian or vegan, centered on produce, grains, beans, nuts, eggs or dairy. This approach allows flexibility while keeping the majority of meals meat-free.


It is possible to follow a mostly plant-based diet that includes occasional meat servings, especially if meat is consumed in small portions as a side or flavoring. This approach can provide health advantages from emphasizing plant foods as well as flexibility to incorporate meat on occasion. However, ethics depend on individual motivations. If your main goals are animal welfare or ecological concerns, vegetarian or vegan may be better descriptors. In the end labels are personal, and finding your own balance is what matters most. Centering your meals around plants while allowing meat in moderation can be an achievable and rewarding dietary pattern.

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