Are you a Flexitarian?
Even after five years, Christy Pugh has no trouble sticking to her vegetarian regimen. The secret to her success? Eating meat. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a bad vegetarian, that I’m not strict enough or good enough,” the 28-year-old bookkeeper from Concord said recently. “I really like vegetarian food but I’m just not 100 percent committed.”
Pugh is one of a growing number of part-time vegetarians whose loose adherence to the meat-free diet is transforming a decades-old movement and the industry that feeds it. These so-called “flexitarians” – a term voted most useful word of 2003 by the American Dialect Society – are motivated less by animal rights than by a growing body of medical data that suggests health benefits from eating more vegetarian foods. “There’s so many reasons that people are vegetarians … I find that nobody ever gives me a hard time when I say I usually eat vegetarian. But I really like sausage,” Pugh said.
In recent years the market for vegetarian friendly foods has exploded, with items such as soy milk and veggie burgers showing up in mainstream groceries and fast food restaurants. But even the diet’s activists say that growth can’t be attributed to committed vegetarians, who are estimated at about 3 percent of the adult U.S. population, or about 5.7 million people never eating meat, poultry or seafood.
Charles Stahler, co-director of the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, credits the growth to flexitarians – vegetarians who dabble in meat and carnivores who seek out vegetarian meals. “This is why Burger King has a veggie burger. It’s not because of us,” he said. “The true vegetarians wouldn’t rush to Burger King anyway. It’s because of those people in the middle. They are the driving audience.” Though flexitarian headcounts are imprecise, Stahler estimates roughly 30 percent to 40 percent of the population at least occasionally seeks out vegetarian meals.
Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a dietitian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, credits the growth of flexitarianism to the nation’s better understanding of the diet-disease connection. “Whether you make a commitment to eating strictly vegetarian or not, cutting back your dependence on meat is something most people acknowledge they know they should do,” she said.
Mollie Katzen, a cookbook author and a founder of the iconic vegetarian eatery Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., takes another perspective. The former vegetarian thinks people who eschew meat would be better off if they didn’t. Though she still advocates vegetable-based diets, Katzen sees room – and for many people a need – for flexibility. “To base our diet there, yes. Absolutely,” she said. “However, where the protein comes from in that diet, I don’t feel it’s wrong if you’ve got a great big plate of vegetables your protein is from a healthy, happy chicken, or a grass-fed cow.”
Plenty of people seem to agree. At Wild Oats stores, a Boulder, Colo.-based chain of natural foods grocers that cater to vegetarians, the majority of shoppers aren’t vegetarians. Tracy Spencer, a spokeswoman for the company, said Wild Oats shoppers are concerned about health and want the grocer’s natural and organic products, including meats.
Publishers of vegetarian magazines also are taking notice. To target the part-timers many have softened their approach to meatless diets, even at risk of alienating the far smaller reader pool of true vegetarians. Until last year Natural Health, a Woodland Hills, Calif.-based magazine with a monthly circulation of 300,000, published only vegan recipes, which exclude even dairy and honey. Now the recipes regularly include meat, said Barb Harris, the magazine’s editorial director. “There is a big interest in vegetarianism,” she said. “But we can also tell from our readership that these are not people who are following a pure vegetarian lifestyle. These are people who are integrating a vegetarian menu in their current diets.”
A similar change occurred at the 30-year-old Vegetarian Times, considered the standard-bearer of vegetarianism. Though still meat-free, the once mostly vegan magazine focuses less on activism and more on recipes with broader appeal. Carla Davis, managing editor of the Glen Allen, Va.-based monthly, said the changes were made after a survey showed 70 percent of the magazine’s 300,000-plus readers weren’t vegetarian.
Even the strictest of vegetarian advocacy groups considers the flexitarian trend a good thing. Bruce Friedrich, spokesman for Norfolk, Va.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said he doesn’t see any harm in vegetarianism focusing more on food than the issues that spurred the movement. “From our perspective, if people influenced by health consequently cut back on fish and meat consumption, that helps animals,” he said. “If two people cut their meat in half it helps as much as one person going completely vegetarian.”
I’m a Flexitarian!
I’ve just discovered I’m a “flexitarian” and that I’ve got lots of company. According to Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, a substantial percentage of the population leans toward vegetarianism, but is willing to eat meat, fish or poultry occasionally or in small amounts. The term flexitarian was apparently coined in the early “˜90s, but is only now finding its way into the mainstream.
Flexitarians are flexible in what they eat. According to an Associated Press story by J.M. Hirsch that ran in newspapers all over the country, the term flexitarians was voted the most useful word of 2003 by the American Dialectic Society. When you realize how many people are included under the flexitarian umbrella, you’ll appreciate why the term is so handy.
While people who never eat meat, poultry or seafood are estimated at 3% (about 5.7 million), those who at least occasionally eat vegetarian food may be up to 40% of the population. According to the AP piece, the growing number of part-time vegetarians has had a huge impact on the food industry. “In recent years the market for vegetarian friendly foods has exploded, with items such as soy milk and veggie burgers showing up in mainstream groceries and fast food restaurants,” Hirsch wrote. Health food markets such as Wild Oats or Whole Foods, which cater to vegetarians, but also sell wonderful meat, fish and poultry are popping up everywhere””and for good reason.
Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a dietician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, credits the growth of flexitarianism to a better understanding of the diet-disease connection. “Whether you make a commitment to eating strictly vegetarian or not,” she told the AP writer, “cutting back your dependence on meat is something most people acknowledge they know they should do.”
Another perspective is that vegetarians are more likely to insure an adequate intake of protein if they don’t avoid the complete protein found in meat, fish and chicken. That’s the view of Mollie Katzen, a cookbook author and founder of the Moosewood Restaurant, an mostly vegetarian eatery located in Ithaca, N.Y. She advocates a flexible vegetarian-based diet. “I don’t feel it’s wrong if you’ve got a great big plate of vegetables,” she told Hirsch, “[that] your protein is from a healthy, happy chicken, or a grass-fed cow.”
I agree on both counts. What’s more, flexitarian eating helps you stay lean.
Atkins-diet hype notwithstanding, people who eat lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables are the leanest people on earth. And, believe it or not, those who eat the most animal protein are the fattest. That’s what a recent four-nation survey shows. The study, reported by WebMD News on March 5, 2004, was based on food diaries kept by 4000 men and women age 40 to 59 in the United States, Great Britain, Japan and China.
“Without exception, a high-complex-carbohydrate, high-vegetable-protein diet is associated with low body mass,” study leader Linda Van Horn, PhD, of Northwestern University said at the 44th American Heart Association Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention. “High-protein diets were associated with high body weight.”
Be clear, however, we’re talking about whole foods the way they come in nature, not French fries and white bread.
“The point we are trying to make is that what we consider desirable carbohydrates are complex, or high-fiber-containing carbohydrates: whole grains, fruits, and vegetables””not doughnuts or even polished rice,” Van Horn said. “We are looking at legumes and vegetables that offer fiber as well as protein. We’re not talking about refined carbohydrates, commonly known as sugar.”
How this works is really pretty simple. Vegetarian or plant foods are generally low in fat and high in fiber. They fill you up and make you feel satisfied without giving you more calories than you burn. While low-fiber, animal foods–especially fat-laden varieties–take up little room in your stomach. They are calorie-dense foods. They pack a lot of calories in a small volume. That, of course, makes it easy to overeat. (See my book Lean For Life for specific examples.)
Whole grains, fruit and vegetables, which make up the major part of my diet, fill you up without giving you too many calories. The fiber and bulk in these foods guarantee that you never leave the table physically hungry. Your stomach is full. But you may still crave the taste of animal foods. Cravings tend to build over time. If not satisfied, they usually lead to overeating–or worse, bingeing.
Flexitarian eating can save the day. You don’t have to be a total vegetarian to derive the major benefits of a vegetarian diet. It does no harm to add a little meat, chicken or seafood to a vegetable-based diet to add flavor””and satisfaction. That’s a switch for most Americans. They use meat as the main course, while I use animal food mainly to add flavor. And it doesn’t take much. An ounce or two of animal protein adds a great deal of eating pleasure to grains, beans or vegetables””and only a few extra calories.
Take it from my flexitarian friends and me: A little flexibility in your diet will make and keep you satisfied””and lean.