Can’t give up meat? Become a ‘flexitarian’

November 7, 2007


Like vegetarians, “flexitarians” eat a primarily plant-based diet composed of grains, vegetables, and fruits, but they occasionally obtain protein from lean meat, fish, poultry, or dairy. A quarter of Americans fit the description, consuming meatless meals at least four days a week, according to the American Dietetic Association.

Why it’s here to stay: Flexitarianism is exactly what dietitians, nutritional researchers, and public health advocates have been recommending for years. “It’s about eating a varied diet that’s low in saturated fat and high in fiber,” says Milton Stokes, M.P.H., R.D., chief dietitian at St. Barnabas Hospital in New York City, and an ADA spokesperson. Because the emphasis is on produce rather than protein, flexitarians are more likely than most Americans to meet the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables and the vitamins and minerals they contain.

It is estimated that about three percent of the population are vegetarians – those who never eat meat, fish or fowl. About one percent of that number includes people who consider themselves vegan – they also exclude dairy, eggs and other animal byproducts from their diets.

But flexitarians could be estimated as high as 40 percent of the American population, according to Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group.

The rise in flexitarians could be linked to a number of factors, including issues such as health and fitness. Also, economic pressure has forced traditional grocery stores to carry more ethnic and natural foods, making it easier to buy vegetarian products.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future likes the term flexitarian because it suggests moderation, something the center has been trying to promote with their Meatless Monday health campaign.

Meatless Monday is a national program to help prevent heart disease, stroke and cancer — the three leading causes of death in America. The goal is to reduce consumption of saturated fat by at least 15 percent by 2010. The campaign defines meatless as abstaining from meat and poultry, but not fish and seafood. They do not promote giving up meat entirely, but want to recognize the health benefits connected with decreasing consumption of meat.

There are all sorts of vegetarians, including so-called flexitarians, who adhere mostly to a vegetarian diet but still occasionally eat meat. Here’s a look at the various categories of food consumers:

Vegans: Do not eat meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs or honey.
True vegetarians: Do not eat meat, poultry or fish.

Flexitarians: Include the groups below:

Vegetarian: Those who say they are vegetarian, or “almost vegetarian,” but use some meat, poultry or fish.
Vegetarian inclined: Replace meat with meat alternatives for at least some meals, usually maintain a vegetarian diet, or eat four or more meatless meals per week.
Health-conscious: Strive for a balanced eating plan or eat two to three meatless meals per week.


3 Responses to “Can’t give up meat? Become a ‘flexitarian’”

  1. stellamaris Says:

    Yay for flexitarians! I was a vegetarian for a number of years. Although I’ve never even enjoyed red meat much, after a while I found myself craving a juicy burger and finally gave in. I’d found it difficult to attain a nutritionally-balanced diet as a vegetarian(time and financial constraints also contributing), and at one point became anemic. Since then, I maintain a “vegetarian-inclined” diet, often going days without eating any meat(and rarely more than once a day). Health, environmental concerns, and treatment of animals are all factors in this.

    When I enter a debate between hardcore carnivores vs. veggies, I tend to sympathize with the concerns of vegetarians while also relating to those who don’t think eating meat is essentially “wrong”(well, humans are also animals, and naturally omnivores) and see health benefits to getting some animal protein. My stance is that if we all ate LESS meat, we would be healthier and wouldn’t have a consumer demand for mass-production factory farms with their cruel and environmentally destructive practices!

  2. annierichardson Says:

    Stella, I so understand. I was a veg for many years for the exact same reasons. I switched to eating only chicken and fish under pressure from my truly carnivourous hubbie. I was sold on the idea that they were both good for me and believed it until I started doing my research and learned about factory farming. I’m now personally back to being a veg but for my hub I purchase only from sources that I know take good care of their animals. It is more expensive but he still gets his meat/fish and eats much smaller portions, a good thing.

    Like you, I personally try not to judge anyone for their own personal preferences. Where I grew up everyone hunted and fished. What they brought home was pure food from a pure source. It tasted delicious. It just isn’t that way in the mass marketing of meat and fish. There is no doubt that factory farming does more harm than good, for the animals and for the consumer. Until it is stopped I will not support eating meat/poultry/fish. It makes me sad to know that people are being lured into the sytem by cheap chicken, beef and salmon etc. that is loaded with unnecessary chemicals. Thank you for your post and your help in providing good info and commentary.

  3. dovelove Says:

    I think the reason there are more “flexitarians” (hadn’t heard that term before) is because many long-time vegetarians are coming to realize that such a diet is not healthful for many (most?). I’m one of them, and I’ve encountered many former vegetarians/vegans who now happily and healthfully eat meat. Our ill health was never due to eating meat, but eating animals that have been treated horribly (that trauma is held in their tissues), and fed and injected with crap… Humans messing with nature to their detriment.

    To me, it just makes sense, animals eat animals, and as said above, we are human animals. It’s natural that we’d eat meat, and there’s nothing at all “wrong” with it anymore than when any other animal does so. The “wrongness” comes, as said, from the way animals are treated. No thought whatsoever toward their suffering — it’s inconceivable.

    With regard to a vegetarian diet, I’m a former vegetarian and was also vegan for a few years. The way I see it, vegetarianism (especially veganism) is not only an unhealthy diet, but a very dependent one. How could a vegetarian survive if suddenly there were no grocery stores or supplement (b12, coq10…) manufacturers? Maybe no garden or readily available veggies? If you rule out animals, then you have an additional problem in an emergency situation. For me, besides better health, that’s just one added feeling of security and freedom in re-learning to eat meat. But the primo factor is that I’m simply much healthier (feel better, look better) now that I’m eating meat, especially red meat (pasture-fed), again.


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