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Can You Be a Vegetarian and Still Eat Meat?

"Flexitarians" can have their meat and eat it, too.

WebMD Feature

Anne Allen doesn't call herself a "flexitarian"-- but according to the latest buzz word to hit the diet world -- that's what she is: A vegetarian who occasionally eats meat.

"I seldom eat meat," says Allen, "but do on occasion because I give in to cravings." Allen, who started turning to vegetarianism about five years ago after studying environmental philosophy in college, also says that eating a more vegetarian diet is healthier. Unlike many vegetarians, however, she says that meat doesn't "repulse" her. "I may not order it when I'm in a restaurant, but I still crave it," she says.

While the term itself used to describe Allen and other meat-eating vegetarians is new (though nobody seems to know who came up with it), the concept is not.

New Word, Not-So-New Idea

"Flexitarians -- and I hate to even use that word -- have been around forever," Carla Davis, editor of Vegetarian Times, tells WebMd. "It may just be that more people are talking about vegetarianism because of the prevalence of vegetarian cookbooks, and the fact that it's easier to be a vegetarian these days with all the different products available in stores."

When Vegetarian Times began 30 years ago as a newsletter, it was "stridently activist," says Davis, "focusing on animal rights and environmental issues." That activist newsletter has evolved into a magazine whose readers are no longer defined as true vegetarians, says Davis, pointing out that 70% of the magazine's 300,000-plus readers are "sometime" vegetarians.

Several years ago the magazine editors say they made a conscious effort to evolve the publication into one that's more inclusive of readers who want to be healthier, to live longer, but don't necessarily want to commit to full-fledged vegetarianism. "More Americans are paying attention to the connection between food and health," says Davis. "They are realizing that there is a relationship between how they feel and what they eat."

The concept of a "sometime vegetarian," or flexitarian, is appealing because not everyone is able, or willing, to follow a completely vegetarian diet, says John Cunningham, consumer product research manager of the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) in Baltimore, Md. Cunningham says he doesn't know how many people consider themselves flexitarians, but the 20-year-old group estimates that as many as one-third to one-half of the population will order a vegetarian meal from time to time.

Health Reasons Spur Interest

VRG's research shows that health -- including disease prevention and weight management -- is the leading motivation for the consumption of vegetarian foods. In a 1998 survey of readers of VRG's Vegetarian Journal, 82% reported that they were interested in vegetarianism because of health reasons, versus 75% who were interested because of ethics, concern for the environment, or animal rights.

Anila Nijhawan, RD, a clinical dietitian and certified diabetes instructor at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill., says she has been "totally" flexitarian since she was a 5-year-old child in India. Nijhawan doesn't recall the exact moment she decided not to eat meat anymore, but was told that as a child she accompanied her father to the butcher shop and never touched meat again after that.

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