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.
Though her preference is to follow a strictly vegetarian diet, Nijhawan began including fish in her diet several years ago for health reasons. Instead of ordering pasta in a restaurant, she'll now order salmon. "If someone said red meat would keep my arteries open, maybe I'd add that too, but for now, it's just fish," Nijhawan says, adding that she does cook chicken for her family and will occasionally make a lamb curry for guests. She recommends limiting meat intake to two to three times per week.
Flexitarianism -- if we can use that as a term -- is part of a trend to rediscover plant-based eating as an option, says William Hart, PhD, associate professor of human nutrition at St. Louis University. "I like the idea," he says.
It may be easier to maintain your current weight on a vegetarian-based diet because the high-fiber content makes you feel fuller more quickly, and that means you might take in fewer calories. Hart nonetheless admits that we're a nation of carnivores. "There's a huge amount of meat -- and good quality meat at that -- available in this country," he says, adding that there's nothing wrong with eating a 4-ounce steak. "Meat represents a lot of nutrients in a compact package," he tells WebMD. "It's the 12- or 16-ounce steaks -- or even larger portions -- that get us into trouble."
Just Eat Less
This movement of "sometime vegetarianism" isn't about promoting meat is "evil," says Hart. "We just don't need such quantities. We can build it into a meal ... use it as a complementary flavor."
In fact, keeping some meat in your diet can be a good thing, he says. "Variety helps. No one food is perfect." Hart adds that while many of us are moving closer to a more vegetarian diet, we don't want to give up other foods that taste good and -- in moderation -- aren't bad for us.
If you do want to limit your consumption of animal protein, make sure you learn how to plan meals that are both balanced and varied. Vegetarian cookbooks, magazines, and references such as Diet for a Small Planet will help you create a healthy diet, says Hart.
Because many vegetable proteins are not "complete," keeping a small amount of meat in your diet is one way of making sure your proteins are complementary, Hart explains. If you do want to eliminate meat entirely, he advises that you still include milk and eggs in your diet, because certain nutrients -- such as vitamin B12 -- are present in animal products such as meat, poultry, fish (including shellfish), and to a lesser extent milk, but are not generally present in plant products or yeast.
Whether you call yourself a flexitarian, a sometime vegetarian, or prefer not to label yourself at all, nutritionists say the bottom line is that as long as you're not overdoing it, you can have your meat and eat it, too.
Published May 10, 2004.