From Meatless Mondays to vegetarian dishes at your favorite restaurant, making or ordering a meal sans meat has never been easier or more acceptable. Once the stuff of vegetarians, vegans, and hippies, more and more carnivore-loving Americans are enjoying not eating meat. At least some of the time.
Meet the flexitarians. It’s a mouthful but fairly simple in practice. Flexitarians are simply those who consciously eat less animal products such as red meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and eggs, while still occasionally having a big, juicy, beef patty with all the fixings.
“It’s a pretty flexible diet,” said nutrition expert and owner of The Flexible Dietitian LLC Mckenzie Flinchum, RD, LD/N, CPT. “You’re getting the health benefits of a vegetarian with a diet rich in nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, fruits, and vegetables but the occasional consumption of meat, especially meat low in fat such as fish with benefits for a healthy heart.”
Flexitarianism is not a new concept but it has exploded in popularity during the past few years. Food personalities including former New York Times columnist and author of VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00, Mark Bittman, author Michael Pollan, and registered dietitian and author of The Flexitarian Diet, Dawn Jackson Blatner have helped to make the term mainstream. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary added flexitarianism to the book in 2012. This year it was identified as one of the key trends in restaurant marketing, and according to The Washington Post, as many as 22.8 million Americans now identify themselves as flexitarians. That’s compared to just 7.3 million American vegetarians.
Behind this latest lifestyle trend are millennials.
“The emergence of ‘flexitarianism,’ or adherence to a primarily plant-based diet, has been driven largely by millennials,” said Holley Reeves, the Director of Research, Insights and Sustainability at Butin Integrated Communications. “We’re finding that millennials – and especially millennial mothers – increasingly are incorporating vegetables as a key component, if not the centerpiece, of their everyday diets. These consumers are motivated both by the health benefits of the flexitarian diet and by the desire to decrease the high environmental impact of livestock production.”
Thanks to Bill Clinton and any vegetarian or vegan friends you have, you probably know some of the health benefits of not eating meat or any animal products. Recent studies, however, are showing that simply eating less meat and animal products while not completely abstaining from it also has significant health benefits. According to U.S. News and Reports flexitarians weigh 15 percent less than regular meat eating Americans and research suggests that a flexitarian diet can lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels and therefore heart disease, as well as the risk of diabetes and cancer.
But while the diet offers a range of health benefits, Reeves’ firm Butin Integrated Communications, which monitors and conducts research on trends being shared by online influencers, advocacy groups, and mainstream media, believes much of the rise of the lifestyle is driven by environmental concerns.
It’s not a secret that eating meat isn’t exactly good for the planet. The livestock industry is the third largest generator of greenhouse gases. Industrial meat, which includes the majority of supermarket chicken, beef, and pork, is likely a contributor to the increase in antibiotic-resistant illnesses, not to mention the inhumane animal conditions that we see pop up on insider videos at industrial farms and processing plants every so often. At one time or another those things have probably made you consider giving up meat. But remember that burger? Not eating any meat isn’t likely for a majority of Americans, but eating less of it still poses environmental benefits. If every American replaced one serving of chicken per week with a plant based protein it would be similar to if 500,000 cars were no longer on the road in terms of released carbon dioxide. A 20 percent decrease in meat consumption throughout the U.S. would be similar to every car in the U.S. turning into a Prius.
Tempted to try it? Well as Flinchum said, the diet is flexible and while this sometimes makes vegetarians criticize flexitarians for having no real rules, it makes it easy to at least try the lifestyle out. Those who have gone flexitarian recommend beginning small, such as with Meatless Mondays. Being a flexitarian is all about being creative, reinventing familiar dishes by centering the protein around plants instead of animals, and letting yourself have meat when you want it. Some flexitarians will only eat animal products once a day, others will only eat animal products one or two days a week, and others will commit to a certain number of meatless or animal product free meals a week. It’s all about slowly figuring out what works for you.
Whether or not flexitarianism goes the way of other passing fades or is here to stay, however, is something we’ll have to wait to see.