Flexitarians Strike Dietary Middle Ground

photo by Caroline Boschetto

Beneath the white tents of Boston’s SoWa Open Market, Miranda Prasad explored the vendors’ produce offerings. Scanning crates of kale and fingerling potatoes, the Northeastern University fourth-year finance and management information systems major stopped to buy some carrots.

After finishing shopping, her reusable bag was filled with organic, local vegetables — a fitting haul for the president of Slow Foods NU, a campus group advocating for socially conscious food systems, who typically enjoys meatless breakfasts and lunches.

Despite Prasad’s passion for healthy, ethical eating, she said she has no problem with tossing some meat into her dinners — as long as it is raised naturally and humanely. Elements of Prasad’s dietary philosophy and habits mirror an increasingly popular trend in health and food ethics: the flexitarian diet.

According to Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Chicago-based registered dietitian, nutritionist, and self-identified flexitarian, the term flexitarian refers to those who reduce — but do not completely eliminate — meat from their diets.

“Flexitarian is the combination of two words: flexible and vegetarian,” Blatner said. “What that means is you wake up with the intention of … eating more plants, but you’re flexible about it. You’re not following super strict rules.”

According to a study by Innova Market Insights, the number of global meat substitute launches rose an average of 24 percent annually between 2011 and 2015. Additionally, Americans consumed 9.1 billion animals in 2015, which marked a decrease of 400 million animals since 2007 when the annual consumption rate was 9.4 billion animals, according to an article on forksoverknives.com, a website featuring recipes and article related to plant-based diets.

This article also said that this decrease in meat consumption and increase in the market for meat substitutes is not due to a drastic increase in vegetarianism, which has stayed consistently between six and eight percent of the U.S. population for years.. This indicates a decrease in meat consumption among omnivores. These omnivores include the 22.8 million Americans that, according to a Washington Post article from July 8, 2016, identify as flexitarian.

Blatner is the author of “The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life,” which was published in 2008. As one of the first and few published authorities on the flexitarian diet, Blatner said she got to play a role in defining and structuring the diet.

“What I tell people is that if out of 21 meals … 15 of those meals or more are vegetarian, you are considered an expert flexitarian,” Blatner said. “If you have five out of your 21 [meals], you’re considered a beginner, and [if you’re] somewhere in between, you’re advanced. Sometimes I’m an expert and sometimes I’m a beginner — and that’s the whole point of being a flexitarian. You can be flexible with it.”

Blatner said that upsides of flexitarianism include being able to spend less money on food than omnivores do and engage in more social food situations than vegetarians can. Flexitarians still experience many of the same health benefits as vegetarians, such as decreased risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

In its 2016 diet rating list, U.S. News & World Report ranked the flexitarian diet fourth for best diabetes diets, fifth for easiest diets to follow, seventh for best weight-loss diets, and eighth for best diets overall. U.S. News & World Report listed the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, first for best diet overall.

Christopher Bosso, a Northeastern professor of public policy and one of the founders and advisers of NU’s minor in food systems sustainability, health, and equity, said that the ecological detriment of producing meat makes reducing its consumption environmentally beneficial.

“Beef production by itself is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in terms of methane … and also a massive contributor to groundwater contamination from animal waste,” said Bosso. According to him, flexitarianism is a way to reduce these environmental impacts.

Bosso said that making meals less meat-centric is one of the goals of the NU Dining Services’ Menus of Change collaborative, of which he is a part. According to him, the collaborative is considering adding part-beef, part-mushroom burgers to the menu as a part of this effort to reduce meat consumption.

photo by Caroline Boschetto

photo by Caroline Boschetto

Bosso also said that he has begun eating less meat personally, which has allowed him to pay more attention to the quality and ethics behind the meat that he does eat.

“I’m sort of flexitarian, I guess,” Bosso said. “I try to be very thoughtful about what I eat.”

Northeastern second-year civil engineering major Eva Power said that she has identified as a vegetarian for the past four years, but makes occasional exceptions to her diet for seafood. This dietary division is referred to as pescetarianism. 

“Being from the Pacific Northwest, salmon especially is kind of a tradition,” she said. “It’s exciting when the salmon comes in in the summer … I definitely think I would miss that if I stopped eating fish entirely.”

Claire Webster, a second-year communication studies major at Northeastern, said she thinks flexitarianism could serve as a good gateway into vegetarianism. Webster became a vegetarian a year a half ago for the health benefits and because she opposes the practices of the meat industry. She said that the diet has been easy to maintain because of the many vegetarian accommodations Western restaurants and stores provide.

“There are too many good options that I already have access to that I don’t feel like I need to be a flexitarian,” Webster said. “I’m never one to be like ‘everyone should be a vegetarian,’ but I think flexitarian is definitely a good way … if you want to transition into being a vegetarian.”

Webster said that she thinks the term “flexitarian” reduces pressure on individuals, although she said she is not an advocate for labels.

Bosso said he is not a fan of the term “flexitarian” but has accepted it because he doesn’t have an alternative suggestion.

“We like to label ourselves as things, if you’re in college especially,” he said. “For me, flexitarian sounds a little silly. I think the impulse behind it is fine … so until someone comes up with a catchier phrase I guess flexitarian is what we’ve got.”

Eric Anderson, who received his Ph.D. in psychology from NU in 2015 and is now a researcher at Tufts University, has conducted research on the psychology of eating meat.

Anderson said he speculates that flexitarians feel the need to label their lifestyle to distinguish themselves because humans have a deep discomfort with consuming meat.

“For a lot of people, meat is really delicious … They enjoy eating it. But for some of those same people they feel that animals suffer,” Anderson said. “It’s this thing called the meat paradox.”

For Stanley Chan, a senior at Staten Island Technical High School in New York, there is no conflict; he believes eating meat is natural.

“We are animals,” he said. “We’ve been eating meat for such a long time. I know some people think the way we treat animals is really bad and conditions are poor — and they probably are — but it’s still a natural behavior to eat meat.”

Chan said he thinks people should change the way meat is produced instead of cutting meat out of their diets, because he sees value in the protein meat offers.

Bosso agreed that protein levels are important, but he said that sometimes people eat too much protein.

“Most Americans are not protein starved,” he said. “We have plenty of protein in our diets.”

As she walked between busy produce stands, Prasad voiced her perspective on the popularity of socially and environmentally mindful eating trends.

“It’s funny … it’s seen as cool to be socially conscious now,” Prasad said. “I think it’s a fad but I hope it’s a fad that moves into a legitimate change.”