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January 6, 2010

The Flexitarian Way

A growing movement to reduce animal product consumption benefits human health, animal welfare, and the environment

All Animals magazine, Jan/Feb 2010

by Julie Falconer

For nearly a decade, Dawn Jackson Blatner was a closet meat eater. A registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, Blatner was immersed in issues of food and nutrition. But when it came to describing her own eating habits—mostly plant-based with occasional meat—she was at a loss: Was she a failed vegetarian or a vegetable-loving omnivore?

The American Dialect Society answered the question in 2003 when it declared “flexitarian”—a blend of “flexible” and “vegetarian”—the most useful word of the year. “Finally I and my patients fit somewhere,” Blatner says. And when she published The Flexitarian Diet in 2008, Blatner added her voice to the rising chorus of nutrition experts, environmentalists, and even government officials exhorting the public to eat more plant-based proteins and less meat.

Health is one driving factor; reduced meat consumption corresponds to lower rates of cancer, heart disease, and obesity. But food choices have become more nuanced in recent years, invoking concerns beyond personal health and waistlines.

In 2006, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported that animal agriculture accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—even more than transportation (more recent studies suggest the number may be much higher). Meanwhile, through a string of high-profile undercover investigations, The HSUS and other animal protection organizations have drawn worldwide attention to the ugly truths behind industrialized animal agribusiness.

In this new reality, flexitarianism is more than just a useful label. It’s recognition of a middle ground between pure vegetarianism and the meat-centric standard American diet—a goal that even dedicated steak lovers might aim for.

“A flexitarian is waking up every day and trying to be more vegetarian,” says Blatner. “It’s not going to be perfect; it’s about progress.”

It’s also a trend that many animal advocates encourage as a pragmatic step toward weaning the Western world off the meat-at-every-meal habit. “Not many people are willing to go from being an ardent meat eater to a vegan overnight,” says Josh Balk, outreach director for The HSUS’s Factory Farming Campaign. “But reducing their consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy greatly helps animals.”

To this end, Balk is working with the nation’s largest food service provider to launch what he calls “perhaps the most important initiative to promote vegetarian eating that any company has ever done.” Through its flexitarian campaign launched this month, Compass Group North America is collaborating with its 8,500 dining locations to provide more varied and appealing vegetarian and vegan meals, along with marketing materials to encourage customers to give flexitarian eating a try. The new menu offerings include trendy world cuisines for adventurous palates and familiar American foods prepared without meat to entice more traditional diners.

“We’re pulling together the environmental piece, some of the health and nutrition pieces, the animal welfare piece—it just makes the story a little bit more compelling when you look at it for all those reasons,” says Deanne Brandstetter, Compass Group’s vice president of nutrition and wellness.

It’s not the first time Compass Group has taken progressive action on behalf of animals and the environment. In 2005, its subsidiary, Bon Appétit Management Company, was the first national food service provider to phase out the use of shell (or whole) eggs from hens confined in small battery cages. Soon after, Compass Group committed to purchase all its shell eggs—now 91 million a year—from cage-free facilities.

With its size and diversity of markets—including restaurant chains, cafeterias, and health care services—the company can have a major impact on the food industry, but in the end real change will be driven by the consumer, says Brandstetter. “If we have success and others see that demand is shifting, it will definitely take hold.”

Fortunately, while fad diets cycle in and out of public favor, flexitarianism has all the hallmarks of a dietary choice that will stick. After all, motivation is key to changing ingrained eating habits, and flexitarianism offers an array of incentives. “This isn’t about dieting in the diet sense, that it’s all about weight loss,” says Blatner. “Sure, it can help people lose weight if that’s your motivation, but it can also do so many other things, depending on what your hot button is.”

When the hot button is animal welfare, the argument for eating lower on the food chain is especially compelling. Each year, 10 billion land animals are raised for food in the U.S.; worldwide, that number is nearly 65 billion and projected to increase. The problem is exacerbated by a growing human population and the adoption of Western-style diets in developing nations. Integrating more meatless options into meals is a strategy for combating climate change, which threatens the survival of countless wildlife species, and improving the lives of animals raised for food. “In order to end factory farming, there has to be a reduction in meat consumption,” Balk says. “When fewer animals are being raised for food, it will be much easier to eliminate cruel confinement practices and allow the animals to at least have some semblance of a decent life.”


Flexing Your Food Choices

Whether you do it to help animals, the environment, your health, or your wallet, reducing your consumption of meat and other animal products doesn’t require a drastic diet overhaul. With a few simple steps, you can quickly become a full-fledged flexitarian—a part-time vegetarian.

• Reinvent the Familiar

Take your favorite foods and tweak them to make vegetarian versions. Swap the chicken in your burritos for black beans or grilled vegetables. Instead of sour cream, spoon on some guacamole or salsa. Replace the meat sauce on your pasta with spicy marinara. Trade burgers and dogs for the many meatless versions on the market. Substitute applesauce, mashed bananas, or Ener-G Egg Replacer for eggs when preparing baked goods—you’ll get all the taste without the cholesterol.

• Explore the Unknown

Incorporate new foods, recipes, and products into your menu. Stroll through your local grocery store’s “natural foods” aisle, or pop into your community health food store to fill your cart with some of the fantastic vegetarian items available. When dining out, give ethnic restaurants a try: Many of the world’s cuisines have classic vegetarian dishes that will introduce your taste buds to a new variety of flavors and textures.

• Satisfy Your Cravings

The meaty flavor you may be craving is called “umami” (Japanese for “savory”), says dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Dawn Jackson Blatner. Redirect those cravings to plant-based foods like walnuts, soy sauce, mushrooms, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. And try the many meat alternative products on the market, from seitan steak strips to deli slices to barbeque ribs—you may like them even better than the meat versions.

• Crowd It Out

When you make healthy legumes, grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables the centerpiece of your plate, you’ll find there isn’t room for meat or other animal products. Blatner tells her clients to think of flexitarianism as being “pro-vegetable” rather than “anti-meat;” she recommends eating at least 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables a day.

• Keep It Healthy

Don’t load up on processed foods, sweets, or dairy products. Fresh fruits and vegetables with whole grains should be your mainstays, as well as plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, peas, and nuts. Get your omega-3s from ground flaxseeds and walnuts, and drink fortified nondairy milks or orange juice for a healthy dose of calcium and vitamins D and B12.

• Give Yourself a Hand

As you transition to a healthier way of eating, remember that you’re helping to make the world a better place simply by enjoying vegetarian fare.

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