Spoiler alert: Becoming a flexitarian is much easier than becoming vegetarian.
If you are someone who struggles with trying – or successfully making – the leap to a vegetarian diet, flexitarianism is the forgiving diet that champions flexibility and a middle-ground. But let me show you how becoming flexitarian isn’t “half-arsing it” or “cheating”. When planned well, the diet can set you free from the fear or cycle of failure, and bridge the gap between your personal goals and a demanding modern lifestyle.
Here’s the full scoop on why this diet can be so empowering, 5 reasons why you should become flexitarian if you’re wrestling with vegetarianism, and a few planning tools to help set you on the path of success.
Flexitarian: A Made Up Word
So what is this made-up word flexitarian? True it’s very recently invented; first appearing in the mid-1990s, published in The Flexitarian Diet in 2009 by Dawn Jackson Blatner, and entered into the Oxford dictionary in 2014. So yes, it is newly made-up – being of course a marriage of flexible and vegetarian – but now has a respectable dictionary status, thank you very much!
In a nutshell, being flexitarian is being “Vegetarian-ish” in Blatner’s own words. The idea is to eat plant-based food most of the time while being flexible with time off. It’s for people who are attracted by vegetarianism – whether this be for the environment, animal welfare, or health benefits – but who would struggle to maintain a permanent veggie lifestyle.
So it’s a softer lifestyle change than vegetarianism. But a quick note on the stigma of the “too easy” or “tokenistic” flexitarian diet; tune out any similarly sniffy remarks from vegetarian or vegan friends. Making a dietary change for self-betterment is always a positive move. With all the social or personal challenges we face, I say hurrah for the diet built around compromise and forgiveness!
5 Reasons Why Flexitarianism Wins
1. The Power of Never Saying Never
Hands up if you have ever made a failed attempt at vegetarianism? I personally have seen in many New Year’s determined to embrace this diet, but instead have found myself in a cycle of failure; by February or March I would “slip up” while out for dinner with friends, or when I was talked into my partner’s famous spaghetti bolognaise.
Eventually, I figured out that, for me, the real problem wasn’t the act of eating meat, but my perception that this qualified an instant fail of my lifestyle change. Thinking this way meant that after committing the heinous act (i.e. consuming the plate of spaghetti bolognaise) I all too easily lost momentum and found myself back in my old eating habits.
Learning never to say never has the power to set you free from this cycle. If you allow wiggle room for unplanned slip-ups, or pre-planned exceptions, you can make an overall lifestyle change without placing emphasis on failure.
Or maybe you’ve never been able to take that first step in changing your diet? After all, the idea of completely sacrificing that bacon sandwich hangover cure is a daunting commitment. In removing the finality of these sacrifices, becoming flexitarian can give you a more positive mind-set, empowering you to make the change.
2. Success for Semi-Committed Chefs
I love food so much I consider it my favourite hobby. I also believe that having a love for eating and being a whiz in the kitchen aren’t mutually exclusive, and nor do they need to be. But for most people, becoming vegetarian requires you to learn a whole load of new recipes. While exploring new food is good for us, it can also present a real challenge for those who aren’t attached to their stoves.
Sure, there’s fun to be had in the initial splash on veggie recipe books, or even fancy gadgets like spiralizers and blenders. Yet too often, roadblocks like busy schedules, or household members not liking certain new foods, makes planning and trying new ideas hard to keep up. This is especially true if, like me, you have below-average vegetable chopping abilities and poor timing skills!
Becoming a flexitarian takes the pressure off if you want to move toward the dark leafy green side without spending heaps more time on meal prep and cooking. You can keep “easy days” for cooking your meaty favourites. Another big plus is not having to worry about those sneaky foods containing hidden meat, like calf stomach enzymes in Parmesan cheese (I know, I’m so sorry!)
3. The Dinner Dilemma Solved
So you’re feeling super motivated and good about embarking on your vegetarian adventure, great! But what about the people you live with? For most, meals at home are an enjoyable shared experience. While we rule our own eating habits, we can’t force them on others (believe me – I’ve really tried to get my partner into sushi!)
From partners who love to cook meat, to fussy children, or grandparents who can’t comprehend a meat-free meal, the dinner dilemma is often a reason why people in shared households write off vegetarianism.
Becoming flexitarian allows for compromise. You’re much more likely to talk your loved ones into having a certain number of vegetarian meals if you also designate some nights for meat. If they don’t want any – or enough – you can cook separately but still keep some shared dinners where you’re happy to eat meat. This can be much more achievable than ruling out all future joint meals.
4. Don’t Sweat the Social Situations
Temptations at home are one thing, but it’s a whole other ball game when you take your new eating habits outside.
The joy of eating out can soon fall flat when you scan the menu and find that the (likely limited) vegetarian options are not that appealing. The dreaded food envy as friends order what would be your first choice, and the idea of paying top dollar for a dish you feel meh about, are also good arguments for the wiggle room of the flexitarian diet.
Even if you plan to eat vegetarian most of the time, you can save those meat moments for special occasions like Christmas day, cleverly avoiding the barrage of questions and cries of “What! Not even a pig in blanket?”
The same goes for holidays abroad, which is particularly handy for those destinations where meaty dishes are part of the cultural experience, or plant-based dishes are rare.
5. Keep Your Gut Onside
If you have ever made the switch to a vegetarian diet before and found that you experienced a lot of bloating and (ahem) gas, you would not be alone. Much of the plant-based alternative sources of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals can cause these digestive symptoms.
Top culprits include:
• Legumes (e.g. lentils, beans, chickpeas…)
• Cruciferous vegetables (e.g. cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage…)
• High fibre foods (e.g. whole wheat and bran foods, certain fruit and vegetables…)
But these foods are also super healthy! In fact, there’s plenty of scientific research on the benefits of plant-based diets. So it’s important to not panic or try avoiding the long list of ingredients included in – and extending past – the above. After all, in all likelihood, your gut may simply need a bit of time to adapt to your dietary changes.
This said, if you find that you have a particularly high intolerance, it can be a real struggle on a wholly vegetarian diet to cut down on these foods enough to be comfortable. They feature heavily in nutritionally-balanced vegetarian recipes, and speaking from personal experience of intolerance, this can be really disheartening and demotivating.
Needless to say, eventually my vegetarianism fell apart. Yet once back to my previous diet, I noticed that I was eating most of these foods quite happily; just in smaller amounts. After all, I had no allergies and I didn’t want to cut out the goodness of these vegetables, fruits and pulses completely.
Becoming flexitarian allows you to find the consumption level that works for your gut, ending the recipe shortage dilemma and ensuring you don’t compromise your health. Win-win!
Final Food For Thought
So we’ve seen 5 ways in which a flexitarian diet is more adaptable around the challenges and pressures of a modern lifestyle. If this sounds like a bit of you, you may be wondering where to begin.
It’s time to hold a mirror up to your own life and get your planning boots on. Curating a diet that gives you the right amount of flexibility for your goals and lifestyle requires a clear and personalised flexitarian plan that outlines how often and when you plan to eat vegetarian or meat.
Whilst your plan is bespoke to you, you may want to consider three basic levels:
• 7 meatless meals per week.
• A good choice for; those nervous about instigating a big change, or with limited time for new recipes.
• Possible approaches; choosing between breakfast, lunch, and dinner as your meatless meal; keeping all weekend meals for meat; aiming for one meat-free meal per day.
• Up to 14 meatless meals per week.
• A good choice for; those wanting to really cut down on meat but who face challenges like shared household cooking.
• Possible approaches; removing meat from breakfast and lunch if dinner is shared; deciding which occasions (if any) to make meatless; alternating weeks for amount of vegetarian meals.
• At least 15 meatless meals per week (or going completely meatless for weeks).
• A good choice for; those who already eat a relatively high number of vegetarian meals, or who aim to save meat for special occasions.
• Possible approaches; spreading meaty meals evenly over the week; saving meat for weekends; going meat-free for weeks’ at a time; which occasions (if any) to eat meat.
Remember, the beauty of flexitarianism is that you design it around your life. Really think about what you are – and aren’t – willing to change, and try to think how manageable it will be long term.
Flexitarianism may be vegetarianism’s looser, younger sibling, but if there is endless wiggle room and no over-arching plan of how much meat you want to cut back on, you may just find yourself wiggling away from your initial aims.