For some people, adopting a strict vegan or vegetarian diet — whether it’s for health, social, environmental or animal welfare-related reasons — can be a challenge. Embracing the flexitarian approach, however, offers meat lovers the perfect, self-determined degree of wiggle room. Flexitarianism simply advocates plant-based diets that include the occasional steak or pork chop, allowing adherents the flexibility to eat what they crave while still eating in a way that reflects their food values.
Ethical Foods spoke with Annabelle Randles, the woman behind the popular UK-based website The Flexitarian, about why this approach has such broad appeal. Randles, who herself was raised on healthy, omnivorous, home-cooked meals, fills her site with delicious, easy to make flexitarian recipes and tips for avoiding food waste, while encouraging readers to only purchase high welfare animal products.
The term flexitarian implies that this dietary approach is rather broad. Are there any specific criteria or is flexitarianism open to interpretation?
Flexitarian means ‘flexible vegetarian.’ There are no rules. It is open to each individual’s interpretation. Some flexitarians have one meat-free day a week; others eat meat very rarely.
Eating less of something, in this case meat, doesn’t necessarily mean a person is eating a healthy diet. As people focus on eating less meat, what should they be adding to their diets?
When following the flexitarian diet one should be careful not to replace meat with more cheese, carbs or sugary food but instead eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains (such as quinoa, amaranth, spelt, etc.) and beans. The same is true for all plant-based diets.
Is learning to cook important to being a successful flexitarian? The recipes on your website look tempting enough to entice anyone, but it’s not easy in many cities to find satisfying vegan and vegetarian food in restaurants or as prepared take away foods at markets.
Everyone should learn how to cook. It’s an essential life skill that helps improve health, and a lot of prepared foods include salt, sugar and fat that you would not necessarily include when cooking at home. Unfortunately, many people feel intimidated by cooking and/or think they don’t have the time. This is why I make an effort to create recipes that are easy and quick. As a flexitarian, dining out is easy as you can choose to eat meat or fish if the vegetarian and/or vegan option is not tempting enough.
What kinds of people are adopting flexitarianism, and why? What is the difference between being a flexitarian and an omnivore who eats little meat? What’s the importance of having a label?
People who call themselves flexitarians are making a statement that they care about what they eat. This can be for health reasons, animal welfare or the environment. A flexitarian is an omnivore because no major food groups are excluded. However, being a flexitarian involves making a commitment to eating less meat than the typical omnivore. In my opinion, a true flexitarian also cares about wider issues relating to animal welfare and the environment and therefore will not only seek to eat less meat but also better meat. I often get comments from people saying, ‘Well, I am not a vegan or a vegetarian, but I eat less meat than I used to.’ By having a label, everyone can find it easier to relate or commit.
What comments or advice do you have for people who are reluctant to reduce meat in their diets?
It’s important to try to understand why they are resistant to eating less meat. For some it may be as simple as not having experienced good vegetarian food. Others may not realize the health benefits or potential cost savings of eating less meat. Others may not know about the huge environmental impact meat consumption has on the planet. One of the greatest benefits of being a flexitarian is that you do not have to give up meat, but can still reap the benefits of cutting down. A good starting point is to try to go meat free one day a week and buy one or two vegetarian cookbooks to try meat-free recipes.
You mentioned that flexitarianism also includes vegans and vegetarians who are adding a little meat back into their diets. So it’s not just about reducing meat, in some cases it’s about adding it. Why are people adding meat to plant based diets and what does flexitariansim have to offer them by way of advice or guidance?
Some vegans or vegetarians go back to eating some meat for health reasons. Others want to add more flexibility back into their diet and lifestyle. This is perfectly understandable, and the flexitarian diet is a good solution as it allows people to eat small quantities of meat that may help to address the problem. However, I would always advise people to buy meat that is produced with higher welfare and environmental standards.
Do you advocate a moderate approach to other animal products such as dairy and eggs? These two industries have atrocious animal abuse profiles, and industrial dairy is an environmental nightmare. Conventional dairy and egg farming is just as unsavory as farming meat animals, yet many vegetarians still regard these products as carrying a lighter ethical burden than a steak. Do flexitarians apply the same mindfulness to sourcing eggs and dairy as they do with meat and fish?
I cannot speak for all flexitarians, but this is certainly something I try to encourage on my blog. My approach to flexitarianism is not only to eat less meat, but also to eat better meat. So, I advocate purchasing higher welfare meat and fish. This principle, I feel, needs to be extended to eggs and dairy. In addition, all my dessert recipes are vegan, as I want to demonstrate that we can consume less animal products without compromising on taste and choice.
What is your opinion of faux meats, foods like seitan or texturized, flavored tofu meant to approximate meat? How about the new egg yolk replacements that are hitting the shelves? Do these fall in the category of highly processed foods to be avoided or eaten sparingly, or are they fully embraced by flexitarians?
The faux meat market can play an important role in helping people reduce their meat consumption. They provide protein and have taste and structure that can be close to meat. However, my approach to flexitarianism encourages people to learn how to cook better with natural ingredients rather than processed ingredients. Therefore, aside from tofu, I do not use these products in my recipes.
When it comes to buying non-animal foods, what is the importance of eating locally and seasonally? You also suggest people eat sustainably…what is your criteria for sustainable eating?
One of the problems of the food industry today is that it’s dominated by global supply chains in which we have no idea how our food is produced, where it comes from or the welfare conditions of farmed animals. Eating local and seasonal food is not only a way to lighten our carbon footprint but also to support local farmers and reconnect with our food sources. My basic criteria for sustainable eating are: eat less meat but better meat; buy local & seasonal produce; cook your own food and know where it comes from; and make sure you waste as little food as possible.
Now that we’re into the New Year, are there any flexitarian-inspired New Year’s resolutions you can recommend for people looking to eat more mindfully?
Try to go meat-free once a week, buy higher welfare meat or fish, support your local farmers market for local and seasonal food, waste less food, explore and learn to cook new dishes.
Visit Annabelle’s website, TheFlexitarian.co.uk
EthicalFoods.com articles on flexitarian eating
photo credit: Annabelle Randles