Not so long ago, fish-eating vegans and bacon-loving vegetarians would have found it difficult to explain their preferences to potential dinner-party hosts—let alone maintain their street cred with other ecophile foodies.  

These days, though, it’s common to meet people whose dietary regimens fall outside traditional categories like vegetarian, vegan, and omnivore. Only 2.3 percent of American adults strictly eschew all animal flesh, according to a 2006 poll by the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group. Vegetarian Times, a 33-year-old national magazine that used to print mostly vegan recipes, found recently that about 70 percent of its readers sometimes eat meat (now it publishes a more diverse range of vegetarian recipes, along with some vegan ones). Even philosopher Peter Singer, animal-rights guru and longtime vegetarianism advocate, outlines a plan for ethical meat consumption in his 2006 book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.

Welcome to the world of flexitarians: people who subsist primarily on plant-based foods, but aren’t strictly veg. No hard and fast rules determine the amount of meat a person must eat to be considered a flexitarian. Some of these folks usually go meatless; others may call themselves vegetarians, but view fish as acceptable eating. No one knows for sure how many people embrace the diet because there are still few self-identified flexies. Likely coined in 1992, the term was voted “most useful word of 2003” by the American Dialect Society, but it has been slow to come into widespread use. Still, about 30 to 40 percent of the population seeks out vegetarian meals at least occasionally.

Most often, folks go flex for health reasons, says Myra Kornfeld, a vegan/flexitarian cooking instructor at New York City’s Natural Gourmet Institute of Culinary Education and author of the forthcoming cookbook Healthy Hedonist Holidays: A Year of Multi-Cultural Vegetarian-Friendly Holiday Feasts. “People say they’d really like to be vegetarian for animal rights and the easier toll on the environment, but they just don’t find that their bodies are taking to vegetarianism,” she says, noting that vegetarians can have problems absorbing and consuming enough nutrients, like iron.

These days, the widespread availability of sustainably raised meats has begun changing the idea that committed environmentalists should be vegetarians, which Kornfeld says is “a healthy development.” Eating meat comes at a cost, though. Researchers reported in the journal Earth Interactions in 2006 that the average American omnivore would reduce his carbon footprint more by becoming vegan than by trading in his combustion-engine car for a hybrid. Still, the study’s lead author, geophysical scientist Gidon Eshel, doesn’t prescribe veganism for everyone. “If you really love meat, you just have to [either] give up something else, eat it infrequently, or be particularly judicious with respect to your greenhouse-gas emissions in other aspects of life,” he says.   

Eating less meat is a choice that many food-lovers find more palatable than full-on vegetarianism. Last year, out of concern for animal welfare, Dan Engber, a 31-year-old journalist who especially relishes pork, gave up mammal meat—mostly: He makes exceptions for unique culinary experiences. “I don’t feel like I’ve cheated if I’m at a fancy restaurant and I order the pork dish they’re famous for,” he says. 

With people opting in and out of meat-eating from one meal to the next, what does it mean to be a flexitarian chef? As Kornfeld explains, it’s having “the ability to accommodate all your guests and having a lot of tricks up your sleeve.” She develops stews, fritters, and other entrées that are equally good with meat and veggie proteins, but look the same so that nobody feels left out. At holiday gatherings in particular, she says, inclusion is key because there are plenty of other social issues to deal with already. And as the person bringing this dietary democracy to the table, the flexitarian chef just might be the hero of the party.


Story by Christy Harrison. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007