Vegetarians, divided: The rise of the flexitarian

Cheeseburger-loving flexitarians are driving a vegan boom—to the ire of some

Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon and Richard Redditt

Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon and Richard Redditt

When Annabelle Randles’s friends throw dinner parties, they’re unsure whether to invite her. When she attends vegan trade shows to represent By Nature, her U.K.-based organic-products online store, and tells her customers she’s not vegan, she gets strange looks. And when she posts recipes with meat on her blog, The Flexitarian, she feels the wrath of her hard-core vegetarian readers. “You need to tread lightly,” she says.

Randles, as the name of her blog implies, is among the growing ranks of people who consciously reduce their meat consumption without cutting it out entirely. “Omnivores don’t really understand,” says Randles, who grew up in a carnivorous French family before adopting a flex diet several years ago. Its allure: Eat healthier, prevent animal suffering and fight climate change without the awkwardness of requesting alternative dishes at social events or sacrificing the occasional bacon cheeseburger. “Sometimes you meet people and explain. They have this blank look and then they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what I am!’ ”

It’s hard to say how many people are flexitarian, but with such a low bar for entry—and an endless list of diets such as Meatless Mondays, Vegan Before 6 and Part-Time Carnivore—the figure likely exceeds the four per cent of Canadians who are vegetarian or vegan. And it’s these “part-time vegans,” perhaps more so than diehards, who are bringing veggie options to restaurants and tofu-everything to supermarket shelves. According to research firm Mintel, vegetarian products accounted for 12 per cent of new foods worldwide in 2013, up from six per cent in 2009. In the U.S., avocado sales have quadrupled since 2000 and kale production shot up nearly 60 per cent between 2007 and 2012. Like McDonald’s meatless wraps or Ikea’s new vegan meatballs? Thank a flexitarian.

The trend is similarly buoying Canada’s booming vegetarian dining scene. Survey the patrons of Vancouver’s The Acorn, Toronto’s new spot Dandylion, or Montreal’s Aux Vivres, and you’ll likely find more meat-eating gourmands than greens-and-granola vegans. The same crossover crowd has propelled vegan blogs and cookbooks such as author Angela Liddon’s wildly successful Oh She Glows onto the New York Times bestseller list. “I don’t think a huge part of my readership is actually strictly vegan,” says Dreena Burton, a Vancouver vegan author and founder of the Plant-Powered Kitchen blog. “I hear all the time, ‘We’re not fully vegan, but . . .’ ” Still, despite their plant-positive influence, flexitarians are finding themselves in the heat of a battle for moral superiority, under fire from both carnivores and vegans. “People love to dive into the controversy,” Burton explains. “For some people, vegan is a very defined term and you have to respect what it has meant for so long . . . It’s more than just diet.” The 540 comments on Liddon’s post about her newborn’s diet, for example, are a bitter back-and-forth about the “hijacking” of veganism. “You’re an omnivore,” reads a response to a self-described “mostly vegan” commenter. “Done. Simple as that. Stop giving yourself an unearned title.”

The backlash isn’t only online. In 2013, Le Commensal, a vegetarian chain with restaurants in Quebec and Toronto, adopted a flexitarian menu to attract more customers. They ended up alienating their existing clientele; some loyal fans boycotted the place (one called the decision “pathetic and unethical”), and it filed for bankruptcy soon after. “What do they expect?” one tweet read. “It’s insulting to its veg supporters.” Meanwhile, the Bickford Flexitarian, a restaurant in Toronto, survived a mere year.

The beef (pun totally intended) between vegans and meat-eaters is part of what inspired New Yorker Brian Kateman to found the Reducetarian movement, a flex effort with a semantic makeover. He became a flexitarian a while ago and, “before I knew it, I had all these uncomfortable words to describe something that seemed so simple to me: eating less meat.” Drama aside, Kateman says, the obsession with labels is waning. “There are a lot of people who realize this all-or-nothing mindset is quite silly.” After all, moderation is hardly new. Didn’t that Aristotle guy say something about this?


Vegetarians, divided: The rise of the flexitarian

  1. As painfully boring as it is to feel the need to describe oneself to oneself; we find ourselves jumping on words from which we feel a sense of self, emanating.

    In the political dimension, words are just things lobbed at others with hurtful intent.
    –“oh you’re a democratic socialist.” “No I,m a social democrat.” Same werds, same thing right?
    ~Flexitarian is what vegans become when they are tired of being hypocrites. ( ..or that’s how I describe it when queried of our new ‘trip’/mania.)

    I must say that I feel better not worshipping some absolute or ideal, (for it is ideals that disrespect humanity). One size does not fit all. I do not even wish to participate in a game in which some elite group has claimed a word as theirs which they are in charge of & they own, (copyright not applied for), by virtue of having seen it first or at least use it in a more meaningful way than those of us who just bandy it about to our pleasure, (ahem).

    i think that i am still permitted to eat the less than 11% total animal protein recommended by the China Study, … feel good about it, be healthy & think for myself …without going to the meetings.
    If capital ‘V’, vegans want to form a political party, in some dimension less relevant than Greenists, perhaps they should be put on some list with the hamas, (because really, if I have falafel & Tahini, I do not need it, …okay some guac, if i,m going to give up hamas, i,m gonna need guac).

  2. Food is a very emotional subject. However as a Society we have a lot to gain by moving to a more plant centered diet. The results will have a positive affect on pollution, climate change, animal welfare, personal health, national healthcare costs and world hunger. Today there is more than enough food grown to feed everyone on the planet but most if the food grown is fed to animals. Thousands of people die from hunger every day as a result of this misallocation of resources. There is no down side to going to a whole foods plant based diet Except that after people get used to the awesome variety and tastes of plant based foods it could be hard to go back and eat that piece of dead animal flesh. Vegan, Vegetarian, Flexitarian, Raw Foodie, Frutarian, Nutritarian, Starchatarian, The name doesn’t matter so much as getting meat consumption under 10% of calories consumed, which is what science and modern comparative studies like National Geographic’s “The Blue Zones” are pointing to as the maximum amount of meat the human body can tolerate without causing long term chronic disease. It takes 21 days for peoples taste buds to change. There are plenty of 21 day vegan challenges out there to help with the transition to a healthier diet. I have followed a Vegan diet for most of the last 35 years and when I have fallen off the wagon it was as a result of peer pressure. I don’t have that problem anymore, I find the idea of putting dead body parts into my mouth and chewing them up quite repulsive, no matter how many herbs, spices and sauces are put on it to make it taste better. I know it would be hard for me to eat a plant based diet except when I was around people who eat meat so I could fit in. I think it would be like a smoker trying to only smoke when the are around others who smoke. Ultimately I think the force of habit would push the animal consumption back into the unhealthy range. Perhaps some people have the will power to do that, I can’t say. In the end it doesn’t matter how one gets there, just getting there is good for personal health and the health of the planet.

    • Dave, dude! ..whew, I had forgotten the hostile jargon. ‘Dead animal flesh’ used to be one of my favs,
      ~if one may offer a useful tid-bit of advice for those who are veg-curious. (just to make it sound perverse), …do not try to imitate meat with non-meat.

      Two reasons; it tastes like shyte & only creates a longing to return to meat. (you should have seen the look on my dog’s face when a piece of soy-cheese was slipped in between pieces of cheddar being tossed him. He did not trust cheese again for months.)

      Non meat diets have a flavour palette all their own & should be explored as such.
      ~on protein, dried black (shitake) mushrooms claim to have 5X’s the protein of regular. Who knew mushrooms had protein? (If it helps the carnivore psyche, try to think of mushrooms as reeeallly slow moving animals.)

      Avocado is a hunger stopper, like bacon grease. (It did take me years to learn to pick a good one, ask a clerk or the person in front of you who is selecting some.)

      A good starting point for the curious is the falafel sandwich. Deep-fried chickpea balls in half a pita, with fresh vegetables & sauces. Go to a middle-east take-out place that offers this, tell the guy all dressed, (some are self serve.), …. See how you ‘feel’ .. twenty minutes after eating.
      The next day, go to a fastfood & get a mile-high roastbeef sandwich, … assess twenty minutes after.
      Alternate lunches like this for a week to ten days. You will know what werks for you.
      ~Truth is what you reach for most often.

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