In Defense Of Flexitarian-ism

Thoughts on giving up meat-free for meat-less-often.

A few years ago, I decided to band together with my wife and become vegetarian. Prior to this, I hadn’t attributed much thought to my diet. (For instance, I would routinely return home after a late night DJ’ing and warm a few Pizza Pockets in the microwave).

My decision was motivated by a few reasons:

  1. My wife is a much better cook than me; by adopting her already mostly vegetarian meals I instantly expanded my culinary pallette tenfold.
  2. I was set to complete a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, which served only vegetarian food; I figured I may as well prepare my stomach.
  3. I knew vaguely about the meat industrial complex, and no longer wished to support such a cruel system.

And so we tried it. We became “vegetarian.”

Enter The Vegetarians

This meant at home we could enjoy our tofu and lentils and couscous and feel good. But this also meant at parties and other social outings, we now had to define ourselves as vegetarian.

“Chicken? No thanks, I’m a vegetarian.”
“Those steaks do look great…but I gave up meat. I’m a vegetarian.”
Baconaise? I’d love to try it, but I’m a vegetarian.”

I felt odd using that word in public. It felt too much like a label I was using to set myself apart from the other meat-eating heathens. It had become part of my identity. So instead, I attempted to use the word as neutrally as possible to avoid “passing judgement” on the eating habits of friends.

Then it became harder. At dinner, my wife and I would find ourselves receiving special treatment. For instance, say the main course was turkey, but because of vegetarian preferences, the host would feel compelled to cook a veggie option as well.

We were their guests, and we were demanding they change to accommodate us. It didn’t feel right.

The Blurry Line

I began researching the pros and cons of vegetarianism, which led me to some startling truths about the diet. I could outline most of the commonly held assumptions and their rebuttals, but other writers, such as Michael Pollan, have done so far more eloquently than I ever could.

Basically, I arrived at the following conclusions:

  • I believe it is ethically defensible to eat animals. After all, we are still omnivores. Humans have consumed meat since the dawn of time. (Disclaimer: I used this phrase as a hyperbole, but as readers commented below, this is factually incorrect).
  • I do not believe an animal should needlessly suffer before its death, stuck in abhorrent factory farm conditions.
  • I want my body to remain healthy, hence my food to be chemical-free.
  • I want my diet to consume the least amount of energy to get to my plate. Meat, especially beef, generally consumes much more energy to produce than chicken or pork.

Which led me to make the following goals in my diet:

  • Eat less meat. And when I do, eat less energy intensive chicken, fish, or pork.
  • Buy free-range, organic, and perhaps most importantly, locally farmed meat.
  • When offered meat, it is more important to honour the offering, rather than pass judgement on the giver. (A practice used by Buddhist monks who rely on food alms to survive).
  • Avoid fast food, in all its forms. This can be the most challenging, especially when time/options are tight.

Meet The Flexitarians

This manifesto, of sorts, falls very close to a growing population that identify themselves as Flexitarians. (There’s those labels again).

While on the surface, it sounds like we’re simply vegetarians with little will power, I believe it attempts to elegantly handle the social, moral, and environmental implications around the modern diet.

Plus, it lets me try Baconaise (as long as someone offers first).

Update: after scouring the Baconaise website, I’m unsure if it actually contains bacon.

15 Comments

  1. Scott – I was using a hyperbole to make a point, basically that humans have been eating meat a long, long, time. We are descended from hunters. We are omnivores, able to eat both meat and plants.

    That said, clearly a high-meat diet is unhealthy, and wreaks havoc on animals and the environment. Hence, a low-meat diet satisfies many of these issues.

  2. Hi Ian Mackenzie,

    i applaud your initial attempts to be vegetarian. That’s so cool! And it’s interesting that one of your motivating factors was spiritual (a mediation retreat). All the spiritual teachings stress compassion for all living beings, without exception. It’s called “Ahimsa” ~ non injury to anyone.

    Eating meat, dairy and eggs involves killing and cruelty, no matter “which way you slice it” (pun intended). No being wants to die, no matter who she or he is and that includes non human animals.

    The labels “organic,” “cage free” and “free range” are just that ~ labels, with very little if any real practice to back them up. I’ve seen “cage free” chickens whose wings lacked feathers and were in worse shape than caged ones. These labels are marketing tools targeting people like you who want to appease their consciences. In the end, it’s no better and in some cases worse.

    The truth Ian is that we are not omnivores, by physiology and anatomy, only by behavior. Our bodies are simply not designed to be graveyards for dead animals (or dairy or eggs for that matter). Omnivores (like dogs, bears, raccoons) as well as carnivores (like tigers and lions) have 20 times the acid in their stomachs and very short intestines. Dead animal flesh goes right in and comes right out. With us humans, it sits and rots and putrifies and becomes home to disease producing bacteria and parasites.

    The truth is that we are herbivores. Dr Milton Mill’s chart shows this very clearly, delineating all the physiological characteristics of each type of animal (humans included) and their eating patterns. Please see: http://www.vegsource.com/veg_faq/comparative.htm.

    Your statement: “Humans have consumed meat since the dawn of time,” is factually incorrect. It is incorrect even if you only mean (as you stated in your defense/response) that “humans have been eating meat a long, long time. We are descended from hunters.”.

    If you check out the latest anthropologists such as Dr Robert Sussman (see his book ~”Man the Hunted / Primates, Predators and Human Evolution” you will begin to understand that humans were prey, not predators to the predatory REAL carnivorous animals, who had the speed, the teeth and claws to outrun, kill and devour us. We were prey for at least 200,000 years since becoming hominoids.

    Consuming animal carcasses and their excretions (ie milk) is not been going on for a long, long, time, but only the last 9-11,000 years ago. Compare 10,000 to 200,000 and you’ll see what i mean. And even those many years ago, consuming dead animals was relatively rare. It was usually only by the priests and only on special occasions. Rynn Berry’s book “Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World’s Religions” shows that the major spiritual teachings railed against any cruelty towards animals, especially killing them. He sees the mission of Jesus as liberating animals from these sacrificial holocausts.

    Concerning health, a dairy farmer and meat proponent, T Colin Campbell went around the world feeding hungry people Meat, Dairy and Eggs. He found the more he fed them, the more they came down with all the major and minor diseases and when he pulled back, they become healthy again. He joined with the Oxford University, Cornell University and the Chinese School of Preventive medicine and wrote a book, filled with all the statistical and logical conclusions of his study. In it, he lays out his findings, which are that the perfect amount of meat, dairy and eggs for a human being to consume on a daily basis for optimal health is … zero, zip, nada, rien … nothing .. no animal products! (An easy read: Check out “The China Study / The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Done,” by T Colin Campbell.)

    Being herbivores, we have all the abundance of the plant universe from which to choose, rice, beans, lentils, split peas, nuts, seeds, sprouts, broccoli, apples, oranges, etc. There’s so much abundance without killing and cruelty.

    There are many other reasons to go vegan (no animal products) too numerous to name here. Please check out http://www.goveg.com/theissues.asp for more (ie global starvation, environmental destruction, global warming, workers rights, etc). Tolstoy, an adamant vegetarian said “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.” Consuming meat and other animal products is directly linked with war and its not just because 1/3 of all petroleum is used up by the meat, dairy and egg industries.

    Perhaps Alice Walker (author of “The Color Purple”) said it best. She said “Animals are not on this planet for humans, no more than people of color are here for white people, no more than women are here for men. They have their own purposes for being here.” The ideology of “might makes right” and it’s okay for the strong to dominate the weak keeps the capitalist system going and oppressing and exploiting working people and super exploiting women, people of color, immigrants, etc.

    We who believe in justice, egalitarianism, compassion and earth sustainability ~ do not consume dead animals. We do what it takes to hold to our beliefs and practices. (See Carol J Adams’ “Living Amongst Meat Eaters” as a guide on how to deal with awkward or challenging situations). It’s not as hard as you think, when you follow your heart.

    Thanks for entering into this dialogue and for considering a cruelty-free lifestyle. Each one teach one. Your actions can have ripple effects. Go Vegan for … Life (yours, the animals and the planet!)!

    towards an egalitarian, communally shared, sustainable,
    vegan, peaceful, just and loving world,
    grace
    outreach coordinator
    ROAR! (Reaching Out for Animal Rights!)
    http://www.goROAR!.org

  3. Nice article. I just would like to point out that there is no such thing as humane slaughter. No matter how an animal is slaughtered, he or she endured transport to the slaughterhouse and then was killed in the same slaughterhouse as their non-free-range counterparts.

    Since we don’t need to eat meat to survive (and living in Vancouver it’s ridiculously easy to eat veg) any killing of an animal is unnecessary.

    At what point do you decide that it’s necessary? When it causes uncomfortable social situations?

  4. Re: At what point do you decide that it’s necessary? When it causes uncomfortable social situations?

    My decision is based on a few factors:

    1) eating veg doesn’t mean suddenly animals live forever. in nature, animals are killed all the time (often gruesomely). the “killing” in a slaughterhouse, when done quickly and humanely, does not cause an animal more suffering than they would experience in nature. as michael pollan points out in “the ominivore’s dilemma” (after actually killing chickens with his own hands), they appear to have no pre-cognition of their demise. they don’t think of death before they are in the process of dying.

    2) eating veg means that we’re relying on the same industrial food system that gives us mono crops (corn, soy) and relies on polluting transportation to get it to our plates.

    3) soy and other veg products are often heavily processed, causing me to wonder whether they are actually healthy.

    4) the human diet needs a variety of nutrients it can’t get outside of meat. yes, you can take supplements, but to me that’s an indication of a universal relationship between animals and ourselves.

  5. “the human diet needs a variety of nutrients it can’t get outside of meat.”

    Actually it doesn’t. I’ve also never taken supplements and have been vegan for 12 years (veg for 4 years before that). Always get a clean bill of health from the doctor.

    The only nutrient that it easiest to get from meat is B12, but I’ve never taken B12 supplements and blood tests show that I have healthy B12 levels. Not sure where you got this information, but the American Dietetic Association announced recently that vegetarian and vegan diets are completely healthy for all life stages.

    All-in-all, though, this was a nice post about flexitarianism. Nice work!

  6. Oh, one more thing – the chickens in Omnivore’s Dilema on Polyface farms: I watched Food, Inc recently and the chickens certainly looked like they knew about their death. That passage in the book sounded more like Pollan telling himself what he wanted to hear.

  7. Again, I think it’s really great you wrote this post and are thinking about these issues. I’m heartened that more and more people are thinking about their food choices and the extended impacts of those choices.

    And it’s great that you decided to write this post. A wonderful opportunity for discussion.

  8. As a practicing flexitarian, I really enjoyed this post. It was interesting to read about your process for acquiring this lifestyle. My flexitarian philosophy is about convenience: I hardly ever eat meat, but I don’t want to inconvenience people who cook for me, so I eat it if it’s prepared for me by others.

    On the issue of whether we can get all the nutrients we need by abstaining from meat-eating…first, meat is the only single source where we can get all the essential amino acids required for a healthy body. I believe you can get them from corn and beans–if eaten together–and possibly from other sources when eaten in combination, but meat solves that problem for you all at once. And the food we eat is about more than just the macro-nutrients they contain. Food is complex, so it’s hard to really know whether we get some sort of essential, undiscovered micronutrient from meat that we can’t replace with plants. We just don’t know enough about food science to understand all the complexities that go on when we eat certain things in combination with others, or abstain from eating certain food.

    Your comment about continuing to rely on the same industrial food system despite switching to vegetarianism rings true for me, too. I hate that I’ve simply replaced meat with soy beans grown in unsustainable ways. I try my best to eat local, but haven’t perfected that yet.

    Good luck on your quest, Ian! I recommend any and all Moosewood cookbooks for new vegetarians. They make the transition quite tasty! (Simple Suppers is my favorite.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *