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The Flexitarian Diet

The term flexitarian (‘flexible vegetarian’) was first coined in 1992, but it has grown in popularity in recent years. If you sometimes actively choose not to eat meat or animal products, you might be a flexitarian yourself - even if you don’t realize it!

What is a flexitarian?

As the name implies, flexitarians take a flexible approach to vegetarianism, focusing their diet mainly around plant-based foods but still eating meat and other animal products occasionally.2

Although there is no set definition, a flexitarian diet doesn’t subscribe to a rigid set of rules. Flexitarians may choose to occasionally eat meat, but the underlying ethos is to consume consciously and try to reduce the quantity (and frequency) of meat consumption. For many people, a flexitarian diet helps make it easier to balance a social life (which often involves eating) with their personal beliefs.

Though often used interchangeably, flexitarians are not the same as so-called ‘semi-vegetarians’. Semi-vegetarianism excludes specific kinds of meat (often red meats like pork, beef and lamb) from your diet but includes eating white meat (such as poultry and fish). Flexitarians usually do not limit the type of meat they eat but instead limit how much meat they eat. 

How popular is flexitarianism? 

The flexitarian movement has become increasingly popular in recent years. An increasing number of people across a wide range of European countries seem willing to limit their consumption of animal products, with 43% of people in Poland, for example, already strongly limiting their consumption of meat or eating no meat at all.4

However, precisely because ‘flexitarianism’ lacks a strict definition, it’s tricky to compare statistics about flexitarians between different countries, since each culture may define a ‘flexitarian’ in their own way: for example, in some countries flexatariants are classed as omnivores, while others they are considered closer to vegetarians.3 People may also follow the principles of a flexitarian diet whilst being unaware of the term: a 2018 study found that despite many people in Poland actively trying to eat less meat, only 1% of Polish people would self-identify as a ‘flexitarian’.7 

Benefits of flexitarianism

Much like other diets focusing on reducing intake of meat and animal products, following a flexitarian diet carries a range of health, economic, and ecological benefits.8 At the same time, flexitarianism is generally more widely accepted and welcomed by others in society than more rigid plant-focused diets, largely because it still leaves people with more flexible choices and is less likely to impact people who eat meat. In a recent study, the V-PLACE project found that this lack of negative associations with or attitude towards flexitarians was a major factor in the growing popularity of the diet.3

The V-PLACE project also noted two key reasons why omnivores generally had a more positive perception of flexitarians over vegetarians or vegans:9

  1. Their openness, curiosity and creativity in finding ways to reduce their meat intake
  2. Their tendency to critically assess  the merits and drawbacks of plant-based alternatives by making comparisons to the original animal-based products they are replacing

Is flexitarianism the answer to a more sustainable food system?

Many people see the flexitarian approach as a good way of helping to battle obesity and reduce the environmental impact of our food today. While the individual impact may not be as great as for switching to a plant-based or vegetarian diet, flexitarian diets are likely to be accessible to more people, so they could have a greater overall impact on improving the sustainability of our food as a society. 

Many of us might struggle to give up meat completely - but we can all try to reduce our meat consumption and choose meat of better quality. In the end, the profits for the planet would be more than our own personal losses.

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