How I Settled on a Flexible Plant-Based Diet
I grew up in a culture that puts a lot of pressure on women when it comes to our diets. From “fat-free” to “guilt-free,” food is often marketed based on what’s not in it and why we shouldn’t feel bad for eating it. I strive to have a healthy relationship with food and I put a lot of thought into what I eat, but I never want my diet to be a source of guilt or stress. That’s why restrictive or extreme diets don’t appeal to me. Popular diets like Paleo, the ketogenic diet, Atkins, Whole 30, and more have proven successful for tons of people, but I just can’t get behind a diet that consists of a lengthy list of all the things I’m not allowed to eat.
The principle of vegetarian and vegan diets presents a similar problem. While I’m completely on board with limiting my consumption of meat and animal products, the titles vegetarian and vegan tell us what we shouldn’t eat (animal products) but don’t specify what we should be eating instead.
I started experimenting with vegetarianism more than five years ago. I grew up eating meat at least twice a day, so it felt pretty drastic to transition from regular meat-eater to occasional meat-eater, and eventually to vegetarian. My diet journey didn’t stop there; over the last few years, I’ve jumped around from vegetarian to pescatarian, to occasional meat-eater, to on-and-off vegan before finally settling into my current (and likely permanent) dietary title of “flexitarian.”
In the meantime, I learned a lot about the plant-based movement and the myriad of titles describing various degrees of meat-eatingness. Most people are pretty familiar with the terms vegetarian, pescatarian, and vegan, but there are a couple of newer terms, which I’ve adopted to describe my diet, that expand the scope of the movement:
Many people use the terms vegan and plant-based interchangeably, but actually there are a few differences. A vegan diet argues for the compassionate treatment of animals, and aims to strictly eliminate animal-derived foods of all kinds, all of the time. With a plant-based diet, the vast majority of food comes from plants, but not necessarily 100%. The term originated in the health science community, and tends to lack the ethical connotations carried by the term vegan.
Coined in 2004, the term flexitarian is defined as “a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat.” The American Dialectic Society awarded flexitarian the title of “most useful word of the year,” an annual distinction awarded to neologisms that fill a gap in the lexicon. How can someone be a vegetarian but also occasionally eat meat, and why was there a need for a word to describe this occasional meat-eater? The gap in the lexicon to describe a mostly plant-based diet was particularly prescient in cultures where meat consumption is high. In 2018, Americans consumed an average of 224.3 pounds of red meat and poultry per person. The average American eats meat more than once per day, while vegetarians don’t eat meat at all. The term flexitarian fills in the massive gap between those two categories by describing all those people who aren’t entirely vegetarian but eat significantly less meat than the average person.
After years of jumping around between various labels to describe my eating habits, I’ve finally settled on a plant-based flexitarian diet. Rather than restricting myself from certain foods, I follow Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen, which I learned about in his bestselling book How Not to Die. Everyday I try to check off all twelve of the items on the list, which adds up to twenty-four servings of nutritious, plant-based foods. By the time I get through with the list I’m usually pretty full, but if a friend offers me a piece of milk chocolate or there’s a tray of free shrimp at a work event, I’ll probably help myself to one or two and I won’t feel bad about it. At the end of the week, I’ve usually eaten about a 95% plant-based diet, but I also haven’t stressed myself out over it.
My motivations for eating mostly plant-based are manifold, but primarily rooted in minimalist ideals and a desire to cause less waste and less harm in my day-to-day life. I don’t support the industrial-scale meat and dairy production in this country, so I don’t like to spend my money on it. It’s also an easy way to keep my carbon footprint low and, overall, I think it’s a healthier way to eat. It tastes good, it challenges me to cook in new and interesting ways, and it’s only getting cheaper and easier to eat plant-based as more and more people adjust their eating habits alongside me.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what labels we use to describe our eating habits. I like my flexible diet because it gives me guidelines for what I should eat without making me feel like I’m restricting my food. Just because I don’t take on the label ethical vegan doesn’t mean I can’t be part of the movement to change the way we eat in this country and across the world. There’s a big difference between eating 224 pounds of meat a year and eating none, and the flexitarian movement is a good reminder that there’s a lot of room to join the plant-based movement without adhering to a strict ruleset. I, like many people, have cultural ties to meat and dairy. Food is the centerpiece of Italian culture and family life, and when I visit relatives in Italy I will join them at the table and eat their food without hesitation. My ultimate goal is to focus on the essentials and do less harm in my life, and I’ve determined that for me, maintaining some leniency in my lifestyle will ultimately contribute to that goal by keeping me on track for the long haul.
Alison Kaplan lives in a 70 square foot microtinyhome on the central coast of California. Over the last few years she has experimented with various occupations from hotel maid to climbing instructor to canoe trip leader, but for now she’s settled on writing and environmental field work. She spends her free time rock climbing, reading, and working on her car.