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Flexitarians are finding health and financial benefits from eating less meat.
Flexitarians are finding health and financial benefits from eating less meat.

Identifying yourself as an eater used to be simple. You either ate meat, or you didn’t.

Now? Maybe you eat meat, but only certain kinds or only on certain days — or even certain hours. Or you don’t eat meat — except when you do.

If you’re not vegetarian or carnivore, what are you? The term “flexitarian” is catching on, although author Mark Bittman likes “smartly thought-out omnivore.”

His most recent books, “Food Matters” and “The Food Matters Cookbook,” came about because of his own vegan-by-day/carnivore-by-night lifestyle.

“If it’s an anything-movement, it’s a common-sense movement,” says Bittman. “I do think the worm has turned and people are understanding that the diet that is the most prevalent and easiest is not the diet that’s best.”

Whether you’re cutting out meat during the day to save calories or cutting back on it during the week to save money or wear-and-tear on the planet, eating styles aren’t one-size-fits-all any longer.

Flexitarian isn’t a new concept. The magazine Vegetarian Times has estimated that as many as 70 percent of its readers are vegetarians who occasionally eat meat, and the American Dialect Society voted “flexitarian” the year’s most useful word back in 2003, defining it as “a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat.”

What’s getting attention now are people who are going the other direction: Meat-eaters who skip the flesh at least some of the time.

Oprah Winfrey declared a one-week vegan challenge on her talk show Feb. 1, taking 378 staff members with her (300 made it). She’s also added a Meatless Monday at her company, Chicago-based Harpo Productions.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali’s 14 restaurants now offer two vegetarian options every Monday, too, joining the Web-based campaign

Even former president and junk-food junkie Bill Clinton got named 2010 Person of the Year by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals when he went mostly vegan, although he still eats fish, to lose weight before daughter Chelsea’s wedding. And he’s reportedly sticking with it.

Food blogger Matt Lardie of Durham, N.C., says he and fiance Leland Garrett made the decision to limit meat for monetary and ethical reasons. Lardie was a vegetarian in college who started eating meat again out of necessity when he was on a five-month trip to Ecuador.

When they moved to the Raleigh-Durham area, they discovered a thriving culture around local and humanely raised meat. It met their desire for better food — but it cost more. So they started finding ways to eat it less.

“Our flexitarianism came about from that perfect storm of lack of money and moral obligation,” says Lardie, who manages the Hillsborough Cheese Co.

Sometimes, he sees a great meat deal at the Food Lion near his house and he’ll find himself standing there, debating the choice of dollars over values. Finally, he’ll tell himself, “‘If I’m having this much moral trouble just purchasing it, it’s not worth it.'”

Part of the interest in less meat is the recognition of the environmental and health costs of all-meat, all-the-time, says Bittman.

Several years ago, in response to his own health issues, he started eating a vegan diet during the day and eating meat, in smaller amounts, after 6 p.m. That led to his two “Food Matters” books, where meat takes a smaller role.

It isn’t choosing one diet over the other, it’s allowing more flexibility to make responsible choices that work for you — and still allow enjoyment, he says.

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