Flexitarians: What are they, and should we all become one?
Flexi-whatjamacallems? Trying to explain to my Grandpa what a ‘flexitarian’ diet meant was perhaps a losing battle. Although by the end of the evening we had an understanding, there was about as much chance he would adopt its principles as he would eat bugs- a conversation for another day. Perhaps this was the generation gap between us coming to the surface, for flexitarianism is part and parcel of the millennial way of life. So what really does it mean? Are you unknowingly a flexi, and if you’re not, should you become one?
What is it? And who are they?
Flexitarian is one of the fastest rising and most widespread trends in the Food & Drink sector. The word is an amalgamation of flexi- and vegetarian, referring to people who, broadly, moderate their meat consumption to some extent for some reason. While veganism and vegetarianism are linked to a flexi diet, flexitarianism specifically does not call for meat to be cut out of one’s diet completely, merely to be moderated. This might be to buy less but higher quality meat, to cut down on Full English Breakfasts to only weekend treats, or simply eating a vegetarian dish once in a while. One of the most high profile ‘flexi’ schemes has been the ‘Meat Free Monday’ project, which encourages consumers to cut meat out of their menu for only one day of the week.
‘Meh, that’s for sandal wearing, Guardian-reading hippies!’ might have been the response in the past, and a few of you still today. However the movement has a number of high profile supporters. Of course there’s Gwyneth Paltrow poking her pseudo-scientific health discoveries in to the picture, but take a closer look at the rest of the supporters, and many of them are remarkably sane. The McCartney family have been long time promoters of the scheme, as has chef and food and health campaigner Jamie Oliver, actress and social justice protestor Joanna Lumley, and business billionaire Richard Branson.
Beyond the celebrities, the flexi trend has become mainstream among UK consumers in a remarkably short space of time, with meat moderators outweighing those who never moderate their meat consumption 3:1. Last year 68% of UK consumers said they regulate their weekly meat consumption to some extent and 7% cutting meat out of their diet completely, compared to just 25% who said they never moderate how much meat they eat. For the 75% of you, this is probably a normal part of your diet that you hadn’t really considered or realised, occurring over the last couple of years, and that’s part of the quiet charm of flexitarianism. It is not extreme animal rights protestors parading outside your local butchers, but a relatively peaceful, civilised movement taken on by all of us consciously or not to eat less meat.
I like bacon. Why should I cut down?
For the 75% cutting down or cutting out their weekly meat consumption, the top reasons for doing are health concerns. The negative impact of over consumption of meat, and in particular red and processed meat have come to the fore of governments’ and the public’s consciousness.
With the rise of health education and more understanding how our diets impact our wellbeing, over consumption of red and processed meat has been singled out as one of the worst causes of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, bowel cancer and digestion troubles.
Again, some of you will be frothing at the mouth about how it’s natural, worrying about your protein levels, and generally crying ‘Fake news!’ on reading this. Take a moment. No scientific findings recommend cutting meat out of your diet completely, merely to regulate how much meat and, crucially, what type of meat you are eating. If you think it’s ‘natural’ to go round eating McDonalds, or that our ancient ancestors were sitting round eating mammoth sausages, chorizo or vacuum packaged salami, perhaps you should keep eating to help the human race on evolutionary grounds. Interestingly the Chinese government have taken the lead in this area, aiming to reduce meat consumption by 50% by 2030. Cheered by environmentalists, our red foreign counterpart’s motives are probably not primarily green. Since opening up in the 1970s, Chinese meat consumption has risen hand in hand with their unprecedented economic rise. In 1982, the average Chinese person ate just 13kg of meat a year; today the average is 63kg, a 380% increase. Furthermore its predicted to be around 100kg in 2030 if nothing is done to disrupt this trend. This has been followed by an equally unprecedented rise in diabetes and obesity, and with over 100 million suffering these illnesses, the Chinese government fears the costs to the state this epidemic will cause. It is likely governments across the world will follow suit to some degree when they realise the costs they could save, imposing a ‘fat tax’ to drive up the cost of meat, and funding awareness campaigns to reduce national demand. The health advice is clear- moderating your meat intake and in particular regulating what type of meats you eat will have considerable health benefits.
What about the environment?
The rearing of livestock, and in particular beef, is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases. Its role in destroying the environment has previously gone unnoticed (see Cowspiracy for starters, the UN's verdict for mains and dessert), but as the population rises and the unsustainability of food production comes under scrutiny, environmental concerns will surely be a force driving many more towards cutting down their meat consumption. This has long been a motive of vegetarians and vegans to cut out meat all together, although this is perhaps an extreme conclusion. If you buy less meat but a higher quality, preferably British and as local as possible, Red Tractor standard meat, then it is more environmentally sustainable meat.
As a global leader and part of the ‘Western’ world, the UK should play a leading role, both at governmental and domestic level, ensuring our methods of production and levels of consumption of meat are sustainable for both the environment and our farmers.
If health and environmental concerns aren’t enough to motivate you, perhaps your wallets will.
A large benefit to flexitarians from reducing their meat consumption is the money they save. Meat is one of the most expensive items /per KG in consumers’ baskets, making up more than ¼ of our overall weekly spend on food. If the health motivations are too long term to hit home or the environmental damage of over meat consumption won’t persuade you, the pragmatic motive of saving money by cutting down on your meat consumption could well do it. Save that money, and spend it gladly elsewhere in the knowledge you are now a flexi pioneer, saving yourself and the environment one burger, steak or kebab at a time.