health

"Why I'm proud to be a crappy vegetarian." A flexitarian's confession.

“Why don’t you eat meat?”

Jeez, that question use to make me uncomfortable. Not because I don’t think it’s worth asking, but because I felt like I ought to provide some passionate, eloquent justification for my choice.

Instead I’d mutter something incoherent about the environment and cute baby pigs, and quickly blurt “butIeatfishsometimes!” (You know, just in case someone ever saw me at a sushi restaurant, or I decide to take up recreational fly-fishing.)

I realise now that the root of that discomfort was guilt. I felt guilty.

Because I was – am – a footnote vegetarian. The kind that comes with a disclaimer, the kind that couldn’t and wouldn’t wholly commit to the cause. I’d describe myself as ‘pescetarian’ or ‘flexitarian‘, or sometimes, when confronted with a particularly passionate veggo, ‘a cheater’.

And that, right there, that all-or-nothing approach, is a problem.

Somewhere along the line, choosing to eat plant-based food went from being a diet to being an identity. Sure, there’s something comforting about being able to slot into a category, to say ‘this is who I am’, or even ‘this is what I stand for’ (I mean, that’s why Buzzfeed quizzes and horoscopes exist). But in the process, it’s alienating an otherwise veggie-curious segment of the population.

How often have you said/heard someone say, "I've considered going vegan, but... cheese"? Or "I was vegetarian for five months at uni, but then I got sloshed and had a kebab"? The very fact that we feel we can't follow a diet 98 per cent of the time, or that one drunken doner means it's all over, is telling. And it's a shame.

Because we all know that eating less meat is a good thing.

The benefits of flexitarian.

Health-wise, the case for a flexitarian diet is clear. A systematic review of 25 studies found significant health benefits including better weight management, lower blood pressure, better metabolic health and lower risk of type 2 diabetes. In fact, an Oxford University study in 2010 found that if everyone in the UK cut meat-eating to three times a week, it could prevent 31,000 deaths from heart disease, 9,000 deaths from cancer and 5,000 deaths from stroke.

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Environmentally, it's a simple way to help combat climate change. As the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) notes, the livestock sector, including its supply chains, alone contributes to about 14.5 per cent of total human-induced greenhouse emissions. Not to mention deforestation, habitat loss, and impact on water supply.

Then of course, there's animal welfare. Just hit up Animals Australia or RSPCA for information and pictures inside factory farms if you're on the fence here.

But even selfishly, eating a mostly vegetarian diet also cheaper. (Lentils, people. I'm telling you. 90 cents worth of iron/protein-rich goodness.)

Thankfully, there is headway being made to support reduced meat consumption. Supermarkets and restaurants now have legitimate choices for people wishing to dodge animal products - hat tip to Hungry Jacks' vegan 'cheese' burgers, and to Streets for making dairy-free Magnums and Cornettos. For home cooks (another hat-tip), there are reams of vegetarian recipes available online.

Stella and Paul McCartney are even doing their bit to fly the flexitarian flag. They've leveraged her fame to establish the 'meat-free Mondays' campaign, which encourages people to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet at least one day a week, and make ethical choices (whenever they can) for the rest.

After all, more important than upholding an identity or being able to wear a label with impunity, is doing something... anything. And that starts with getting rid of the guilt.

So the next time someone asks me why I don't eat meat? I'll say I'm flexitarian... and proud.

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