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Are you a 'flexitarian?'

A growing number of part-time vegetarians whose loose adherence to the meat-free diet is transforming a decades-old movement and the industry that feeds it.
Christy Pugh, a so-called flexitarian, prepares a meal that includes organic turkey sausage at her home in Concord, N.H., earlier this year.Larry Crowe / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even after five years, Christy Pugh has no trouble sticking to her vegetarian regimen.

The secret to her success? Eating meat.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a bad vegetarian, that I’m not strict enough or good enough,” the 28-year-old bookkeeper from Concord said recently. “I really like vegetarian food but I’m just not 100 percent committed.”

Pugh is one of a growing number of part-time vegetarians whose loose adherence to the meat-free diet is transforming a decades-old movement and the industry that feeds it.

'I really like sausage'
These so-called “flexitarians” — a term voted most useful word of 2003 by the American Dialect Society — are motivated less by animal rights than by a growing body of medical data that suggests health benefits from eating more vegetarian foods.

“There’s so many reasons that people are vegetarians ... I find that nobody ever gives me a hard time when I say I usually eat vegetarian. But I really like sausage,” Pugh said.

In recent years the market for vegetarian friendly foods has exploded, with items such as soy milk and veggie burgers showing up in mainstream groceries and fast food restaurants.

But even the diet’s activists say that growth can’t be attributed to committed vegetarians, who are estimated at about 3 percent of the adult U.S. population, or about 5.7 million people never eating meat, poultry or seafood.

Charles Stahler, co-director of the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, credits the growth to flexitarians — vegetarians who dabble in meat and carnivores who seek out vegetarian meals.

“This is why Burger King has a veggie burger. It’s not because of us,” he said. “The true vegetarians wouldn’t rush to Burger King anyway. It’s because of those people in the middle. They are the driving audience.”

Though flexitarian headcounts are imprecise, Stahler estimates roughly 30 percent to 40 percent of the population at least occasionally seeks out vegetarian meals.

Room for flexibility
Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, credits the growth of flexitarianism to the nation’s better understanding of the diet-disease connection.

“Whether you make a commitment to eating strictly vegetarian or not, cutting back your dependence on meat is something most people acknowledge they know they should do,” she said.

Mollie Katzen, a cookbook author and a founder of the iconic vegetarian eatery Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., takes another perspective. The former vegetarian thinks people who eschew meat would be better off if they didn’t.

Though she still advocates vegetable-based diets, Katzen sees room — and for many people a need — for flexibility.

“To base our diet there, yes. Absolutely,” she said. “However, where the protein comes from in that diet, I don’t feel it’s wrong if you’ve got a great big plate of vegetables your protein is from a healthy, happy chicken, or a grass-fed cow.”

Plenty of people seem to agree. At Wild Oats stores, a Boulder, Colo.-based chain of natural foods grocers that cater to vegetarians, the majority of shoppers aren’t vegetarians.

Tracy Spencer, a spokeswoman for the company, said Wild Oats shoppers are concerned about health and want the grocer’s natural and organic products, including meats.

Publishers take notice
Publishers of vegetarian magazines also are taking notice. To target the part-timers many have softened their approach to meatless diets, even at risk of alienating the far smaller reader pool of true vegetarians.

Until last year Natural Health, a Woodland Hills, Calif.-based magazine with a monthly circulation of 300,000, published only vegan recipes, which exclude even dairy and honey.

Now the recipes regularly include meat, said Barb Harris, the magazine’s editorial director.

“There is a big interest in vegetarianism,” she said. “But we can also tell from our readership that these are not people who are following a pure vegetarian lifestyle. These are people who are integrating a vegetarian menu in their current diets.”

A similar change occurred at the 30-year-old Vegetarian Times, considered the standardbearer of vegetarianism. Though still meat-free, the once mostly vegan magazine focuses less on activism and more on recipes with broader appeal.

Carla Davis, managing editor of the Glen Allen, Va.-based monthly, said the changes were made after a survey showed 70 percent of the magazine’s 300,000-plus readers weren’t vegetarian.

Even the strictest of vegetarian advocacy groups considers the flexitarian trend a good thing.

Bruce Friedrich, spokesman for Norfolk, Va.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said he doesn’t see any harm in vegetarianism focusing more on food than the issues that spurred the movement.

“From our perspective, if people influenced by health consequently cut back on fish and meat consumption, that helps animals,” he said. “If two people cut their meat in half it helps as much as one person going completely vegetarian.”