Flexitarian and omnivore are two words that describe the eating pattern of someone who eats plant based and animals based foods.
Flexitarian is a new word. It’s a neologism coined in the early 1990s by putting two familiar words together – vegetarian and flexible.
Omnivore is an old word. It’s descended from the Latin omnivorus via French into English probably during the 19th century and used to describe a person who eats both plants and animals.
If you had asked me a month ago if I were an omnivore or a flexitarian, I would have said both. Lots of vegetables and fruits and legumes and nuts and whole grains and smaller portions of meats or poultry or fish or cheese have always been part of my usual pattern.
Something happened recently, however, that caused me to change my mind. The EAT-Lancet report was released last month. This report champions a planetary health diet and a flexitarian dietary pattern.
The report is the result of a three year effort and reflects the work of many international experts. Described as a dietary approach that promotes both the health of people and the health of the planet, the flexitarian pattern that emerges is largely plant-based but includes small amounts of fish, meat and dairy foods. Links are provided for those of you who want to read the report and the summary for yourselves.
Now getting more fruits and vegetables and legumes and nuts and whole grains on the plate is a great idea. But the flexitarian pattern proposed in the report is not a pattern I want to follow and here’s why.
Like so many diet plans, the guidelines are not flexible and virtually eliminate whole groups of foods. Many fashionable diets reflect rigidity. Keto eliminates carbohydrates. Fat Free eliminates olive oil and avocado and nuts. There are plenty of vegetables in the planetary health diet but I don’t see a lot of flexibility for animal based foods. Like whole milk yogurt. Or a cheese omelet made with eggs from pastured hens. Restricting personal choice and spontaneity and surprise takes so much of the joy out of eating.
Saving the planet is a goal most of us support. It’s just not clear to me however why a piece of farmhouse cheese from grass fed cows is a worse choice for the planet than an industrially produced cashew analogue made with nuts imported from who knows where. Cashew analogues are encouraged as per my reading of this flexitarian approach and whole milk products like cheese are not even allowed.
Doing my own research and making my own moral choices is important and the more I studied the report, the more inflexible and dogmatic the flexitarian pattern sounded.
Shopping and cooking are fun. At least for me. Experimenting with new foods and exploring new places and learning new techniques are part of the adventure. Food should be celebrated and, all due respect, I found the report lacking in joy and spontaneity.
Time for reassessment. Maybe I’m not a flexitarian after all. But does that make me an omnivore? I went out looking for confirmation and found myself on Michael Pollan’s website.
No other food writer is more closely associated with the word omnivore than Michael Pollan. He wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma about a decade ago and penned that famous dictum: eat food, mostly plants, not too much. He is not, or at least he was not at that time, vegetarian. Here’s how he phrased his response.
“Meat eating may have become an act riddled with moral and ethical ambiguities, but eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and sunlight is something I’m happy to do and defend. The same is true for a pastured chicken or hog. When obtained from small farms where these animals are treated well, fed an appropriate diet, and generally allowed to express their creaturely character, I think the benefits of eating such meat outweigh the cost. A truly sustainable agriculture will involve animals, in order to complete the nutrient cycle, and those animals are going to be killed and eaten.”
Makes perfect sense to me. Exactly the path I’ve followed. Making peace with the messy realities of eating animals is necessary. My way of making peace is to support small scale agriculture, humane treatment, and pasture raised meat, dairy, and cheese.
I understand this pathway is not for everyone and honor the personal choice of others. The recommendations in the EAT-Lancet report hit me as rigid, dogmatic, and austere. I feel the writers are mandating a course of action and are not in the mood for compromise. I’m not expecting the flexitarian movement to honor my personal choice, but I’ve decided to keep my mind open and hope for a pleasant surprise.