This post is all about the Vegetarian, Vegan, and so-called, "Flexitarian" diets. I basically want to define what these three diets encompass and then give my take on them. I know there are some who will never be appealed to via the animal rights argument, so I will mostly be approaching these diets from the "they're healthy for you" standpoint. But first, a word from The American Dietetic Association (ADA), from Science Daily,
"Vegetarian diets are often associated with health advantages including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes...Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index [this means less fat!] and lower overall cancer rates. Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals. These nutritional differences may explain some of the health advantages of those following a varied, balanced vegetarian diet."
Vegetarians exist solely on plant based food - hence the "vege" stem, indicating vegetables or vegetation. (So, if you don't eat red meat but still eat things like fish and chicken, no you are not a vegetarian.) Some of you may know that I used to be vegetarian. In fact, I was vegetarian for 9 years, starting in my teens and ending about two years after I got married. Back then, I was highly inflexible, and could not stand to touch, smell, see, let alone taste meat. Inflexibility aside, and contrary to popular opinion about vegetarians, I did not have a problem getting protein. In fact, I often had more protein than was nutritionally necessary, easily surpassing the recommended daily amount. So how do vegetarians get their protein if they don't eat meat? Well, many vegetarians eat eggs, dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt, etc.,) or both. Nuts and seeds (in moderation) are also an excellent way to obtain protein. Then there's the ever prevalent soy on the vegetarian’s menu. Without exaggerating, there are probably millions of ways to cook with soy products. There are plain soy beans, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, tvp, and surely lots more I've never heard of. Then there are beans and some grains (quinoa) which have protein. Even greens, yes GREENS, can be good sources of protein. So, with a little imagination, creativity, and practice, one can easily live, thrive and, perhaps more importantly, eat delicious foods on the vegetarian diet.
Veganism is basically a stricter form of vegetarianism. Vegans go a step further and eliminate all animal products from their diet. This means no eggs or dairy (bye, bye, cheese!). Some vegans even say no to honey, since it comes from bees, a living creature. Veganism is truly a lifestyle and many also take care to avoid cosmetics and clothing that use animal ingredients. For those who are interested in including more fresh fruits and vegetables, (and therefore less meat), in their diets, jumping into veganism may be hard to do because it is so restrictive. It is not impossible, however, and many achieve great success on this diet. Though some vegans do find that they need to take B12 to supplement what they’re not getting in their food. Personally, when I was a vegetarian, I experienced intermittent bouts of lactose intolerance and have therefore dabbled in veganism; but, despite the stomach cramps, it's always the cheese that stopped me from going all the way to the vegan camp. So, although I do not know if I will ever be vegan again, I do love experimenting with vegan foods and I plan to have lots of vegan recipes featured on this site.
The term flexitarian is somewhat new, not widely accepted, and is sometimes even derided by members of the vegan/vegetarian camp. A self-described flexitarian is usually someone who eats a primarily vegetarian diet, but occasionally eats some form of meat. Flexitarians are often somewhat conscious of where their food comes from and have ethical or dietary concerns for why they choose to eat a mostly plant-based diet. The key with flexitarians is, well, flexibility. A flexitarian may go weeks on end eating a completely plant-based diet, but may occasionally eat a meat-based meal if a well-intentioned loved one prepares it for them.
Although I am not completely sold on the term flexitarianism, I think this way of eating has merit – especially for those who are completely against strictly vegetarian/vegan diets.
For better or worse, many people are disinterested in the rigid dogma that many vegans and vegetarians espouse (I know, I used to be one of them). Further, many who might be swayed or interested in learning about animal rights or healthier, (mostly) meatless eating become turned off when those who care so much for the humane treatment of animals have not yet managed to treat their fellow humans with much humanity. This, for me, is a problem. It is my personal belief that eating a vegetarian diet is the most ethical choice, but we all have to arrive at this choice on our own, as conscious individuals. It is not my place to cast judgment on those who do not choose the vegetarian path. No one deserves to be berated for that choice. Further, I do not know if I will be vegetarian forever. I’ve only been back on the vegetarian diet for about 2 months now. It hasn’t been hard, but I’m still just taking it one day at a time, doing my best to lose a few pounds and improve my overall well-being.
On a final note, I will say that we should all have a goal of increasing the amount of healthy fruits and vegetables in our diets, whether we continue to eat meat or not. Most of us just don’t eat enough veg. So if you are someone who is interested in becoming vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian, you don’t have to magically transform over night. Though if you are an all or nothing type – go for it! Otherwise, start small by decreasing the size of your meat serving and increasing the size of your vegetable portions. Then, go one day a week without meat; then go two, three or more. It’s OK to take baby steps. Just give it a try and see how it goes. Your health will thank you!
Peace and Greens, from the Diary of a Smart Black Woman