Surprise! You may be a 'flexitarian'

Count yourself in this group if you eat meat now and then

Health & Fitness

May 02, 2004|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to the Sun

What do you call a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat?

If you guessed omnivore, you're not alone.

But you're not right, either. At least not according to the American Dialect Society, which gave the term flexitarian -- used to describe meat-eating vegetarians -- its top honor for most useful word of 2003.

Flexitarians adhere mostly to the vegetarian diet as a healthy lifestyle rather than following an ideology. They feel an occasional meal that includes fish, fowl or meat is acceptable.

Margie Roswell, for example, is passionate about her plant-based diet. She holds monthly potluck vegan dinners. She attends Vegetarian Summerfest every year in Johnstown, Pa. And she has even held a raw-food Seder for her family.

But once or twice a month, she usually eats some type of meat, often free-range chicken or turkey.

"I just feel like a little bit of meat is a natural part of the human diet," says Roswell, a 42-year-old Baltimore resident. "I will go 100 percent vegan for a period of time, but that doesn't mean when I go to my sister's house for Thanksgiving that I won't have part of the turkey."

Although Roswell says she's not sure she will use flexitarian, she likes knowing there is a term to describe her eating habits.

"It's a pretty good word," she says. "I always thought I was in the very, very tiny minority. ... It's nice to know you're not alone."

Growing appetite

The market for vegetarian food in the United States has grown significantly in the past five years, from about $646 million in 1998 to $1.6 billion in 2003, according to a report by the Mintel Group, a consulting company that tracks consumer habits. The report predicts that the market will reach $2.5 billion by 2008.

The Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group estimates that about 3 percent of the population are vegetarians -- those who never eat meat, fish or fowl. About 1 percent of that number includes people who consider themselves vegan -- they also exclude dairy, eggs and other animal byproducts from their diets.

But flexitarians could be estimated as high as 40 percent of the American population, according to Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group.

Stahler is not particularly fond of the term flexitarian, but he views this newly defined group as being good candidates to become future vegetarians or vegans.

"There is no reason not to be vegetarian," says Stahler. "It used to be hard from a supply point of view. But now it's much easier to be vegetarian. And certainly from a health point of view, it makes sense."

The rise in flexitarians, he says, could be linked to a number of factors, including issues such as health and fitness and animal rights. Also, economic pressure has forced traditional grocery stores to carry more ethnic and natural foods, making it easier to buy vegetarian products.

Stahler isn't surprised at the growing number of flexitarians. "I do think that organic and free-range is a trend most people are headed to" in their diets, he says.

Grocers shift

Flexitarians are the target audience of Roots Market in Clarksville. The market, which claims to have the largest organic produce section in the Baltimore-Washington area, opened four years ago and originally did not carry meat. Within six months, the market began offering meat in response to customer demand. The meat department has since expanded three times.

Roots offers a completely organic produce department, along with specialty foods for people with allergies and a grocery department with natural versions of conventional items such breakfast cereals. The meat department provides meats free of dyes, hormones and antibiotics.

Ellen Joy, a manager at the store, says "people are changing the way they look at food. I think more and more people are thinking of vegetarianism as a healthy lifestyle."

Even traditional grocery stores like Giant Food are giving organic food and vegetarian foods like tofu hotdogs and veggie burgers more space.

"It's definitely a growth area," says Janet Tenney, manager of nutrition programs for Landover-based Giant Food.

Isabel Fabara, owner of One World Cafe in Baltimore, says her customers include strict vegans as well as meat eaters. Although some seafood items are offered, no meat or fowl is served at the restaurant, on West University Parkway opposite Johns Hopkins University.

"Our food is geared toward health and not just being vegetarian," said Fabara, 37, who has not eaten meat in 20 years but still occasionally eats seafood.

"I think by saying flexitarian it means [people] are thinking about their health more. I think it's great whether you can not eat meat one night or five nights," Fabara says. "Every little bit helps."

Vegans, vegetarians, flexitarians

There are all sorts of vegetarians, including so-called flexitarians, who adhere mostly to a vegetarian diet but still occasionally eat meat. Here's a look at the various categories of food consumers, provided by the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group. For more information, contact the group at 410-366-8343 or visit the Web site

Vegans: Do not eat meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs or honey.

True vegetarians: Do not eat meat, poultry or fish.

Flexitarians: Include the groups below:

* Vegetarian: Those who say they are vegetarian, or "almost vegetarian," but use some meat, poultry or fish.

* Vegetarian inclined: Replace meat with meat alternatives for at least some meals, usually maintain a vegetarian diet, or eat four or more meatless meals per week.

* Health-conscious: Strive for a balanced eating plan or eat two to three meatless meals per week.

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