You don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian to help save the planet

Dietitian Dawn Blatner struggled for years with being a vegetarian, suffering the occasional craving for a hot dog at a baseball game or some turkey at Thanksgiving. “I always thought I was just a lazy vegetarian,” she says. “Then I saw the word ‘flexitarian.’”

That was in 2003; Blatner has described herself as a flexitarian ever since. “The idea of waking in the morning with the intention to eat more plants is what a flexitarian is about,” she says. But crucially, there’s “no cutting out food groups.”

Eating plant-based foods most of the time — the central pillar of the flexitarian diet — is an idea that’s come in, out, and back in again over the years. You can easily find a wealth of cookbooks, blogs, recipes and scientific studies devoted to the subject. But while plant-based diets have always offered dramatic health benefits, such as lowered risk of heart disease and diabetes, they are also increasingly recognised as one of the best ways individuals can take action to combat the worsening climate crisis. And unlike calls to centralise personal climate action around sacrifice — no meat, no driving, no flying, no plastic — the flexitarian approach stands apart for being, well, flexible. People can try it without ditching their favourite foods.

There’s no strict definition for “flexitarian,” and even its origins are a bit hazy. (Some parts of the internet mistakenly attribute it to Blatner herself.) Since the American Dialect Society named “flexitarian” one of their words of the year in 2003, this style of eating has become increasingly popular. It’s also far from alone in centring consumption questions around animal- versus plant-based foods. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Veganism: An entirely plants-based diet with no meat, dairy or other animal products.

  • Vegetarianism: A mostly plants-based diet with dairy and eggs but no meat consumption.

  • Pescatarian: Plants, dairy and eggs, fish and other seafood are consumed, but no meat.

  • Climatarian: Choosing foods based on lowering your carbon footprint, mainly by avoiding beef and lamb.

  • Reducetarian: Reducing meat consumption, period, in whatever shape or form you choose.

  • Flexitarian: A primarily plants-based diet, though no food is off limits. Also called a part-time vegetarian diet.

There are glaring gaps between what all these diets recommend and what people actually eat, 

though research keeps piling up in favour of moderating meat and dairy intake. A whole-foods, plant-based diet has been shown to “lower the risk of chronic diseases, like diabetes and heart disease, and certain cancers, like colon cancer and prostate cancer,” says Dana Hunnes, a dietitian and climate researcher at the University of California Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health. If you already have diabetes or heart disease, this type of diet can potentially reverse it “because it’s healthier, it’s full of fibre, it’s full of vitamins and minerals and it’s anti-inflammatory,” she says.

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