The term "flexitarian" has been coined to describe someone who eats a primarily whole food, plant-based diet, but also sneaks in a big of meat every now and again. Celebrity cookbook author and chef, Mark Bittman, uses this term, and has recently moved away from a meat-centric diet. His new schtick is that he's strictly vegan all day long, and in the evening he eats whatever he wants. I find this a little odd from a health perspective because if you're going to toss a big grass-fed steak down your gullet, you're much better off eating it at lunch time when your body has the rest of the day to digest it/work it off. But moving on from the Mark Bittman (who I love), I'm seeing flexitarians cropping up everywhere here in LA - almost as many as the Paleo crowd. And both groups of "health conscious" eaters are eating meat - in the case of Paleo's, a LOT of meat. However, are they really "conscious"?
I personally choose not to eat animal flesh. I totally used to. Actually, I include a bunch of meat recipes in my second book (The Gorgeously Green Diet 2009), and do a deep dive into the benefits of truly grass-fed (as opposed to grass-finished) meat. But over the past 5 years I've changed. I've realized that I don't need to eat animal flesh to be healthy, and that in many ways I am healthier, stronger, and more energetic without. I've also become a way more "conscious" eater in that I really think long and hard about how every mouthful is produced, and in the case of animals, I just couldn't deny that fact that animal welfare doesn't get taken into consideration 99.9% of the time (even when it's implied that it does). I don't call myself a vegan, because it's a label (not a big fan of labels), and I do (very occasionally) eat a little fish.
I am totally NON-JUDGEMENTAL of people who enjoy eating meat, so if you are one of them, please don't stop reading. My entire family are meat-eaters, and so I've learned to live and let live. I'm also not opposed to handling or cooking meat for those who must eat it - like my 15 year-old daughter who says she will NEVER not eat meat. It's kind of the reverse of the many teens who, much to their parent's consternation, suddenly go vegan. Since I'm a total health nut, my daughter delights in seeing my reaction to her tucking into a box of Fruity Pebbles (not the Whole Foods healthy version either).
But my reason for writing this post about a kind flexitarian is because I was invited to a private screening of the recently released film, At The Fork. It's a beautifully crafted documentary about exactly how animals are raised for human consumption in America. It is non-judgmental, sensitive, and deep - really DEEP. The filmmaker/director John Papola is a meat-eater, and his wife, Lisa, is not. The film opens with John's family tearing into huge racks of beef ribs, hot off the grill - an annual family tradition. His wife loads her plate with veggies. Husband and wife make clear their individual stances on meat-eating, and off they go to explore how our meat is produced.
I brought my meat-eating (only about once a week if that, cos I'm hard on his case), husband to the screening. After the film we stayed to participate in the panel, where John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market (who was involved in the film), sat with the director and producers to answer questions. We then went out for a fantastic vegan meal!!!
So, what was my main takeaway? The film made me cry a number of times. They feature a lot of pigs. I love pigs, and because I was raised around them, I know that they are highly intelligent. The film also made me laugh - there were some beautiful and very funny moments. Unlike so many of the meat-bashing documentaries out there (designed to turn everyone in vegans overnight), this film doesn't bash anyone over the head. The director John, is brazenly honest, and openly discusses his struggle about forgetting the suffering he might have just witnessed at an appalling factory farm, once a few days have gone by - and especially when faced with the smell of a delicious burger or steak on the grill. His wife is devastated by the fact that he seems not to have the same lasting sense of compassion as she does - and this conflict runs throughout the film. I like that it's not resolved either. This makes the film more appealing to a way larger audience, which is the intention. No point preaching to the choir, right?
I love the fact that Temple Grandin is in the movie throughout. She's been a huge advocate of designing compassionate slaughterhouses - an oxymoron I KNOW, but one that she explains in great detail. If the animals are going to be killed, at least don't put them into abject terror on their way. I think that was the most upsetting part of the film: seeing how terrified the animals were as they were separated from their herd and shoved into crowded trucks headed for the slaughterhouse. Incidentally, the director doesn't show any animals actually being slaughtered in the movie - a wise decision because we stay watching, rather than turn away. This is not a horror movie!
The panel was very interesting. Here's something that I didn't know about John Mackey: He used to eat meat (and clearly sells it in his markets). But, he is now vegan. In an interview in Men's Journal, he explains: "I became a vegan in 2003, after a woman interrupted the Whole Foods annual meeting to tell us how bad ducks were treated. We had a big argument, but then we started an email correspondence and she challenged me to learn more. That summer I probably read a dozen books on animal welfare. What shocked me the most was the phenomenon of factory farming -- animals endure terrible lives of abuse and suffering -- and it's hidden away. After reading the books, I knew too much to keep eating meat. Remember The Matrix? Take the blue pill or the red pill? I didn't want to go back to sleep."
But he also acknowledges that only 1% of the population are vegan, so to run a viable business on the scale of Whole Foods Market, he had to continue selling meat. To this end, he has spearheaded the 5-Step Animal Welfare Standards label. He explained to us that not only does this allow customers to really understand how the animals they are buying were treated, but it also encourages animal producers to get kinder and cleaner. They can all charge top dollar for a Step 5+, so they are starting to make big changes.
This brings me to my final thought in this discourse. If you want to be a kinder flexitarian, and eat/buy meat that is good quality, and from an animal who hasn't suffered for its entire life, you will have to pay more. Organic, humanely-reared meat is very expensive. I see this as a positive because Americans eat way too much cheap meat. This kind of mass meat consumption is linked to all the number one killer diseases, and inflicts untold suffering on the animals involved - a big LOSS for all involved. I think it's time to open our eyes. At The Fork certainly helps pull back the curtain on the unpalatable truth. I highly recommend you try to see it. If it's not playing near you, they will help you organize a showing for your community, school, church or neighborhood.
And, finally, why not join the their 21-day challenge. All you need do is sign up with your email, and they will send you a daily plant-based/higher welfare recipe from all kinds of celebrity chefs, as well as shopping guides, articles, and more. You can also like the At The Fork Facebook page.
I also encourage you to try some of the plethora of plant-based recipes on my blog.