Vegan vs. Vegetarian vs. Flexitarian: How to Choose?

vegan vegetarian flexitarian

Do you want to eat in a way that is better for you and for the environment, but you don’t know where to begin? There are so many choices and so many different names for how people identify their food choices that it all can be a little overwhelming! I felt the same way, so I set out to de-mystify the decisions and look for a way to eat healthfully (and still stay within our family’s monthly food budget!).

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The Problem With Vegetables

Let me back up a little and be the first to tell you that I don’t really like vegetables.

There.

I said it.

I know, I know, that makes me some sort of criminal, right? 

Or at the very least, uncomfortably honest.

But if a bag of chewy Nerds and a hand crocheted bag of locally-sourced broccoli were both hanging off opposite sides of a cliff, crying to be saved…well, I don’t have to tell you to whom I’d run first. 

Broccoli can take care of itself.

Vegetables vs. Animal Products

The problem is, I read too much.

Not only does that mean that the house stays mildly dusty and unkempt, but every now and then an author slyly convinces me of an inconvenient truth, one I’d rather not consider plausible.

Mark Bittman’s 2008 TED talk: What’s Wrong With What We Eat

In this case, it was Mark Bittman and David Katz’s new book, What to Eat. This book beats the drum of unsustainable animal meat production, a rhythm most of us are probably already familiar with after watching Food Inc. or reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.

But for some reason this past December, the truth just hit different. Ouch!

And I felt like I should explore what I could do about it.

Of course, December is a month of excessive food indulgence, and I wasn’t planning on skipping out, so I shelved it all until January.

Hooray for January…the month of new beginnings and re-evaluations. 

January, the month when we all look in dismay shock and horror at the scale and vow to make some changes for good this year.

While we’re sad that the festivities of the holiday season are over, and some of us wistfully sigh as we dismantle the tree and try to fit everything red and green and twinkly back in the storage area, there is also something powerfully inviting about starting fresh and clean and bare. 

Starting from scratch.

I started reading about veganism on my phone as we drove back from our annual family New Year’s Gathering at the beach, drinking a diet coke and jonesing for some Zaxby’s. The irony did not disturb me.

Once back home, I placed multiple vegan cookbooks on hold at my local library and started trying to figure out if this was even doable for someone like me. But before I dive too deep in my own thought process, let’s zoom out and talk about what veganism even is.

What is a vegan?

There are lots of different variations of vegans, but for our purpose, we will define a vegan as someone who does not eat any animal products.

source

What is the difference between Vegans and Vegetarians?

Vegetarians don’t eat meat from animals, and vegans don’t eat meat, dairy or honey (all animal products).

Why People become Vegans:

  1. A vegan diet is generally healthier. This is debatable of course, because ostensibly you could be a vegan and eat Sour Patch Kids and drink Coke every day). 
  2. Eating animal products can possibly be bad for your health. There are particular concerns over red meat causing high blood pressure and contributing to your risk of heart disease. (heart.org)
  3. Cruelty to animals (concern over the animals’ living conditions and the way they are dispatched from life to death figuring prominently in some folks’ reason for abstaining from animal products).
  4. Environmental impact. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, but most people agree that a plant-based diet is generally better for the environment and more sustainable long-term as human population continues to grow.
  5. Some people believe that humans don’t need to consume animal products in order to live a healthy, nutritionally-sound life.
  6. Personal preference: maybe animal products aren’t appealing to you, or maybe lactose intolerance is a real issue for you…whatever the reason, some people prefer to keep all animal products out of their diet.

My personal trigger point is #4: if everything these books I was reading said was true, eating a lot of animal products has a huge environmental impact.

Statements like the following from The Independent are certainly troubling:

“Eating a vegan diet could be the “single biggest way” to reduce your environmental impact on earth, a new study suggests. Researchers at the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy products from your diet could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint from food by up to 73 per cent. If everyone stopped eating these foods, they found that global farmland use could be reduced by 75 per cent, an area equivalent to the size of the US, China, Australia and the EU combined.”

OK, blah, blah, blah…enough already! I’m not here to convince you to become a vegan. But I had read enough that I was convinced. I wanted to change.

Ask for Advice from Vegan Friends

The next week I hopped on instagram and asked in my stories if anyone had any advice on veganism.

A few friends responded and said they didn’t find veganism a great long-term option.

  • One friend said she could never find a vegan cheese that worked and
  • her daughter had a nut allergy that made veganism really hard to do.
  • The other friend described herself as a “vegan evangelist” for two years but ended up quitting because she started
  • losing her hair,
  • stopped having her period,
  • had declining oral health and
  • became really injury prone
  • and generally inflamed.

Yikes!

Look, I’m sure there are plenty of vegans out there who have only had positive benefits to the diet, but the more I read and discussed with others, the more I felt like I needed to keep a minimum of animal products in my diet, just to stay healthy (again, this is only my personal opinion; I’m not a nutritionist or a health expert by any means).

Is a Flexitarian (also known as Plant-Based) diet the best choice?

After deciding that a strict vegan diet didn’t sound like a sustainable choice for me personally, my next step was to figure out two things:

  1. How much meat to eat and how often to eat it.
  2. How to source meat that was raised in an environmentally-conscious way.

Local Meat Sources?

I decided to see if there were any local farms in my county that had locally grown and harvested meat to sell.

I love supporting local businesses anyway, and the idea of buying meat raised by small-scale, independent farmers who really care about their animals and were mindful of raising and harvesting them in the most humane way seemed like a win-win situation for me!

As I continue to research that option, I decided to place an order with Butcher Box. Butcher Box ships high-quality beef, chicken and pork directly to your home. They describe their meat as 

“100% grass-fed beef, free-range organic chicken, heritage-breed pork, and wild-caught seafood.”  

After reading their commitment to sourcing high-quality meat that is raised in a sustainable way from partner farmers, I felt pretty good about buying from them. You can save $30 off your first order with them through this link.

Is Butcher Box Budget Friendly?

As someone who routinely buys chicken legs and thighs for $0.99/lb or the big value pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts for $1.89/lb, the price was a good bit higher than what I’m used to paying for meat. In the past, I’ve always looked for the very cheapest cuts of meat that my family would eat. But I will also say that I thought very little about where and how that meat was raised.

And honestly, I’m not sure what the grocery budget impact will be; we may have to buy some conventionally-raised meat still. But we’ll try this way for now and see how it works.

We also have venison in the freezer from a deer that my husband recently shot. I know many people don’t think hunting is a good thing to do, but I feel like shooting a deer is a great way to manage deer population and feed our family with an excellent source of protein.

Figuring out a plant-based menu

So with these better sources of meat in place, now I just need to figure out a menu that would work with my nut allergy and not make me swear off vegetables forever! 

I’m hoping to avoid soy protein and a lot of processed food, so my goal is to have as many whole plants as possible on my plate

Any time you make a major overhaul to your diet, it can be really stressful!

Even when we want to change things in our lives for the better, those old bad habits will really put up a fight.

Remind yourself to give yourself a lot of grace and not give up, but instead to celebrate any success you may have.

You may hope this new way of eating will result in some weight loss, but don’t make that a goal at least not in the beginning. Right now, just focus on eating clean, whole foods and you can work on weight loss once this new way of eating feels more routine. 

A Simple Plant-Based Menu

I don’t know about you, but every time I look at a new cookbook, I usually get excited and then overwhelmed!

Where to begin? So many recipes!! 

In order to give yourself the best chances for success, Keep your recipe choices very short and simple. It helps if you don’t mind eating the same thing for multiple meals; in fact, batch cooking is great and saves you a bunch of time!

If you only have to fix meals 2-3 times a week, that makes you much more likely to continue on this new food adventure.

Cooking for a Family?

Also, even though you may cook for your family, it might be good to not try to change their way of eating. Just focus on yourself. You can easily do that by adding 2-3 hearty vegetable choices along with whatever else your family is eating. They may be glad to try to incorporate more veggies into their diet too, but don’t make it your personal crusade.

This is just my opinion, but I think if they see you enjoying eating healthier and reaping the benefits of a plant-based diet, that will be a lot more convincing than if you give them grief about lifestyle choices that are habits for the time being. This depends a lot on how old your children are and how often you eat together. I plan on serving what I eat in addition to foods I normally make. And we don’t eat breakfast or lunch together, so it won’t be much of a difference for them really, I don’t think.

A Simple Start for Plant-Based Menu Planning

Make it easier by limiting yourself to two different options for

  • breakfast,
  • lunch,
  • dinner and
  • snacks for this first week.

Each successive week, plan on adding one or two more recipes to the rotation. That way you won’t be overwhelmed with lots of new recipes to fix, and you can really hone in on the meals that make you happy and make more of those!

Breakfast:

  1. Steel Cut Oats: Like I said, super basic. You can add some frozen berries to your oats along with cinnamon and salt and maybe a sprinkle of sunflower seeds or unsweetened coconut shreds.
  2. Granola with Unsweetened Almond Milk

Lunch:

  1. Buddha bowl with a piece of fruit.
  2. Vegetable soup and salad

Supper

  1. Best Plant-based Hamburger and Oven Baked French Fries
  2. Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili topped with Avocado and served with Cornbread

What if I can’t afford this way of eating?

You may really want to purchase high quality organic produce and meat, but the price is just too steep. That’s ok! We are all doing the best we can, and there are some things you can do to contribute to a better environment and better eating without buying expensive food. Here are some ideas:

  • Eat animal products less often, and don’t eat as much. Meatless Monday, anybody?
  • Make your veggies the highlight of the meal, and give animal products a supporting role.
  • Minimize food waste. Environmentally speaking, this may be almost as important as reducing your meat consumption! We waste a LOT of food! Try to buy only what you need, and stock up only on things with a long shelf life.
  • Try to reduce your use of single use plastics. Things like plastic straws, plastic bags, disposable silverware, plastic cups…there are so many great alternatives out there now. It takes a little while to build the habit, but just start bringing reusable bags to the store and your own silverware, cup and straw to the fast food restaurant. Sounds crazy, but what a great kind of crazy to be!

Are you trying to eat a more plant-based diet?

Do you want to eat in a way that is better for you and for the environment, but you don’t know where to begin? Even with all the wide variety of food choices out there, you can still eat in a way that is environmentally-friendly, vegetable-intensive and still stay within your family’s monthly food budget!).

I’ll keep you informed on how well my journey progresses, and you can let me know what works for you in the comments. I’d also love to hear any tips that I can pass along in my next post!

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