Reader’s digest: Flexitarianism offers college students the best of both worlds

Two smiling faces are surrounded by various images of food, including soup, bread, and tea.
(Seohyeon Lee • The Student Life)

At a Super Bowl party, waiting to flip our Impossible burgers, my grill mate told me about their friend’s new diet: “He’s vegetarian, except for Raising Cane’s chicken!” Some of the group around us laughed, myself included, but the consensus was overall supportive. Raising Cane’s is really good, and vegetarian-except-for-Cane’s is better than never practicing vegetarianism at all.

In an era plagued by fad diets, it’s time to lean into more forgiving outlooks on dieting and self-care. Simultaneously, it’s important to remain aware of how our dietary choices affect the planet, as well as animal and human lives. Enter vegetarianism-except-for-Cane’s, or rather flexitarianism! A happy medium between the gentle philosophy of intuitive eating and the ethical appeal of veganism, flexitarianism isn’t just “lazy vegetarianism.”

In case you’re unfamiliar, flexitarianism is a portmanteau of the words “flexible” and “vegetarianism.” The beauty of flexitarianism is that its ‘flexible’ aspect allows one to practice vegetarianism on one’s own terms. The rigidity of veganism and vegetarianism is often a deterrent for those interested in adopting a plant-based diet. For college students — many of whom primarily eat at campus dining halls — avoiding all animal products seems all the more implausible. That being said, young adulthood is when the time is ripe to rethink our dietary preferences before entering the real world. 

The underlying myth that fuels the diet and health food industry is the concept that what we eat is inextricably linked to our morals and our worth. Cleanses and detoxes rely on consumers’ (mis)understanding that there are evils lurking in our bodies that must be flushed away by a steady diet of verdant cold-pressed juices. They encourage the idea that we can, and should, derive self-satisfaction from self-deprivation.

Weight Watchers’ infamous point system, which assigns numerical values to food based on various nutritional factors, is a clear and concrete manifestation of this mindset. The food pyramid, though horrendously outdated and misleading, is another popular way that Americans internalize the relationship between food and moral values.

So how do we rid ourselves of these dangerous attitudes toward food? The dietary philosophy of intuitive eating was created to address this very concern. Based on the understanding that your body knows what’s best for you, intuitive eating encourages eaters to forget food rules. Most nutritionists can agree on one thing: we bestow far too much power on food. Intuitive eating effectively transfers power back from food into the hands of the eater, a direct and powerful response to the power imbalance perpetuated by diet culture. 

But this correlation between food, morals and power isn’t entirely unsound. When it comes to eating animal products, there does in fact exist an intersection between eating and ethics. It’s pretty hard to argue with the facts: the animal product industry creates devastating environmental effects. Study after study reveals that plant-based diets are by far the most beneficial for the environment. Cutting out meat is a more effective way to benefit the environment than eliminating driving and showering. While nobody should feel that the fate of the planet depends on what they eat, it’s crucial to remain conscientious of the habits we form and the residual effects they have. 

With all this in mind, the flexitarian diet sounds pretty promising. We can all do our part to normalize plant-based eating while enjoying a diet that suits our unique lifestyles. I’m far from a dietician, but if you’re interested, here are the flexitarian guidelines that I’ve come up with: 

  1. Let saving animal lives and the planet bring you joy.
  2. Eat what brings you joy. 

The food that brings you joy can be a plant-based dinner on a Meatless Monday or your favorite sushi that you have on special occasions. It doesn’t matter, as long as there’s balance. As they say at Bon Appetit magazine, eat how you want to feel.

When I enter a McDonald’s, the first thing I crave is a Filet-O-Fish. As controversial as I’ve discovered my preference is, it’s my go-to because I grew up watching my mother savor it and an act as simple as choosing her favorite menu item makes me feel closer to her. When my roommate takes us to Del Taco, we order two tacos with Beyond meat (I promise my diet consists of more than $3 fast food). It probably isn’t the most appealing option either, but I love sitting in her car and sharing her favorite low-grade Mexican food. 

The bottom line is: don’t let food rules steal the joy that eating is supposed to bring. Try a flexitarian diet, you might like it!

Sadie Matz SC ’24 is a flexitarian from Brooklyn, New York. She cannot drive and will not take questions regarding the matter. 

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