Over the past several years, more people have shifted to eating a flexitarian diet, preferring plant-based meals as their primary form of sustenance. In North America, consumers are limiting their meat intake, preferring meat alternatives developed from fresh vegetables – and sometimes, a mix of humanely raised meat. In Switzerland, consumers are finding a new love for tuna substitutes developed from pea-based proteins. And even in China, consumers can find meat alternatives for exotic dishes like duck neck, crayfish, and zongzi.
So what explains the rise of the flexitarian movement? And does it have the momentum to become self-sustaining in the coming years?
There are several factors allowing flexitarianism to become more popular, including:
- Ethical concerns. First, people are expressing increased concerns about the ethics and long-term sustainability of factory farming. While there’s an argument to be made that meat can be raised and slaughtered in an ethical, humane way, much of the meat we consume comes from deplorable conditions. In some farming institutions, animals are packed into small cages, mistreated throughout their short lives, only to be lined up for slaughter. On top of that, animals in factory farms are often forcefully given heaps of antibiotics to protect them from getting infected in such dirty conditions; scientists have been warning us for many years that this level of antibiotic use can (and probably will) lead to the development of a super-bacteria that resists conventional antibiotics – unless this practice is curtails. Since super-bacteria is an existential risk, there’s good reason to express concern over this practice.
- Health concerns. Some studies suggest that eating high quantities of meat may be unhealthy in the long term. While the human body evolved in conditions favorable to meat eating, eating high quantities of red meat and processed meat may have a detrimental effect on your digestive system. Conversely, plant-based diets are often viewed as healthier, leading to better health outcomes and making you feel subjectively better about your body in the meantime. Many people who switch to flexitarian diets report higher feelings of wellbeing, encouraging them to continue this eating pattern.
- Environmental concerns. People are also becoming concerned about the impact of raising farm animals on the environment. Though there are plenty of farms that practice sustainable, humane procedures, there are also gigantic factory farms that have little regard for sustainability or environmental impact. Additionally, meat is a highly inefficient source of nutrition; it takes about 17.6 pounds of grain for each pound of meat eventually produced. As population growth continues, these practices will become increasingly hard to manage; a flexitarian diet paves the way for a cleaner, more efficient system of food production.
- Financial concerns. For some people, diet choices are often tied to financial considerations. Meat tends to be expensive, at least compared to plant-based alternatives. Eating a diet of grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes can help you save money. Historically, plant-based meat substitutes have been expensive – sometimes more expensive than meat itself – but thanks to modern innovations, it’s getting cheaper and cheaper. Budget-conscious consumers are finding more and more reasons to avoid meat altogether.
- The rise of flexitarian options. It also helps that there are more flexitarian eating options than ever before. If you head to the grocery store, you’ll likely find a variety of plant-based meat alternatives and food products that blend small amounts of meat with substantial plant-based ingredients. If you decide to go out to eat, you can probably find several local restaurants that cater specifically to flexitarians and vegetarians. As the trend grows more powerful, the number of options available will continue to increase.
- Social pressure. Some consumers may feel social pressure to adopt a flexitarian diet – or at least give the diet a try. If all your friends are becoming flexitarian, and they preach about the benefits of such a diet, you’ll likely be tempted to try it for yourself and see what it’s like.
- The ongoing desire for meat. Many of the push factors listed above could apply to both flexitarian and vegetarian diet adoption. So why is flexitarianism seeing a sharper rise in popularity? The answer is simple. Most of us still like to eat meat at least occasionally.
Where Does Flexitarianism Go From Here?
Some people view flexitarianism as a simple fad. But from the outside, these factors don’t appear to be losing momentum anytime soon; ethical and environmental concerns will always be associated with factory farming, and innovators will continue finding creative ways to make meat alternative products from plant material.
Accordingly, it’s likely that flexitarianism will only increase in visibility and popularity in the years to come. If anything, it could pave the way for full-scale vegetarianism to become more popular, with people deciding to eliminate meat from their diets entirely.