10 May 2011
May 10, 2011

The Record

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Vegetarians finding flexibility in their diets

A strict vegetarian as a teenager, Sierra Shafer now counts herself as a meat eater, with a few caveats: the animals must be raised on local, sustainable farms, or caught ethically, like the venison steaks she gets from her friend, a bow hunter. And she eats meat only occasionally.

“As I’ve learned about better ways of sustainable farming I kind of weaned back,” said Shafer, 28, who is a manager at her family’s natural food store, Taste of Dawn in Butler. “I’ve started to crave it more. My body really liked the way it felt after eating meat.”

The majority of the time her diet is still vegetarian, with meals based on seasonal vegetables, legumes, lentils and a lot of eggs, she said. Those few days a month when Shafer does have meat— and never beef or pork — she must know how and where the animal is raised. She likes the lamb from Snoep Winkel Farms in Sussex County and pasture-raised, hormone-free chicken from Two Pond Farm in West Milford.

Adding meat to her diet isn’t a total turn around from the animal-rights stance of her youth. “I’m more sensitive to the idea of eating flesh,” she said. “Whenever I do eat meat, I tend to have a moment of gratitude and connection.”

Although Shaffer isn’t aware of the title, she is a classic example of a growing body of health-conscious eaters who identify as flexitarians — vegetarians, who for a variety of reasons, sometimes eat meat. Leading this movement are food and science writers Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan — both occasional meat eaters — whose best-selling books have shed light on the harm a meat-heavy diet is doing to our planet and bodies. New York Times columnist Bittman has said he follows a “vegan before 6 p.m.” diet where he abstains from animal products and processed food until dinnertime. “The basic line is this: no matter how you do it, you [and the planet] will benefit if you eat a higher proportion of plants and a lower proportion of everything else,” said Bittman in a Times of London interview.

The strictest of vegetarians and vegans might see this adaptable attitude toward meat eating as a regression of sorts.

“We’ve already got a word for that, and it’s an ‘omnivore’ — someone who eats everything,” said Freya Dinshahof the American Vegan Society in Malaga, Gloucester County. Dinshah added that if you don’t eat meat for moral reasons, eating it occasionally “is breaking that moral.”

Pet store manager Jennifer Greiner and her husband, David Ward, of Washington Township were weary of declaring themselves vegetarians and not fully-sticking to it, so for the past six months they’ve tried a diet that they jokingly call “mostly-tarian”— as in mostly vegetarian. The couple never eat animal products when cooking at home or dining out together. But if they’re a guest in someone’s home, like recently when they visited a friend in Colorado, they’ll eat meat if that’s what’s being served for dinner. “Being a vegetarian is a very big commitment and a huge lifestyle change. We didn’t want to turn out to be hypocrites. We’re testing the waters,” said Greiner.

To further add to the jumble of new eating identities, Holly Shelowitz, a nutrition counselor at Whole Foods Market in Paramus and Ridgewood, says that the term that best describes her diet is a “nutritarian.” Similar to the adaptability of a flexitarian, a nutritarian chooses the highest nutrient foods as possible. “Most of what you’re choosing is vegetables and fruits and whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and avocado. And then having some meat, fish, chicken, eggs, dairy, if you choose and those are side dishes,” she said. Shelowitz says she does have the occasional grass-fed steak, or free-range organic chicken. “I like the way I feel with some animal foods in my diet, but I can also go for weeks without eating animal products.”

Regardless of labels, Shelowitz welcomes this increased interest in individuals making personal food decisions. “The conversation about food and healthy eating is much more on the horizon than it’s ever been.”

Changing tastes
Different types of predominantly plant-based diets:
Vegetarian: Those who eat a plant-based diet that includes fruits, vegetables, legumes (dried beans and peas), grains, seeds and nuts. There are various types, including:
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Eat dairy products and eggs.
Vegan: No animal products allowed — including meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy and honey. Many vegans also do not wear animal products such as leather, wool, silk.
Flexitarian: Predominantly vegetarian, but allows for occasional meat products.
Nutritarian: The focus is on getting the highest nutrients as possible — avoiding sugar, sweeteners and white flour. Emphasizes leafy greens, colorful vegetables, beans and seeds.

• “Food Matters” and “The Food Matters Cookbook,” by Mark Bittman (Simon & Schuster): A reader-friendly manifesto argues that our meat-heavy food production system is bad for our health, the environment and pocketbooks. Includes a practical guide and easy recipes to ease your way into a plant-heavy, minimal meat lifestyle.
• “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan (Penguin): Asking the simple question “What should we eat?” award-winning journalist Pollan traces the journey of four meals from soil to table— including fast food, an industrial organic meal, a local meal from a Virginia farm, and a completely hunted and foraged meal. An eye-opening, detailed look at the science, culture, economics and sticky politics behind what we have for dinner.

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