Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Eat like a flexitarian Add to ...

VB6. No, it's not a tomato cocktail or the latest version of a computer programming language. VB6 is short for Vegan Before 6, the increasingly popular veggie-heavy diet that converts say can do wonders for both the body and the planet.

Coined and devise by food writer Mark Bittman, the regime is pretty self-explanatory: No animal products, processed food or simple carbohydrates during the day. After 6 p.m., anything goes.

The New York Times food columnist and author was inspired when he read a startling statistic – global livestock production is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all of the world's vehicles combined – while grappling with a bevy of personal health problems, including extra weight, high cholesterol and blood sugar, sleep apnea and bum knees.

Following his VB6 rules, Mr. Bittman slimmed down, got back in shape and helped reduce the pace of global warming by consuming less meat.

(He did allow himself cream and sugar with his coffee.) When he detailed the diet in his recent bestseller Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating , readers took notice.

Now, Mr. Bittman says, there isn't a day that goes by that he doesn't hear from at least a couple of followers on Twitter about it - “sometimes as much as 10 to 20.”

VB6 joins a small but growing trend toward flexitarianism – vegetarians with benefits, if you will. Roused by Mr. Bittman's book and Michael Pollan's manifesto – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” – in his book In Defense of Food , flexitarians are assuaging their dietary and environmental worries by sticking to plants, while allowing the occasional meaty indulgence – whether it's only after 6 p.m. or otherwise.

There is a slew of new cookbooks appealing to these semi-vegetarians, including Peter Berley's The Flexitarian Table and Almost Meatless by Joy Manning and Tara Mataraza Desmond. And last year, Oprah went on a 21-day vegan “cleanse” to become a more conscious eater.

For his part, Mr. Bittman prefers the term “less meatarian.”

“It's about reducing the consumption and portion of animal products that you eat,” he says by phone. “It's not even really vegan before six. It's about eating more whole foods – in the real sense of the word, not the supermarket sense.”

Semantics aside, flexitarianism appears to be spreading. “So many people are talking about [Mr. Bittman and Mr. Pollan's] books,” says Nancy Callan, a board member and past president of Earthsave Canada, a non-profit organization that advocates a plant-based diet. “I see an overwhelming increase in flexitarians,” she adds, noting that about 25 per cent of the attendees at the organization's monthly vegan potluck and dine-out dinners are occasional meat eaters.

And if these lipstick vegetarians are changing some of the musty, old stereotypes about veganism and making the movement more palatable to the mainstream, all the better, some say.

“We're not all green-haired militants with tattoos and piercings,” says Ms. Callan, who has noticed a considerable shift in attitudes.

But the oxymoronic notion of a meat-eating vegetarian is still difficult for many hard-core vegans to swallow. “Given the environmental, cruelty and health impact of a meat-based diet, going vegan is best, going vegetarian is good, and being a flexitarian is like smoking two packs of cigarettes instead of 10, beating one pig down the slaughter ramp instead of two, and pouring a pint of gasoline down a drain instead of pouring down a gallon,” Kathy Guillermo, director of research for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, recently told Newsweek magazine.

Flexitarians don't see why they can't have their meat and eat it, too.

“Veganism makes sense, but I don't think it's a program for most of us,” Mr. Bittman says. “Many things in life are about compromise, and that's exactly what this is.”

Health-wise, it's not a bad one to make. “Several studies point to the conclusion that the more meat there is in your diet – red meat especially – the greater the risk of heart disease and cancer,” Mr. Pollan writes in In Defence of Food . “Yet studies of flexitarians suggest that small amounts of meat – less than one serving a day – don't appear to increase one's risk.” These near-vegetarians, he reports, “are just as healthy as vegetarians.”

“It works for me,” says Mr. Bittman, who has now been following the VB6 diet for 21/2 years. “And I think it works for a lot of people who have been looking for something they can do beyond buying energy-efficient light bulbs and Priuses,” he adds.

Lisa Fielding is one of his Twitter followers. “It just seemed like a really easy idea,” says the Toronto magazine copy editor, who was turned onto the diet by her husband. “You only have to think about it two-thirds of the day. At dinner, you can make indulgences. And I've found that after eating so lightly during the day, I don't even want a big slab of steak at night.”

After two weeks of trading in her morning Starbucks muffin for oatmeal and filling up on veggie-stuffed whole-wheat-bread sandwiches, Ms. Fielding lost five pounds, saved money and gained a measure of consciousness. “It doesn't make economic sense for people to be eating so much meat. We can all get along with less,” she says.

The only impediment she's found: the lack of vegan options at restaurants. “There really isn't a lot out there,” she says with a sigh.

Flexitarians were significant enough to be singled out in a 2005 report for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The study, Canadian Food Trends to 2020: A Long Range Consumer Outlook, divided flexitarians into three subsets: non-carnivores (who eat fish and seafood and may eat chicken, but avoid red meat); exceptors (who will eat meat on special occasions and tolerate some “hidden” animal products in prepared dishes); and trenders (who frequently choose “non-meat alternatives such as soy products and veggie burgers).

Still, Mr. Bittman is reluctant to call flexitarianism a movement. “There are about a million or maybe two million people on this bandwagon. It's a step in the right direction, but it's not an Earth-shattering change,” he says, noting than only 2 per cent of all foods are bought at farmers' markets and more people are still buying SUVs than hybrids. “People were still going to Wal-Mart last weekend to buy cheap hot dogs for the barbecue. When Memorial Day becomes a celebration about grilling the first vegetables of spring, then you can call it a movement.”

Follow on Twitter: @lexxgill


In the know

Most popular videos »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular