How I saved the planet by becoming a flexitarian

In 2018, Leonie Hayden decided she didn’t want to each as much meat for the good of the planet – but also realised ‘flexitarian’ is a stupid word, and we’re all going to die anyway.

A revelation came to me this year in the form of a New York magazine article titled The Last Conversation You’ll Ever Need to Have About Eating Right. Food writer Mark Bittman and associate director for nutrition science at Yale, Dr David Katz, discuss every conceivable diet trend, from “superfoods” and antioxidants to keto and sugar-free.

The Last Conversation comes back to the same conclusion every time: eat more plants than anything else, and you’ll be golden. According to them: “It’s really quite simple.”

Simple to understand, yes. Simple to execute? In my experience, no. Pasta is delicious. KFC is delicious. Ice cream is delicious. The never-ending procession of birthday doughnuts, deadline lollies and PR cupcakes that come through The Spinoff office are, annoyingly, tantalisingly delicious.

So what changed? I, a sentient human woman on the downward slope toward 40, have known for some time that a balanced diet contributes to good health. I can only compare it to the success of Allen Carr’s book Easy Way To Stop Smoking. Simple truths, repeated, backed by science but without hysterical claims that acting to the contrary will kill you, will become embedded in a subconscious that is ready to receive them.

You’re welcome.

Having been a card-carrying carnivore my whole life, since reading the article I’ve eaten mostly plants – vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains, some kaimoana, cheese and free-range eggs. But I also decided I didn’t want the labels or the rules. I’ll still enjoy a meat dish specially prepared by friends or family, or eat fried chicken in the name of mental health. ‘Vegetarian’ or ‘pescatarian’ come in handy to explain my food choices to waiters, but apparently ‘flexitarian’ is the new de rigueur term for this way of eating. I’m just not prepared for the wearied looks that would elicit in a restaurant.

But this is who I am now. I don’t find it hard in the slightest and I feel better than I have in years. Eating farmed meat has always been at odds with my disgustingly soppy affinity for animals, so I also no longer have that weight on my conscience.

My determination was reinforced by a series of articles on climate change (climate genocide, to be terrifyingly precise), starting with this whopper from New York magazine again, following a UN report in October.

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Lol that charred corpse is wearing shades. Image: Intelligencer, New York magazine.

The Guardian reported the need for a worldwide shift to a flexitarian diet – 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs globally, and  90% less farmed beef in Western countries – in the next 12 years or millions of people will die. Even then the planet will probably still end up half a degree hotter than we can withstand. So my other revelation this year is that we’re fucked, because it will a be cold day in hell (or a hot day in the Arctic) before Americans give up burgers or the British colonies give up their meat and three veg.

Essentially, 2018 was the year climate scientists started the doomsday clock.

But I’m committed to doing my part regardless, and in doing so reduce my risk of heart disease and diabetes. At least I’ll be able to pat myself on the back as we sink slowly into the boiling ocean.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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