The Trap of All-or-Nothing: Finding Your Sweet Spot With a Plant-Based Diet
This may be a bit of a controversial post in the plant-based community. However, after several years of eating a plant-based diet and observing several friends, family members and acquaintances either fly full-force into a plant-based diet or gingerly dip in their toes, I’ve realized that we are all very different in how we approach change and unconventional choices.
I’m an all-or-nothing type of person. When I decide I want to do something, or stand for a cause, I’m usually all in, like way, way in. I went plant-based back in 2011 as a self mini-experiment for a month. After the month of experimenting and reading several books and documentaries, I discovered that this was the way for me, and I haven’t looked back. The specific way I eat has gone through several evolutions, and I know it will continue to, but I’ve eliminated all animal products and feel very strongly about this choice. Because I am married to a very tolerant and accepting man, after I made the decision to stay plant-based, he did not oppose my idea to transition the kitchen and our family to a plant-based diet. My children were young enough at the time (6 and 2), and I’m persuasive enough, that they had no protests or complaints when we became a plant-based family. I consider myself 100% plant-based in and out of the home. However, my dear husband has never felt it necessary to go 100%. He is about 95% plant-based. I call him a social omnivore. In the home, he is 100% plant-based, but occasionally when he goes out he may choose a meal with animal products. This occurs about twice a month. I have to admit for a long time this approach bothered me. I have given him the evil eye more than once after he has placed his order at a restaurant. After all, my personality is either all in or all out. But when I work hard to look past my bias and really look at my husband’s health, he is very healthy. He is at a healthy weight and he has normal blood pressure and cholesterol. He has excellent exercise tolerance and he is functioning near optimum in most of the areas of his life. Having the freedom to occasionally consume animal products is important to him. If I were to constantly pressure him and force him to adopt a 100% plant-based diet, he would likely resent me and perhaps choose to ditch the plant-based deal all together. He agrees that eating the great majority of his meals in a plant-based fashion is healthy and admits that it allows him to feel better physically, all while easily maintaining an ideal weight. Over time, he has chosen more plant-based meals outside of the home. When he chooses to consume animal products, he does it for recreation and for the pleasure of the flavors and the textures in his mouth. And this is ok.
Recently, a kind-hearted friend from college excitedly messaged me to tell me that he has decided to eat exclusively plant-based at home, but may consume meat and animal products at social functions. He then sheepishly added that this is a “baby-step”. Of course, I was overjoyed and affirmed his excitement and happiness over making this life-changing decision. I reassured him that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing, and I told him about my social omnivore husband. This is where I think one could fall in a trap. If I would have said, “You know, dear friend, meat will kill you and just think of all those poor animals.” This may have created great internal stress in his heart. I would be implying to him that his way of eating has to be all-or-nothing, and he may have decided that he can’t give up meat forever and being under the impression that eating plant-based some of the time was not beneficial, may have ditched the entire idea all together. The choice he made works for him at this moment, and that’s ok.
Another term for this way of eating is flexitarian. A flexitarian diet is defined as as diet that is mostly plant-based with the occasional inclusion of meat products. There are a lot more people choosing this way of eating for health, environmental or ethical reasons. This is the group of people who don’t feel like it has to be all-or-nothing, but yet, are being mindful about their decision to decrease their consumption of animal products.
I was explaining this term to a friend one day and he asked, “So, what do you call someone that mostly eats omnivorously, but sometimes has a vegetarian meal?” I laughed and said, “I think that’s called the Standard American Diet.” My point here is that although I support movements like meatless Mondays, if one consumes animal products every single meal except for one day per week, this means that you are eating omnivorously 86% of the time, and this would not likely lead to much change in your health. However, this may be the first step for many people because it is not as intimidating and is seen as more socially acceptable. Flexitarians sometimes receive criticism from the hard-core vegetarians and vegans who feel that this sends the wrong message to the public. I disagree. If everyone suddenly chose to become a flexitarian it would likely lead to a massive improvement in health, environmental impact, and significantly less animals killed. In addition, if this were the case, I truly believe that there would be more mindfulness associated with food choices. That is why I’ve made the decision to focus on the positive changes that others are making. When my friends and family members make an effort to incorporate more plant-based meals into their diet, it’s a big deal, and I support them in whatever way I can. I have several friends that eat in a flexitarian pattern and being around them makes me happy. I know they get me and why I choose to eat my way, and they understand and accept my choices, but at the same time, they are also relaxed and content and feel free to choose a hamburger. And that’s ok. It really is.
So how do you find the sweet spot for you and your family?
Ask yourself why. Why are you choosing to eat in this way? Is it for health, the environment, animal welfare, a combination or all three? Keep these reasons in mind as you visualize your ideal eating pattern. If it is for health reasons, how much of a change are you willing to make to improve your health? Visualize yourself one or two years from now. What do you envision as your ideal way of eating? When you do choose to eat animal products, is it because you enjoy the flavor or the texture? Is it because you want to be social and bond over burgers with your buddy? Think about what role meat has in your life. If you reach a state of panic every time you think about completely giving up meat (or cheese) in your diet, remind yourself that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. When your anxiety calms, really meditate on what you truly want your diet to look like and how you may be able to move toward that way of eating.
Consider a methodical approach. If eating mostly plant-based is important to you, being methodical may help you be more successful. Although I realize that some people aren’t too fond of setting “rules”, following some general guidelines may help you realize your vision. If you don’t know where to start and you’re beginning from the Standard American Diet, then I suggest considering an 80/20 approach. This means that you stick to plant-based meals 80% of the time and choose animal products 20% of the time. This equates to about 4 meals per week containing animal products or a little over a day per week. There are so many ways to approach this. It can mean eating breakfast and lunch plant-based and meat for dinner a few nights per week. Or perhaps, having meat on the weekends and focusing on plant-based meals during the week. I have one friend who eats mostly plant-based but allows herself the freedom to eat meat on vacations. There are so many options. You just have to find what works for you. It may take a bit of trial-and-error, but if you have mindfully decided that eating more plants is important to you, then it is usually worth the effort.
Be mindful. This is related to the first principle and is about paying attention. Once you have made this decision and visualized your approach, see how it feels. Pay attention to how your body feels when you eat mostly plants and how it feels when you consume animal products. Pay attention to changes in your health, your sense of well-being, and your energy. When you do choose to consume animal products, make that choice mindfully, release any guilt and allow yourself to fully enjoy it. Mindfulness may help reinforce your choices or may lead you to tweak your plan. Being mindful will keep you going in the path you desire.
Relax. Once you’ve found the approach that works for you and your family, relax and find contentment. You’ve done the work and you are happy with your way of eating. Be proud of yourself and give yourself credit for the healthy choices you make. Let go of any guilt or shame and give yourself permission to enjoy your meals.
Thank you for taking this step and for considering incorporating more plants into your diet. Only you know your body, your personality and your lifestyle, and only you can find what is right for you. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing.
With much gratitude,