Meet the 'Social Omnivore'

These conscientious eaters refuse meat at home but accept it elsewhere, in a new spin on reducetarianism.

family eating outdoors

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Many years ago, I moved to northeastern Brazil for a job. A colleague took me to meet a family we were working with in the semi-arid interior, a place of stark beauty but also poverty. The family were subsistence farmers and they had prepared a meal for us—stewed chicken from their small flock.

"They killed this chicken for us to eat," my colleague hissed as we sat down at the table. I was fully aware of that. The nearest supermarket was two hours away. I needed no convincing and was happy to dig into that delicious meal that meant so much to prepare.

I've thought of that meal numerous times since then and wondered with genuine curiosity how a vegetarian or vegan might have handled that situation. For me personally, it was unthinkable to turn down this meat that had been raised by a family that clearly cared for its livestock, and then sacrificed it to welcome some foreign newcomers. To turn my nose up at it would have felt like a supreme snub toward this impoverished yet generous family. They could have been offended, potentially affecting our professional relationship. Then again, I only speak for myself.

Herein lies one of the great challenges of dietary preferences—striking a balance between standing up for the principles one believes in (such as not eating animals) and showing respect for other humans who do not share those same principles or have a completely different perspective on the world, for whatever personal reasons they may have for that (which we should not presume to know or understand).

There is no clear right or wrong way to handle this dilemma, but it appears that many individuals are starting to embrace a more flexible approach to eco-conscious eating that grants them the best of both worlds. Labeled the "social omnivore" by Bon Appétit magazine, these are people who opt to eat vegetarian or vegan at home, never buying or cooking meat themselves, but sometimes eating it outside the home in restaurants or at dinner parties.

From Bon Appétit

"Most people emphasize the extremes when they talk about eating meat; either they do it or they don't. But ... a growing number of people ... seek a middle ground. They're social omnivores—vegetarian at home but sometimes partake in meat when out with friends and family. It's different from following vague flexitarian or reducetarian principles, which both eschew clear-cut rules in favor of generally prioritizing plants over animals. Social omnivores, on the other hand, have one very clear boundary: They don't buy or cook meat at home."

This grants them a way to cut down on their carbon footprint, to feel better about not supporting a cruel industry on a daily basis, to support emerging plant-based product development, to eat more vegetables and fruit—while not missing out on what Victor Kumar, a philosophy professor and director at Boston University's Mind and Morality Lab, described in the article as "the things that are genuinely valuable about eating meat."

These things could range from a sense of inclusion, of preserving one's heritage and traditions, of being able to connect with grandparents and friends, of enjoying specific flavors and textures, of not being a burden and showing respect to whoever is going to the tremendous effort of preparing you food in the first place.

That last point comes up several times in the Bon Appétit piece, with nearly everyone saying they "tended to put aside their own ideals for the sake of their hosts or dining companions." One person interviewed said, "I know how much work goes into hosting that I don't want people to have to worry about me." Another added, "People will stop inviting you over if they think it's too hard to make food for you."

As a home cook and regular entertainer, unfortunately I can vouch for that sad fact. There comes a point when it's just too much work to make specialized food if everyone is eating something else. And despite the fact that my family eats vegetarian meals at least 50% of the time, that's not usually what I'm going to serve when we have guests on weekends. By then, we want a break from beans and eggs and usually pull a free-range chicken out of the freezer (raised by and bought directly from my friend's 12-year-old son, who lives on farm down the road from our house).

A Type of Reducetarianism

Writing for the Globe and Mail, dietitian Leslie Beck predicts we'll be seeing more "reducetarianism" going forward:

"Plant-based eating will continue to grow in popularity this year. That doesn't mean, though, that people are giving up animal products. Rather, a growing number of consumers are opting to reduce, not eliminate, their intake of animal products in favour of plant foods, a movement known as reducetarianism. Such an eating pattern benefits your food budget, your health and the environment."

We've long been proponents of reducetarianism here on Treehugger. I once moderated a panel discussion at a Reducetarian Foundation Summit in New York City and appreciate its founder Brian Kateman's persistent work on this topic, particularly his thought-provoking 2021 documentary, "Meat Me Halfway."

Kateman points out that having a black-and-white view of meat-eating vs. non-meat-eating fails to acknowledge the tremendous benefits that come with cutting back on the consumption of animal products. Framing it as all or nothing is confrontational and largely unsuccessful. People should be encouraged to make whatever incremental changes and reductions they can, rather than criticized for not going far enough.

As I once wrote in an earlier post, "With the average American eating 275 pounds of meat per year, getting an individual to reduce his or her meat consumption by only 10% would see a reduction in nearly 30 pounds annually. Now imagine if a quarter of the U.S. population did this! It could make a huge difference. Realistically, this is a far more attainable goal than converting people to veganism."

Social omnivores are doing precisely this. They're recognizing the need to reduce animal product consumption (an indisputable fact for everyone, Kateman included), while coming up with a smart compromise so as not to feel left out or shortchanged or disgruntled by a major habit change that (if we're being honest) is really, really hard to make—and even more so if you live anywhere that's not a major city.

It makes me think of my friend Paula, a devoted vegan who recently visited Glacier National Park. She stayed in a rustic rural hotel where "the only thing on the menu was steak." I asked, "What did you eat?" She responded with a shrug and a laugh, "I had a steak!" I nearly fell over with surprise, as I've never seen her touch animal products in the years I've known her, and yet she was unfazed by this admission. I felt stunned (and impressed) by her flexibility. In that moment, she was the epitome of the social omnivore.

This is not so uncommon, according to Beck. "Recent research suggests that one-in-four Canadians are flexitarians who eat mostly a plant-based diet but occasionally consume animal products." Also intriguing is the fact that "it seems reducetarians aren't replacing beef with so-called 'faux' meats." They'd rather eat real meat occasionally than faux meat regularly. "Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger, for example, may taste and look like meat, but their sales momentum has flattened, highlighting consumer demand for nutritious and more natural meat alternatives with simple ingredient lists," Beck writes.

Something to Celebrate

Whatever you call it—social omnivore, reducetarian, or flexitarian—the movement is real, and it's good, and it's bringing people together.

I think of it as the dietary equivalent of people buying electric bikes or cars to cover necessary distances, of investing in the occasional super-high-quality piece of clothing to build a more ethical wardrobe, of buying fairly traded coffee and chocolate and spices for a pantry that's otherwise conventional, of slowly refitting a house bit by bit to become more energy-efficient. These represent incremental and well-meaning changes at a pace that's more reasonable for the average person who cannot afford or handle going all out, all at once.

Every little personal effort counts. We say that in other environmental contexts, but not enough when it comes to diet. Instead of trying to maintain an unrealistically high standard of perfection or upholding a divisive dichotomy of anti- vs. pro-meat, let's support each other and not let what Kateman has called "horizontal hostility" prevent us from working together, nor Freud's "narcissism of small differences," when people with a lot in common find it harder to get along than with people whose opinions are diametrically opposite.

It's safe to assume that most of us Treehugger-types (readers and writers) are trying to move in the same direction—away from destructive animal agriculture and toward a healthier, happier, more humane future—but we'll all take different paths to get there.