What's a Social Omnivore?
Is the Social-Omnivore Lifestyle For You?
When you go out to eat as a vegan or vegetarian, there's always a chance you'll come home hungry. Maybe the only vegan-friendly entrée at the restaurant wasn't satisfying enough, and that emergency granola bar you packed didn't fill you up. Or perhaps you went to a family carne asada and your tía decided she wasn't going to make vegetarian empanadas this year. This all-too-common scenario is one that many plant-based eaters have to prepare for any time they find themselves in a social setting that involves food: either they settle for the limited options available and bring their own snacks as backup, or wait until they get home to eat how they want.
In a society that largely caters to meat eating, eliminating it from your diet naturally means you'll miss out on a lot of foods, including the majority of many restaurant menus, meat-based ethnic dishes that you grew up eating, and the hors d'oeuvres at a dinner party. For some, this FOMO is reason enough to decide against going entirely plant-based, and it's precisely why plant-forward chef and culinary nutrition consultant Julia Chebotar believes the "social omnivore" lifestyle is becoming increasingly common.
Rather than choosing between eating meat or giving it up entirely, social omnivores opt for a compromise — they're omnivores socially, but plant-based in private. "There's less labeling and more enjoying their dining out experiences," Chebotar explains. Recently coined as social omnivorism by Bon Appétit, the concept was originally called "The Paris Exception" in 2006 by philosopher and animal-rights activist Peter Singer, who wrote about it in his book "The Way We Eat." The idea is that you eat plant-based except during occasions like vacationing in Paris or going out to eat.
Along with the appeal of being able to enjoy social functions (or trips to Paris) to their fullest, the social-omnivore lifestyle also has practicality on its side. "Eating meat can be expensive, and it's easier to cut back on it at home than it is to abstain from it entirely when going out to social events," Chebotar, who owns vegan cafe The Organic Grill, points out. "People also may find it easier to adjust their home habits than to make sweeping changes to their lifestyles." At the same time, research shows that decreasing your red meat consumption, even if not completely, still significantly reduces your carbon footprint, so social omnivores still have a more positive impact on the environment compared to heavy meat eaters.
While calling yourself a social omnivore may seem like a lackadaisical approach (or even a copout) to veganism or vegetarianism, registered dietitian Johna Burdeos says the lifestyle has health benefits in its own right. What tends to happen when you follow a plant-based eating style during a social outing is that you only end up eating whatever is available, and it's normally heavy on the carbs and low on protein, Burdeos says. But while carbs are part of a healthy diet, and it's definitely possible to eat balanced while entirely vegan, if you often find yourself in situations where carbs are the only nonmeat food available, it's a lot easier to fall into unbalanced eating habits. When you're a social omnivore on the other hand, you don't have to put as much effort into achieving that balance without supplementation.
How to Try the Social-Omnivore Lifestyle
Whether you're a long-time vegan who misses chicken katsu, or a full-time meat-eater who wants to incorporate more plant foods in their diet, being a social omnivore may be the perfect middle-ground for you. Although the social-omnivore lifestyle is what Burdeos describes as a "go with the flow approach," like any lifestyle change, it still involves making mindful choices, especially in the beginning. Both she and Chebotar both agree that a gradual transition is best.
The one "rule" of being a social omnivore is to refrain from cooking or eat meat at home, and if that's something you're not used to, it can be hard to change overnight. Chebotar suggests starting by cutting back on the meat you buy and replacing it with plant-based alternatives until you feel comfortable eliminating it entirely. If eating meat is the bigger adjustment, don't start off by ordering yourself a big steak at a restaurant. "Be open to trying whatever new foods sound appetizing or appealing to you, but give yourself permission to seek out the foods you're more accustomed to," Burdeos advises. One of the biggest benefits of being a social omnivore is that you get to focus more on socializing and less on what foods are safe to eat, and by forcing yourself to eat more meat, then you're back to where you started.
Ultimately, the most important thing when switching to the social-omnivore lifestyle is to listen to your body. Pay attention to how certain foods make you feel; if some make you feel bloated or others cause indigestion — and adjust accordingly.
The great thing about being a social omnivore is that it's based entirely off of the flow of your life. There may be some weeks where you eat at home for every meal, or months where you have outings and gatherings planned every weekend. Since you don't have to adhere to a strict routine as a social omnivore, you can always count on enjoying the food as much as the company you're in, and it may be just what your physical and mental health need.