The Flexitarian Diet
A plant-heavy diet plus a little meat is good for your health, the planet and your pocket.
As any fitness professional can attest, flexibility brings myriad benefits. Less injury, improved performance and increased strength can be chalked up to the ability to touch your toes. However, another type of flexibility is gaining popularity—not in the gym but in the kitchen.
Many of your clients have been tempted to become vegetarians, but the thought of giving up barbecues or mom’s famous meatloaf seems too daunting. Thankfully, becoming a flexitarian can help them to obtain many of the same benefits of vegetarian living without forgoing chicken breasts completely.
“Think of it as a pro-plant, not anti-meat dietary lifestyle,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, LDN, a Chicago-based dietitian and author of The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw-Hill 2008). Flexitarians eat mostly plant-based foods but dabble in steak, chicken stir-fry or fish tacos. Their loose adherence to a meat-free diet is motivated by animal rights, concerns over the earth’s ecology and a raft of research suggesting impressive health perks from swapping beef for beans more often.
Here’s why it might be time to embrace flexitarianism:
It’s, Well, Flexible
“As the name suggests, the beauty of flexitarianism is that it’s all about options,” says Blatner.
You can embrace meatless Mondays, making 1 day a week meat-free. Or you can start by simply cutting the quantity of meat in certain meals; for example, replacing half the beef in burgers and tacos with mushrooms.
“Flexitarian eating is ideal for those who want to prepare and eat more vegetarian meals but find it too arduous to commit [to going meatless] 100% of the time,” Blatner says. “Unlike so many other regimented dietary plans that make certain food off-limits, flexitarian eating is easy to stick to because the food options are wide open, as there are no forbidden edibles.” You just have to work toward switching from a meat-heavy diet to a plant-based one. Blatner sees three categories of flexitarians:
- Beginner: eats two meatless meals a week.
- Advanced: eats three to four meatless meals a week.
- Expert: eats five or more plant-only meals a week.
It Reduces the Size of Your Carbon Footprint
A recent study found that a shift toward eating less meat has a much greater impact than other options. Scientists reported in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that replacing red meat and/or dairy with other protein sources such as eggs or vegetable-based dishes a single day per week could have the same climate impact as buying all household food from local providers (Weber & Matthews 2008).
It Boosts Your Bank Account
“Meat, fish and poultry tend to be among the most expensive items in the grocery cart,” Blatner says, “so buying more plant-based items like lentils can save a family a significant amount of money, especially given the increasing food prices.” Flexitarian eating also encourages more reasonable portions of meat, which likewise cuts grocery bills. “Another benefit of purchasing less meat is that when you do so, you can now afford to splurge on better-quality products, such as grass-fed beef and wild-caught Pacific salmon,” Blatner says. “Meat consumption becomes about quality, not quantity.”
It Can Trim Your Waistline
“Plant-based meals are typically lower in calories, higher in fiber—to promote satiety—and with a lower proportion of calories from fat,” says Jim White, RD, spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He notes that you can expect to shed weight and body fat on a flexitarian diet only if you focus on eating reasonable portions of whole foods, such as beans and whole grains, as opposed to replacing animal protein with baked goods, bagels and large bowls of refined pasta.
It Offers a Better Nutrient Balance
Plant-based foods are rich in fiber, disease-thwarting antioxidants and a number of vitamins (such as vitamin C) that you won’t find in meats. So it is no surprise that an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that semivegetarians live on average 3.6 years longer than meat-adoring nonvegetarians, likely owing to lower rates of chronic diseases that have a diet connection—such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer (Singh, Sabaté & Fraser 2003).
Yet, by including reasonable amounts of animal-based foods in your diet, White says, you don’t have to worry as much about getting enough protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron and vitamin B12, which can be lacking in stringent vegetarian and vegan diets.
It Expands Your Horizons
Avoiding meat at every meal forces you to be creative with meal planning, says chef Peter Berley. Flexitarian eating—with its increased use of lentils, beans, grains such as quinoa and soy-based proteins like tempeh and tofu—is a great way to help people break out of their chicken-breast food rut and broaden their culinary horizons, he says. Visual potlucks such as foodgawker.com and tastespotting.com, as well as flexitarian-focused cookbooks like The Flexitarian Table and Everyday Flexitarian (Whitecap 2011), can inspire you to do wonders with tofu and mung beans.
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