Have you been tempted to become a vegetarian, but the thought of giving up barbecues or your mom’s meatloaf seems too daunting? Thankfully, you can obtain many of the same benefits of vegetarian living without forgoing meat completely. You just have to become a “flexitarian.”
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 research suggesting impressive health perks from swapping beef for beans more often. “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).
Why embrace flexitarianism? Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, a Canada-based dietitian, freelance nutrition writer and recipe developer, discusses reasons below.
It’s, Well, Flexible
What exactly does being a flexitarian entail? Does it mean eating animal protein once a week? Once a month? Once a day? “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. You just have to work toward switching from a meat- heavy diet to a plant-based one.
Flexitarianism is also convenient when dining out. No more sticking to lackluster veggie menus! However, as demand for vegetarian options increases, more restaurants will offer a better range of meatless menu choices.
It Can Trim Your Waistline
Midriffs everywhere may also benefit from meatless Mondays.
Researchers at Boston’s Tufts University compared food-frequency questionnaires from more than 55,000 healthy women, finding that semi-vegetarians—who consume just small amounts of animal products—were 11% less likely to be overweight or obese than regular omnivores (Newby, Tucker & Wolk 2005). Similarly, a Journal of the American Dietetic Association study showed that subjects who ate or drank more calories from animal proteins were at greater risk of being overweight or obese than those who consumed fewer animal proteins (Murtaugh et al. 2007).
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 a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that semi-vegetarians live an average of 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, you don’t have to worry as much about getting enough protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron and vitamin B12, says Jim White, RD, spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (These nutrients can be lacking in stringent vegetarian and vegan diets.) If your flexitarian diet does include very few animal-based foods, consult with a dietitian who is versed in vegetarian eating and can make sure you are covering all your macronutrient and micronutrient bases.
Taking meat out of the equation does not mean the body must be deprived of protein, which is required for muscle growth and recovery. Incorporating these meatless protein heavyweights into a “meat-light” day makes reaching your quota a cinch.
Hemp seeds. 1⁄4 cup = 11 grams (g) protein
Quinoa. 1 cup cooked = 8 g protein
Edamame. 1 cup = 17 g protein
Tofu. 3 ounces = 9 g protein
Lentils. 1 cup = 18 g protein
Kidney beans. 1 cup = 13 g protein
Low-fat, plain Greek yogurt. 6 ounces = 18 g protein
Eggs. 2 large = 12 g protein
Murtaugh, M.A., et al. 2007. Diet composition and risk of overweight and obesity in women living in the southwestern United States. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107, (8), 1311-21.
Newby P.K., Tucker K.L., & Wolk, A. 2005. Risk of overweight and obesity among semivegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81(6), 1267-74.
Singh, P.N., Sabat├®, J., & Fraser, G.E. 2003. Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78 (3), 526S-32S.