The flexitarian diet can help bridge the gap for meat lovers.
We’ve been told for some time, that eating more fruits and vegetables is best for our health. And eating less meat promotes longevity. Should we become vegetarians? Or try a vegan diet? What is the difference? In this article, we will examine different “meatless” ways to eat, the health benefits of these, and the happy-medium of the flexible vegetarian or flexitarian diet.
Vegetarians don’t eat fish, meat, or chicken. They also do not eat broths or gelatins made from animal products. However, there are differences among vegetarians themselves when it comes to whether or not they also eat eggs and/or dairy products.
- Lacto, Ovo vegetarians exclude meat, fish, and chicken in their diets, but do eat eggs and dairy foods.
- Lacto vegetarians exclude meat, fish, and chicken and eat dairy products but do not eat eggs.
- Ovo vegetarians exclude meat, fish, and chicken and eat eggs but do not eat dairy products.
Vegans avoid all animal products and eat only foods obtained from plants. The motivation to follow a vegan diet ranges from religious reasons to environmental concerns to the ethical treatment of animals. Others choose a vegan diet for health reasons and weight control. There is a lot of research suggesting diets high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, with little or no meat, have the best health outcomes, such as reduced incidences of diabetes and cancer. Studies also suggest plant-based diets may improve outcomes for those with inflammatory bowel diseases.
Vegans run the risk, however, of inadequate intake of essential amino acids and some vitamins found predominantly in animal products, such as iron and vitamin B12. Careful meal planning to include complementary proteins is essential for meeting these needs. Complementary proteins are those that are lacking in one or more amino acids, but when combined, form a complete protein containing all 9 essential amino acids. The most common example is a mixture of rice and beans.
Rice is low in a specific amino acid that beans provide. Here are some other combos listed below:
Flexitarian diet… less meat and more plants
The flexitarian diet is really just a “flexible” vegetarian diet. It is predominantly plant-based, but includes a bit of meat, fish, or poultry! If you’ve been wanting to make the change to a healthier plant-based way of eating but found it to be a daunting task, this may be the answer you’ve been looking for.
The approach to the flexitarian diet is a gradual increase in plant-based foods while slowly reducing animal proteins.
For example, when starting out,
- Reduce meals containing animal products to once per day. In other words, if you plan to have meat at lunch, plan a meatless or plant-based meal at breakfast and dinner.
- Eat mostly fruits and vegetables.
- Eat fewer processed foods.
Next, proceed to eat meat only once every 1-2 days and then only once every 3-4 days. Eventually, the goal is to reduce meat intake to only “on occasion” or “when desired”.
With the flexitarian diet, as with any version of a vegetarian-type diet, it is important to combine foods to form complete proteins or those that contain all 9 essential amino acids, as in the combos listed above.
There are, however, some high-quality plant proteins that are complete proteins by themselves. Here are some examples:
- pea protein
- nutritional yeast (look for one fortified with vitamin B12)
- chia seeds
- flax seeds
With a small adjustment, some of your every-day recipes can be made meatless.
For example, try substituting beans for meat in your favorite chili. Here’s a meatless version that is lacking in meat but not in flavor.
This chili is lacking in meat but not in flavor!
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 small onion, diced.
- 1 can kidney beans, drained.
- 1 can black beans, drained.
- 1 can red beans, drained.
- 2 cans tomatoes, diced, do not drain.
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 Tbsp chili powder
- salt and pepper to taste.
- 1 small avocado sliced, for garnish as desired
- Heat olive oil in a saucepan.
- Add diced onion and cook until soft and beginning to brown.
- Add all three cans of beans and stir.
- Add both cans of diced tomatoes; stir to combine.
- Add seasonings and stir to blend.
- Bring the mixture to a boil and turn down the heat.
- Allow chili to simmer for about 30-45 minutes to blend flavors.
- Serve up with a slice of avocado as desired.
Advantages of the flexitarian diet
- Weight loss is often seen when the intake of meat is reduced and replaced with plant foods. Not surprisingly this is related to the higher fat content of animal products. In one study, BMI levels were highest in non-vegetarians and lowest for strict vegetarians even with similar caloric intake.
- Reduced inflammation and improved gut function are related to the higher fiber content of plant foods. This contributes to and helps to improve the healthy bacterial environment in the gut. In one study, experts found diets rich in legumes, fish, and nuts, were associated with higher levels of healthy gut bacteria, while a diet of meat and refined sugars produced unhealthy inflammation.
- Reduced risk of diseases. Evidence suggests eating more plants may prevent some cancers and improve diabetes management. A 2017 study published in JAMA reported reducing meat intake by just 3% and substituting plant protein, was associated with up to a 19% reduced risk of death.
Eating more fruits and vegetables is best for our health. We continue to get this message. But eating healthy does not need to be all or none. The flexitarian diet presents an option that allows a gradual and flexible approach. Making even a small shift in the right direction has been shown to be beneficial.
To successfully change your eating habits, keep it simple. Choose one change at a time. Keep at it until new habits become automatic. Once they are routine, you’ve succeeded. It begins by making the choice to get started. So, get going!