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In the last twenty years, we have seen the rise of dozens of diets and eating styles—from keto to Atkins to paleo to raw food—each promising life-changing weight loss results and often requiring strict dietary changes. For many of us, this type of food absolutism doesn’t really work in the real world where we live, cook, and eat. We frequently forget that healthy eating actually happens on a spectrum, and there is a moderate option hiding in plain sight: The flexitarian diet.
Flexibility is probably not the first word you think of when it comes to eating plans, and that may be why only 5% of adults in the US “identify” as a vegetarian. Unlike other diets, flexitarianism is more of a healthy way of eating, rather than a strict set of rules (yes, that means you can still eat Sunday bacon!). There’s only one guiding principle: Eat mostly plants. Curious yet? Here’s everything you need to know about the flexitarian diet and how to get the ball rolling.
What is the flexitarian diet?
The term “flexitarian” combines the words “flexible” and “vegetarian” for a plant-forward diet that leaves room for meaty indulgence. “You can think of it as a ‘vegetarian-ish’ way of eating,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N. and author of The Flexitarian Diet. All food groups are included in the diet but there’s less emphasis on animal protein, and more emphasis on plant protein.
As a nutritionist, LuAnn Scarton, R.D.N., has seen patients struggle with disordered eating patterns due to the strict food rules set by dieting. That is part of why flexitarianism intrigues her, “It’s an appealing option for people to reduce meat consumption without totally eliminating the nutritional benefits of meat.” While flexitarianism is in fact very flexible, Scarton notes that it still comes with the risk of developing eating disorders if your motivation becomes disordered.
Why eat less meat?
Can’t let go of ribeye steak? Love your grandma’s fall-off-the-bone brisket? That’s perfectly okay. Meat provides many of the nutrients our bodies need to survive, including iodine, zinc, vitamins, and essential fatty acids. Sounds great, right, so why change course? Americans have the biggest appetite for meat globally, and, unsurprisingly, many of us consume much more than the recommended dietary amount, according to the USDA.
With global obesity rates and related health risks on the rise, plant-forward meals provide you with a healthier proportion of unprocessed or minimally processed foods. “Research shows plant-based eating is extremely good for you, but you don’t have to give up meat completely to get the health benefits. It can also be less expensive and more environmentally friendly,” says Blatner. Eating mostly plants is about improving your overall health, not changing a number on a scale.
What are the health and environmental benefits?
Since its introduction in the mid-2000s, flexitarianism has become increasingly popular amongst environmentalists, chefs, and nutritionists alike. Flexitarian diets tend to be higher in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytochemicals than other eating styles, says Blatner. The long term health benefits are also very similar to vegetarianism, including:
Decreased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, and diabetes
Yet, the inconvenient truth is that our food choices also have moral ramifications beyond the dinner table. Here’s an exercise for your imagination: It’s time for dinner, and you’re working late. Why not serve up some quick hamburgers? If you pick up a pound of ground beef, you can make about four burgers. When you peek behind the curtain, though, that single pound required 1,800 gallons of water to produce.
Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If everyone in the United States cut down on eating beef, pork, and poultry by 25% and substituted plant protein, we’d save close to 82 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. A plant-based diet is an opportunity to enjoy meat as a once-in-a-while treat and mitigate the effects of climate change.
How to start a flexitarian diet:
Her two main tips to get started: “Read the recipe all the way through and prep as much as you can before you start cooking. That will make all the difference.” You can cut up your veggies or mix your spices on Sunday so that everything is ready to go during the week. “If you’re really pressed for time and can afford it, there’s nothing wrong with buying pre-cut vegetables at the supermarket.”
With no harsh rules or restrictions, flexitarianism is one of the easiest food plans to begin! If you’re ready to “flex” your appetite and cut down on meat, here are four easy steps, from Blatner:
1. Pick a Level
Blatner created flexitarian “levels” to help guide people to actual targets of meatless meals per week:
Beginner: 6-8 meatless meals/ 21 total meals each week (~26 ounces meat/week) Advanced: 9-14 meatless meals/ 21 total meals each week (~18 ounces meat/week)
Expert: 15+ meatless meals/21 total meals each week (~9 ounces meat/week)
*Meat = animal proteins such as chicken, turkey, beef, and pork. Fish is not included in the “meat” category and can be eaten on “meatless” days.
2. Re-portion Your Plate
On days that you do eat meat, downsize your meat portions while pumping up the produce. “Aim to have 25% of your plate meat/poultry/fish, 25% whole grains (such as brown rice or whole-grain pasta), and 50% veggies,” says Blatner.
Plant-proteins: Black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, white beans, lentils
Whole grains & potatoes such as quinoa, brown rice, oats, white & sweet potatoes
Dairy and/or plant-based alternatives
Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, fish
Chicken, turkey, red meat, pork
Refined grains such as white pasta, white bread, white rice
Animal fats, such as butter
Overly processed foods (this includes the boxed plant-based meat substitutes)
3. Refresh Your Recipe Repertoire
Try a new vegetarian recipe each week. Ask friends for their favorites or look through vegetarian magazines and cookbooks, like Mostly Plants, for one that catches your eye. After a year, you’ll have tried dozens of new recipes, and some are sure to be so good they become part of your regular rotation!
4. Reinvent Old Favorites
Take your current favorite recipes and swap out the meat for other protein sources. For every 1 ounce of meat, use 1/4 cup beans instead.
Need some help brainstorming other meat substitutes? Blatner and Pollan have you covered. “When I’m looking for a “meatier” texture, chickpeas, toasted quinoa, lentils, legumes, and tempeh do the trick,” says Pollan.
Chicken breast—tofu cutlet
Lunchmeat sandwich—chickpea salad sandwich
Meat sauce on pasta—tempeh “meat” sauce on pasta
Chicken stir-fry—edamame stir-fry
Steak burrito—black bean burrito
Turkey chili—3-bean chili
Ground beef tacos—lentil tacos
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