What is Flexitarianism?

It’s no secret that there are amazing health benefits to be gained from a balanced vegan or vegetarian diet. From lowering your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes to helping maintain a healthy body weight, a plant-based diet is one of the healthiest choices you can make. It’s also an incredibly healthy choice for the environment – as the livestock industry is one of our biggest generators of greenhouse gases worldwide. But, while we have infinite respect, gratitude and admiration for those following a strict veggie diet, we know it’s just not realistic or convenient for everybody. But isn’t there a middle ground between a plant-based diet and being a full-blown meat eater? Yes. Enter flexitarianism.

In a nutshell, a flexitarian is defined as a person “whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish.” In other words, someone who makes a conscious choice to eat more whole grains, fruits and veggies – and much less meat. Virtually nonexistent a decade ago, the concept has become increasingly popular thanks to two high-profile advocates: Mark Bittman, food columnist for The New York Times and author of VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00, and Dawn Jackson Blatner, a dietitian who literally wrote the book on flexitarianism, The Flexitarian Diet.

The flexitarian diet can be hard to pin down because, as the name suggests…it’s flexible. In her book on the topic, Blatner lays out three “levels” of flexitarians: beginning, advanced and expert. You start as a beginner at two meatless days per week, then work your way up to expert, with five meatless days per week – meaning experts eat only nine ounces of meat or poultry every seven days. On the other hand, in VB6, Bittman suggests a daily approach, limiting yourself to a vegan diet before 6pm, but allowing yourself to occasionally include meat and dairy at dinner – if at all.

The benefit of such a broad definition is that you can really adapt this diet to your lifestyle. Maybe you just want to eat meat on weekends. Maybe the only thing you can’t give up is the occasional piece of bacon at breakfast. Whatever roadblocks stand in your way to achieving a balanced, plant-based diet – you can single them out and make room for them, in a way that won’t leave you feeling discouraged or like you’ve “cheated” on your nutrition goals. Chances are, after you’ve been eating more whole grains, plant-based proteins and fresh produce for a while, you’ll find yourself craving meat and cheese less and less often. By setting easily attainable goals and adapting a flexitarian diet to your lifestyle and tastes, you’re so much more likely to stick with it in the long run.

One tip: don’t think of meat as a main dish – think of it as an element or ingredient in your meals, adding a dose of protein to salads, soups and grain dishes. That way, you know your plate is still balanced.

So, we can see a flexitarian diet is convenient and endlessly adaptable. But is it healthy? Research says yes. Not only do flexitarians generally have lower cholesterol and healthier BMIs than full-on meat eaters – they also have a lower risk of everything from heart disease to diabetes. Plus, it’s been shown time and time again that a balanced, mostly plant-based diet helps prolong life expectancy and reduces the risk of many types of cancer.

If reducing meat and going flexitarian is so great…why isn’t everyone doing it? Because so many people believe they won’t get the protein they need – or feel full enough – without eating meat regularly. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In VB6, Bittman explains that the vast majority of North Americans actually eat 2-3 times more protein than they really need every day, and that it’s more than possible to make up your recommended daily dose with plant-based proteins alone. Squeamish about tofu? You can still get everything you need from beans, legumes, whole grains and veggies.

Ready to give it a go? Here are some meat-reducing ideas to get you started.

  • Eat more hearty salads. It doesn’t just have to be a bowl of lettuce! Try layering in grains, beans and filling veggies like carrots and broccoli – then mix in your added protein of choice, whether it’s shredded chicken, baked tofu or a piece of fish.
  • Try swapping out the meat for beans or chickpeas in your favourite recipe – from soups to grain bowl to burritos, you’ll be surprised how well they go with everything!
  • Stock up on nuts and seeds. Walnuts, pine nuts and sunflower seeds are all packed with protein, heart-healthy fats and fibre. Try making them your snack of choice, and feel free to add a handful to your salads, grains and cereal!
  • For breakfast, get some extra protein with nut butters. We love them spread on whole grain toast or swirled into oatmeal.
  • Swap out rice for quinoa – a delicious, easy-to-make grain that also happens to be a complete protein!
  • When you do eat meat, choose good quality lean meats, like chicken, turkey and fish. Try to limit red meat and processed meats as much as you can, and you’ll feel so much healthier!
  • Eat dark, leafy greens as much as you can. Not only are they a great source of fibre, vitamins and minerals – they’re also packed with calcium and iron.
  • Get enough exercise. Research shows that combining a flexitarian diet with regular exercise reduces the risk of breast and prostate cancer.
  • Be easy on yourself. Making changes to your daily diet is hard. If you can’t resist that burger or grilled chicken salad, enjoy every bite of it – don’t let it get you down. Then, just try to be extra vigilant at your next meal.

And as always, try to eat at least 5 servings of fruit and veggies every day – meaning you should be getting a little at every meal, even if it’s just an apple with breakfast or swapping fries for a side salad at lunch. So, ready to take the flexitarian challenge? We want to hear about it! Write your experiences to blog@madradish.com. Now go forth and flex…