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The Flexitarian Diet: Less Meat, Better Health?

The Flexitarian Diet: Less Meat, Better Health?

Photo: Pond5

The term “flexitarian,” also known as “semi-vegetarian,” refers to someone who is vegetarian most of the time, but occasionally eats meat. The phrase was coined as far back as 2003, when it was deemed the most useful word of the year, but it wasn’t particularly mainstream until the past few years. “Many people have wanted to be more vegetarian but never felt like they could do it 100 percent of the time,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and author of The Flexitarian Diet. With the recent rise in popularity, “Now it is totally popular to be semi-vegetarian or flexitarian,” she says. Semantics aside, flexitarianism may be a simple way to change eating habits for the better — and it’s growing in popularity.

Why Be Flexitarian?

“Not having to be perfect all the time is important,” Berman says. “We get in the mindset that we have to do something extreme.” 

For years, research has shown that a vegetarian diet can be a major boon to health. However, there are also studies suggesting abstaining from meat most of the time can yield many of the same health effects.

For starters, people who define themselves as “vegetarian” — regardless of whether they occasionally eat meat or not — consume a healthier diet than self-proclaimed meat-eaters, one study found. For example, the study reports, the “vegetarians” who actually had meat also ate “more fruit and some vegetables, and less white potatoes and fried potatoes, than non-vegetarians.” (Interestingly, this group also had the highest wine consumption of any group in the study — more than twice as much on average.)

The same study found that the BMI of self-proclaimed vegetarians was about two to three points lower than meat eaters, on average. While the vegetarians who’d eaten meat had a BMI about one point higher than true vegetarians, their BMI was still about two points lower than the meat-eating non-vegetarians.

 More good news for those considering cutting back on meat: If you’re already in good health, eating less meat can be an excellent way to stay trim. In a study comparing health-conscious vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians and omnivores, there was little difference in weight gain over five years between the four groups. However, omnivores who’d cut back their meat intake gained the least weight of any group.

Is “Semi” Vegetarian Enough?

While for some, being “mostly vegetarian” seems like falling short, others feel that something is better than nothing. “I really do believe that people who eat less meat do make both an environmental and health impact for the better,” says Rachel Berman, a Registered Dietitian and Health Director at About.com. 

“Not having to be perfect all the time is important,” Berman says. “We get in the mindset that we have to do something extreme.” She finds that cutting out meat most of the time allows her clients to improve their health in a sustainable, long-term way.

“Vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean healthier.” Substituting junk food for meat won’t help you slim down.

While the formal concept of semi-vegetarianism is relatively new, it’s actually been around for some time in the form of the Mediterranean diet — a plant-based diet that emphasizes whole grains, fruits and veggies, and just a small amount of meat. More than almost any other diet, the Mediterranean diet is proven to yield positive health outcomes.

Of course, health isn’t the only reason for forgoing meat. Ethical and environmental concerns are one major reason to be vegetarian, and some argue that flexitarianism is just glorified moral backsliding. PETA director of research Kathy Gullermo told Newsweek, “being a flexitarian is like smoking two packs of cigarettes instead of 10, beating one pig down the slaughter ramp instead of two, and pouring a pint of gasoline down a drain instead of pouring down a gallon.”

Some former-vegetarians deal with these issues by focusing on sustainably raised animals rather than factory-farmed meat. Furthermore, given the choice between pouring a pint of gasoline down the drain versus a gallon, most people would likely agree the pint is still a better option. After all, if every American went meat-free one day a week, we’d consume one billion fewer animals per year.

Miso Vegetable Soup

Photo by Renee Blair

How to Cut Down on Meat

Despite the research, many meat-eaters still hold out health concerns about cutting out animal products, particularly about getting enough protein. Protein shouldn’t really be a concern though, Berman says. “It’s not something you’re likely to become deficient in,” she says. “We’re already getting enough protein in our diets.” (Though, consult with a dietician or sports nutritionist, as everyone’s needs vary depending on their calorie needs and activity level.)

She acknowledges, though, that you may feel less satisfied without meat. “I think that if you cut out meat, you need to add something in that’s enjoyable and also filling,” Berman says. Specifically, she recommends high-fiber, high-protein foods that help you feel full, like beans and quinoa, combined with spices to add flavor.

Iron and B12 are two additional nutrients non-meat-eaters should keep in mind. Iron naturally occurs in beans and leafy greens, so it isn’t too difficult to get enough. B12, however, only comes from animal sources like dairy and meat, and 50 percent of vegetarians and 80 percent of vegans are deficient in it. As long as you still consume some animal products, like dairy and eggs, you shouldn’t have an issue, says Berman, but B12 supplements or fortified foods can act as an insurance policy.

Finally, keep in mind: “Vegetarian doesn’t necessarily mean healthier,” Berman says. Substituting junk food for meat won’t help you slim down. To build a healthy, balanced meal without meat, start by finding a few high-protein legumes and grains you like, like lentils, whole grain rice, and beans. These can act as both the grains and the proteins, in your food pyramid — err, plate. You can also add protein in the form of eggs or meat substitutes like veggie burgers and tofu. Add fruits and veggies to bulk up your plate and feel full, and a small amount of dairy and fats for flavor.

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