Deconstructing the Flexitarian Diet
Being a part-time vegan can make you healthier.
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An eating plan without calorie counting, restrictions, or rigid rules? One that doesn’t shun entire food groups and allows for the occasional bacon burger with extra cheese? It’s like we’ve died and gone to diet heaven. Healthy, easy to follow, and sustainable over the long term, the Flexitarian Diet consistently tops the list of best dietary regimens. While it’s the ultimate in flexibility (other than outright dietary abandon), it’s not a free-for-all. Here’s what you need to know, and how to make it easy.
What Exactly Is Flexitarian?
The name itself is a merging of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian,” coined in the early ’90s and subsequently popularized by nutritionists, food bloggers, and cookbook authors. While it’s not meat-free, the diet limits animal products and encourages a mostly vegetarian meal plan. The emphasis is on whole, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, grains, and plant-based proteins, with the occasional addition of animal products. There’s no calorie counting or restrictions, and eating out is super easy. In fact, while the Flexitarian Diet in its purest incarnation avoids fast foods, packaged foods, and excess sugar, the focus is always on flexibility—which means an occasional burger and fries aren’t off the menu.
The premise: eating meat isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, and you don’t have to completely cut out animal products to improve your health. By boosting produce and swapping most meat for beans, the Flexitarian Diet is balanced, rich in healthy fats, and loaded with fiber and antioxidants. And a diet that allows the occasional meaty indulgence is more sustainable over the long run—and that’s what counts.
What Are the Health Benefits?
The Flexitarian Diet isn’t clearly defined, so specific studies are lacking—but in general, its benefits mirror any food plan that increases plants and limits animal products and processed, refined fare: better overall health, lower risk of disease, and enhanced longevity.
Of course, that’s if you’re doing it right. If you’re just eating fewer steaks and sausages, without emphasizing plants or changing your relationship with fast food or sugary treats, you won’t see the same benefits. Here’s what the science shows:
- The longest-living populations on the planet eat less meat, according to research by Dan Buettner, who has studied and written extensively on blue zones, or areas where people live longer than the average (see bluezones.com for more info).
- Some research suggests that minimizing animal products can increase life-span and improve quality of life.
- Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than carnivores, and are less likely to be obese or overweight.
- A plant-based diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 25 percent.
- A higher intake of monounsaturated fats (from avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds) has been shown to improve cognition and verbal memory.
- Plant-based diets have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and glycemic control.
- In one study, a plant-based diet decreased C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation.
- A plant-based diet has been shown to change the makeup and activity of gut bacteria. This promotes gut health and encourages a diversity of beneficial bacteria.
- Some studies show that a plant-based diet lowers the risk of cancer by as much as 15 percent.
While the flexitarian diet is … flexible, it’s not without its tricky bits. Because it emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods, it can be labor-intensive. And swapping meat for legumes may mean digestive distress as your body gets used to the added fiber. Some tips to make the transition easier:
- Start by making one meal a day plant-based. Lunch is easy. Just eat a colorful salad with a variety of vegetables. Toss in chickpeas or kidney beans for protein, and top with olives, avocado, and nuts to add healthy fats.
- While fresh is always best, frozen berries, broccoli, winter squash, and other produce are better than take-out if you’re pressed for time.
- To make beans easier to digest, soak them overnight in cold water, drain and rinse, and cook in fresh water. Freeze extra portions for quick meals.
- Vary your sources of plant protein so you don’t fall into a beans-every-night rut. Try tempeh, tofu, and protein-rich grains such as quinoa.
- Set your own pace. If you start slow and ease into the diet, you’ll be more likely to follow it for the long run.
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