Meat or No Meat? Find Middle Ground With the Flexitarian Diet

You may have heard that transitioning to a vegetarian lifestyle could help you lose weight and improve your health, and it can even have a positive influence on the environment. That sounds terrific—but you’d also appreciate a perfectly grilled chicken breast or juicy lean burger once in a while.

No problem. A flexitarian, short for flexible vegetarian, diet could be your solution. Flexitarians primarily focus on eating plant-based foods, but they also eat meat, poultry, or fish occasionally—once a week or less.

The flexitarian diet is common among people who have health-related concerns, as it can help you decrease the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat. It also helps you increase the quantity of vegetables, fruits, and grains in your diet.

Unlike many fad diets, however, this one is tightly grounded in science. Research suggests that a flexitarian diet might help you control your weight, reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and reap even more health benefits.

Flexitarian vs. Vegetarian

Like a vegetarian diet, flexitarian eating revolves around plant-based foods. Examples of nourishing foods that belong to this category include:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Hummus
  • Unsalted nuts
  • Tofu
  • Fortified soy drinks

Other meatless alternatives that may be included on the flexitarian menu include eggs and low-fat or nonfat milk and dairy products. Some vegetarians consume these foods as well.

The primary difference is that vegetarians completely avoid meat, poultry and, usually, fish. Flexitarians, in comparison, eat these foods now and then—just not very frequently.

For a significant number of flexitarians, not having to give up meat entirely eases the adjustment to a mostly plant-based diet. They’re veggie lovers but not meat haters, so the middle-ground approach can be a good solution.

Weight Loss, Health Gains

One of the most widely acknowledged reasons people give for going flexitarian is to improve their health. Depending on the amount you decrease your intake of meat, poultry and fish, there are potential health benefits.

  • Weight control. A flexitarian diet may be helpful for losing weight.
  • Heart disease. There’s evidence that a flexitarian eating pattern may assist in warding off cardiovascular disease.
  • Diabetes. Flexitarians can decrease the risk and severity of hyperglycemia.
  • Stronger digestion. Fiber found in whole plant foods support gastrointestinal and immune health.

Some of this is attributed to the fact that plant-based foods contain a vast array of nutrients that promote wellness and fight off disease. Plants are the lone source of these nutrients; you can’t find them in meat. For example, plants contain thousands of phytochemicals, such as carotenoids and flavonoids, which have numerous benefits, including:

  • Antioxidants that neutralize free radicals (chemicals that damage cells and may contribute to the development of cancer)
  • Anti-inflammatory components
  • Immunity enhancements
  • Protection against osteoporosis, macular degeneration, and cataracts

Furthermore, flexitarians can benefit from dodging certain aspects of animal products, such as:

  • Saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease
  • Antibiotics, which are given to livestock to avoid infections
  • Chemicals formed from cooking meat at high temperatures
  • N-gycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), which promotes chronic inflammation
  • Carnitine, which your body may transform to trimethylamine N-oxide, which is associated with inflammation, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, and death

In addition, going flexitarian can have a positive influence on the environment. Diminishing beef consumption, especially, could decrease greenhouse gas emissions from food production by up to 35 percent.

Things to Keep in Mind

If you decide to go flexitarian, it’s still important to make smart food choices. Eat a varied, balanced diet—this may be easier for you than for a vegetarian because you have more options. Focus on nutritious foods, such as the ones listed earlier. Remove less nutritious choices from your diet whenever possible, such as desserts, sugary drinks, salty snacks, and refined grains like white bread and white rice.

When you eat meat, ensure it’s lean. And if you purchase processed meat substitutes, such as veggie burgers and soy hot dogs, always check the nutrition labeling. A plant-based food isn’t automatically a healthy option.

When you’re going meatless, strive to eat foods that contain high amounts of protein, such as legumes, nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters, soy foods, and intact whole grains. Your plate should be filled with foods that contain whole grains, zinc (cheese, beans, and nuts), potassium, calcium (dark leafy greens), iron (broccoli, raisins, and tofu), vitamin C (oranges), vitamin D (fortified soy milk), and vitamin B-12 (eggs), to ensure you are getting the right amount of nutrients. Keep an eye out for signs of nutritional complications, too, such as alterations in your weight, skin, or hair.

Then make the most of this trendy approach to eating. A flexitarian diet isn’t about excluding entire food categories. Instead, it’s about savoring a variety of delicious, nutritious foods—and that includes the occasional salmon filet or chicken enchilada.

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