The pro-plant dietary movement is growing in popularity and is known by a relatively new term: “flexitarian”, which is a combination of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian”. According to Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD “following a flexitarian diet simply means eating more plant-based meals and less meat”, this approach minimizes meat, but doesn’t exclude it, in other words, it is pro-plant, not anti-meat! The Vegetarian Resource Group estimates 30-40% of us in the U.S. are flexitarians.
There are multiple factors motivating someone to become a “flexitarian”, one being wellness and health. Studies have shown that a plant based diet can lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, lower blood pressure, and improve your body mass index. Environmentally, livestock generates more carbon emissions than transportation and is a major source of land and water degradation. Therefore, a plant based diet is more environmentally friendly. And lastly, the US Department of Labor Consumer Price Index (February 2012) points out that following a flexitarian diet is less expensive, beans are two-and-a-half times less expensive than lean beef.
Are you a flexitarian? We eat roughly 21 meals per week, if you eat six meatless meals per week you are considered a beginner, and if you consume 9-12 meatless meals per week you are an advanced flexitarian. Consuming 15 or more meatless meals per week? You can consider yourself an expert! It should be noted that amongst the flexitarians fish is a “limbo” food. Some include it, some don’t. If you do include it, you should aim to eat 12 ounces of a variety of fish per week.
Are you concerned about the nutritional aspects of a flexitarian diet? Does this way of eating provide enough protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12? The short answer is “yes”, but if you are new to this approach here are a few easy steps to follow to ensure you are getting the necessary nutrients your body needs. For your protein, iron, and zinc needs incorporate beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds into your daily meals. To achieve your vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin D requirements include milk or fortified soy, rice, or almond milk daily. Obtaining omega-3 fatty acids are a bit more difficult unless you include fish in your weekly diet. Plant based omega-3s include flaxseeds/oil, walnuts/oil, and chia seeds and all contain ALA fatty acids (see my article for detailed information). Unfortunately, very little ALA is converted to EPA or DHA (FYI: ALA has to be converted). Remember, EPA and DHA are associated with heart health by lowering total triglycerides, and food sources include fish and fish oils. If you don’t consume the recommended 12 ounces of fish per week I would recommend a good omega-3 DHA supplement.
A flexitarian can easily follow the 2010 Dietary Guidelines by using the MyPlate approach. The plate has three sections, 25% protein, 25% starch, 50% fruits and veggies.
We typically think of protein as beef, pork, poultry, or fish, for the new flexitarian here are a few suggestions for protein “swaps”.
Note: one ounce of meat = one-fourth cup of beans.
I’m writing this article as my marinara sauce is simmering on the stove top, my polenta is baking in the oven, and my garden salad is crisping in the fridge. If you haven’t tried a plant-based diet for a meal or two a week, I invite you to give it a try. Be creative, be healthy and don’t forget to include your protein, fruits and veggies, and starch at every meal!