In this day and age, eating has become complicated. Super complicated. Almost everyone is on a diet (think – keto, gluten free, vegan), and there’s a neverending war about which one is best. So, if you’re confused about how you should be eating, I hear you.
As a dietitian, I’m always getting asked for my opinion on the latest and greatest fad that promises to cure everyone’s health woes. And while these diets rarely live up to their hype, there is one particular way of eating I’d happily encourage most people to try. It’s not about giving up meat, cutting out carbs or loading up on fat. Instead, it’s kind of vegetarian, kind of not.
Enter: the flexitarian diet. It’s flexible vegetarianism.
What is flexitarianism?
The foundation of the flexitarian diet is vego. When done properly, vegetarian diets are rich in vegetables, fruit, legumes and wholegrains. If you’re thinking ‘where’s the protein?’, rest assured it’s relatively easy to get enough protein from plants. Legumes (i.e. beans, chickpeas and lentils) are a vegetarian’s best friend when it comes to protein, as are tofu and soy milk. Nuts and seeds provide a protein punch as well. And if dairy and eggs are included, that’s even better.
As it turns out, more and more people are gravitating towards a vegetarian diet. But if, like me, you don’t want to give up on your salmon fillets, cheese boards and the occasional slow-cooked lamb shoulder, going fully-fledged vegetarian probably isn’t realistic – and that’s where flexitarianism comes in.
A flexitarian diet combines the best of both the plant-based and meat-eating worlds – but it’s more than just #meatfreemonday. Instead, on a flexitarian diet, you purposefully reduce your intake of meat on at least 3 days a week. That makes plants the superstar, but there’s still plenty of room to enjoy a perfectly cooked steak or BBQ’d snapper when you really feel like it.
In my opinion, this is a great way of eating for lots of reasons. For one, it’s super easy to follow. Two, it doesn’t come with a long list restricted foods like most ‘diets’ do. And three, it’s nice and flexible (as the name suggests, duh).
What are the health benefits?
Overall, research has linked a flexitarian style of eating to benefits for everything from body weight to reduced risk of diabetes.
As you’re sure to appreciate, eating lots of plants is *really* good for you. Fruit and veggies are full of antioxidants that help to protect you from disease, and they’re rich in fibre which is key for gut health. Plus, fruit and veg are low in energy and can therefore be very helpful in weight management.
Another aspect of flexitarianism that’s doing your health a world of good is incorporating more legumes into your diet. Beans, chickpeas and lentils are a great source of plant-based protein and low-GI carbohydrates that will give you long-lasting energy. Plus, they’re super economical (a whole can costs less than $1). Eating a higher proportion of legumes is associated with a host of health benefits, including reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers.
It could be as simple as baked beans on toast for breakkie, or snacking on roasted chickpeas at 3pm instead of your go-to chocolate bar.
Melissa Meier is an online and Sydney-based Accredited Practising Dietitian. You can connect with her at www.honestnutrition.com.au or on Instagram @honest_nutrition.