You keep hearing how healthy it is to eat vegetarian, not to mention that it’s better for the planet—but it seems so extreme! Besides, how bad can an occasional hamburger, grilled chicken breast or seared salmon steak be? We have a healthy-eating solution for you—go “flexitarian!”
As you might have guessed, the term “flexitarian” is a newly coined combination of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian.” Also called “semi-vegetarian,” a flexitarian diet reduces meat but doesn’t cut it out entirely—and can be an easier way for people who are daunted by strict vegetarian diets to get into a healthier eating pattern.
Background: While the concept seems simple, in real life exactly what constitutes a flexitarian diet is harder to pin down. Eating meat just on some days of the week is vague. Although definitions vary, one common description is a diet that significantly reduces meat consumption on at least three days of the week.
The philosophy behind a flexitarian diet is an attempt to find a balance among conflicting health, environmental and ethical concerns—namely, that meat (which, in this context, includes fish and poultry) is an important source of protein, fat and micronutrients…the need to improve animal welfare and be more judicious with our use of global resources…evidence that long-term consumption of large amounts of red meat and certain processed meat may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, especially colon cancer, and premature death from other causes.
Study review: Using a large national database, British researchers looked at specific markers for health in 25 studies related to meat-reducing diets, 12 of which focused on body weight and diet quality, published between 2000 and 2016.
Finding: Flexitarian diets improved body weight, metabolic health and blood pressure and reduced risk for type 2 diabetes. Men were less likely than women to embrace flexitarian eating patterns—and more likely to overconsume meat. The researchers also speculated that flexitarian diets may help ease symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease, since there is evidence that plant-based diets are effective for calming gut inflammation.
Bottom line: A consistent definition for flexitarian diets is needed before they can be clinically recommended or effectively studied. But why wait for an official definition to take advantage of this easy way to do great things for your health and the health of the planet? Just cut back! Eat meat, poultry and fish in moderation—and include meat-free days while you enjoy delicious veggie-based meals. (Men, this means you, too!)