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DIET TRENDS

THE FLEXITARIAN DIET: IS IT JUST A FAD?

In the UK, there has recently been a rise in the so-called flexitarian diet, with 21% of the UK population now classifying themselves as ‘flexitarian’ or ‘semi-vegetarian’.1 Here, we look at why it is becoming so popular and consider the benefits of flexible eating. The term ‘flexitarian’ has become so popular that in 2014, it was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as ‘a person who follows a primarily, but not strictly, vegetarian diet, occasionally eating meat or fish.’2 But, what actually is flexitarianism? Is it just another fad, or does it hold the key to following a healthy and balanced lifestyle without guilt and restriction? WHAT IS A FLEXITARIAN?

Exactly as it sounds: a flexible vegetarian. The term was created by a vegetarian dietitian in 2009 who still wanted to eat meat on special occasions without being deemed a ‘fake vegetarian’.3 The diet itself is predominantly vegetarian, but still allows for occasional meat and fish consumption. It encourages people to follow a more plant-based diet in order to achieve the proposed benefits (see overleaf). The diet focuses on introducing more plant-based proteins into everyday life, in place of animal sources. By doing so, you can still reap the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle without the need for complete abstinence from your beloved steak. Flexitarianism also advocates a reduction in processed and sugary foods as part of a healthy lifestyle.

But, how much meat can you have on the flexitarian diet? There are in fact, no prescribed quantities of animal products. It’s completely up to you. You might eat meat once a week, or as a rare treat when out at a restaurant. The focus is not on how much meat to eat, but more on how many plant-based foods you can include in your current diet. By doing this, the diet hopes to naturally replace the amount of processed and animal products previously consumed. This, therefore, makes flexitarianism more of a lifestyle choice than a shortterm fix, or so-called 'fad diet'. It also removes the element of restriction, as nothing is eliminated. This contrasts to several other diets which cut out whole food groups. For example, the Atkins diet restricts all carbohydrates in place of protein and fat. But, evidence suggests that restrictive diets don’t work in the long term and many people put on more weight than initially lost.4

Tabitha Ward Postgraduate Dietetics Student Tabitha is currently studying Postgraduate Dietetics at Caledonian University. She also holds a BSc degree in Food Marketing and Human Nutrition from Newcastle University. Her interests primarily lie in weight management and behaviour change, but she is also interested in Sports Nutrition.

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EASIER TO ACHIEVE AND MAINTAIN

Because of its relaxed approach to plant-based living, it may serve as a good starting point for carnivores who are worried about consuming too much meat, whether for health or environmental reasons. This is

Table 1: Principles of the flexitarian diet3 Eat mostly fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains. Include plant-based proteins, such as beans, pulses and tofu. Limit sugary and processed foods. Occasional consumption of unprocessed meat and animal products. www.NHDmag.com June/July 2019 - Issue 145

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DIET TRENDS especially important for those who may wish to go fully vegan or veggie, but lack the confidence to do so due to running the risk of failure and giving up. According to research by the US Humane Research Council (an organisation promoting meat-free diets), four out of five vegetarians or vegans are unable to maintain their new diet, with 84% eventually reverting back to their usual diet of meat and animal products.5,6 But why is this? There are several reasons for quitting including making drastic changes in a short timeframe, which are unrealistic to maintain, rather than making gradual changes. This can be a difficult transition and many may find themselves stuck with what to eat.5 Eventually, they may give into the temptation of consuming the animal products they are so used to, which are readily available in our everyday environment. This is where the flexitarian diet can come into play. It can act as a happy medium, as flexitarians can still have their cake (or in this case animal products) and eat it too. This may reduce the risk of temptation and cravings. It can, therefore, be more beneficial for those wanting to adopt more vegetarian attributes, as it focuses on gradually reducing consumption of animal products, rather than eliminating them altogether. With gradual cutbacks and the introduction of meat-free weekdays (we’ve all heard of the meat-free Monday), the diet seems achievable for many and appeals to those wanting to adopt healthier lifestyle traits for the long run without running the risk of failure. Restaurants have now cottoned on to the trend and have created new and exciting veggie options. Gone are the days of the side salad or cheese omelette being the only vegetarian options on the menu! Conversely, the flexitarian diet is not only for those trying to reduce their meat consumption, but may also include vegetarians and vegans who are trying to reintroduce meat back into their diet.7 This may be due to several reasons, such as the prevention of deficiency, or to improve nutritional adequacy. For example, vegetarian teenagers or vegan athletes may be advised to introduce animal proteins into their diet to increase the amount of haem iron, in order to reduce the risk of iron-deficiency anaemia. 32

www.NHDmag.com June/July 2019 - Issue 145

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF A FLEXITARIAN DIET?

It’s better for our health The health benefits of a flexitarian diet are similar to those of a vegetarian diet. Research shows that vegetarians not only have a lower body mass index, but they also have a lower mortality rate than meat eaters and have lower incidences of several health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.8 This is likely to be transferable to flexitarians and is supported by research showing significant improvements in health status in those with a predominantly plant-based diet, allowing for small amounts of animal products.9 In addition, if you follow the flexitarian style diet correctly, you will inevitably be getting more fibre in your diet. Great news for our digestive health! It’s better for the environment Meat and dairy production is responsible for 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.10 By eating less meat and increasing the amount of plants in our diet, we could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our carbon footprint.11 This is supported by research from Oxford University suggesting that if we all stuck to the healthy global diet guidelines (eating no more than 300g meat a week), we could cut global food-related emissions by almost a third.11 You can still get the benefits of animal products Meat, fish and dairy are a great source of a whole host of nutrients that are not always available in plant foods. For example, haem-iron is only found in animal proteins (especially in red meat). This contrasts to vegetarian and vegan diets that restrict animal products, running the risk of potential nutrient deficiencies if not planned carefully.12 You save money Plant-based proteins, such as beans and pulses, are significantly cheaper than animal proteins and are more readily available. This means that when you do decide to buy meat, you have a bigger budget to spend on better quality meat as you buy it less often.


DIET TRENDS

ARE THERE ANY DRAWBACKS?

Flexitarians can be difficult to study. They create and follow their own rules and each will eat varying quantities of meat and plantbased proteins based on their preferences. This creates a paradox when determining cause and effect, as those still eating a diet rich in animal products (albeit less than their previous omnivorous diet), may not be representative of what is expected from a flexitarian. Furthermore, it can be difficult to determine other lifestyle factors of flexitarians. Are the proposed health benefits purely down to diet, or a combination of several lifestyle factors combined? For example, flexitarians may demonstrate more health-conscious behaviours, such as being more physically active and not smoking compared with meat eaters. This complicates matters. Depending on the level of restriction, flexitarians may be at risk of nutrient deficiencies, This is because animal products are the biggest source of several vitamins and minerals in our diets, such as iron and vitamin B12.9 Therefore, if we cut animal products back without the knowledge of how to replace them, we run the

risk of nutritional inadequacy, which could have detrimental effects on our health and wellbeing. Furthermore, a more plant-based diet is likely to be lower in calories. Although this may benefit those hoping to lose weight, it may prove problematic to the vulnerable population who are trying to gain weight. CONCLUSION

Flexitarianism is becoming increasingly popular due to a combination of health, environmental and animal welfare concerns. It focuses on moderate consumption of animal products, rather than complete restriction, so may just act as a happy medium for meat eaters wanting to adopt healthier habits (without having to give up their beloved bacon sandwich). At the end of the day, eating more plantbased foods is good for our health, irrespective of whether we are flexitarian, vegan, omnivore, or whatever else is to come. The principles of the flexitarian diet reflect those of a healthy diet, compared to restrictive short-term fad diets, so following the diet may just be a step in the right direction for those wanting to live healthier and more sustainably. www.NHDmag.com June/July 2019 - Issue 145

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NHD Issue 145 The flexitarian diet is it just a fad  

In the UK, there has recently been a rise in the so-called flexitarian diet, with 21% of the UK population now classifying themselves as ‘fl...

NHD Issue 145 The flexitarian diet is it just a fad  

In the UK, there has recently been a rise in the so-called flexitarian diet, with 21% of the UK population now classifying themselves as ‘fl...