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Flexitarian: An Adaptable Diet for a Sustainable Future

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

In our ‘Article of the Term’ for Spring 2022, Valli Tirounavoucarassou gives us an introduction to being flexitarian, a sustainable diet for those who don’t want to ditch meat completely! 

Image Credits: Pixabay

As many people discuss what is happening to the climate, it’s a difficult question to answer. Our planet is burdened by rising oceans, growing deserts, declining biodiversity, and increasing temperatures. Food production accounts for approximately a quarter of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions meaning preventing global warming is unachievable without dramatic changes to our diets. Meanwhile climate change is simultaneously threatening the global food supply with land and water being overused at an ‘exceptional’ rate. Laura Wellesley, a senior research fellow in the Environment and Society Programme at Chatham House, says that it is impossible for the world to reach its Paris Agreement targets to reduce global temperature rise to 1.5 °C unless substantial change is made to diets around the world.

Would you believe me if I tell you that simply changing our eating habits could change our life for the better? You might be thinking, ‘Oh, not another vegan campaign, please!’, but rest assured, this is not about veganism. This is something more flexible, easier to transition to and maintain.

“Are you certain?”, you may say. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to introduce you to the excellent flexitarian diet, helping build a sustainable future for both you and our beloved planet.

Have you ever considered being a flexitarian? It simply means ‘flexible vegetarian’. If the notion of turning vegan or completely vegetarian is too much for you, you may consider flexitarianism, one of the newest eating ‘trends’. According to YouGov research, 14% of British people identify as flexitarian. This is more than double the amount of people who claim to eat a vegan, vegetarian, or pescetarian diet.

The term ‘flexitarian’ became popular in 2008 when registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner released her book: “The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life”. Flexitarianism is a plant-based diet that claims to reduce your carbon footprint and enhance your health by eating largely vegetarian, plant-derived food while also allowing for the occasional meat eating.

The emergence of the flexitarian diet is a consequence of individuals embracing more environmentally sustainable attitudes to what they eat by limiting meat intake in favour of other protein sources. The Flexitarian Diet has no hard and fast guidelines or suggested calorie and macronutrient amounts. In fact, it is more of a way of life than a diet.

Image Credits: Pixabay

Here are the simple ideals of a flexitarian diet:

1) Consume a lot of fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains.

2)Prioritise plant protein instead of animal protein.

3) Be adaptable to occasionally include meat and animal products

4) Consume foods that have been minimally processed and are as close to their natural state as possible

5) Reduce your intake of sweets and food with added sugar

The Flexitarian Diet is the best choice for those trying to eat healthy because of its adaptability and focus on what to include instead of what to exclude. Dawn Jackson Blatner’s aforementioned book explains how to begin eating flexitarian by consuming specified amounts of meat every week. Following her precise advice, however, is not essential to begin eating flexitarian. Some people who adhere to the diet may consume more meat products than others. The overall objective is to consume more healthy plant foods and less meat.

Interested in the concept? Discover the primary advantages of a flexitarian diet in the sections below.

How frequently do flexitarians consume meat? There is no specific amount of meat that a flexitarian can consume; it is entirely up to the person. However, Dawn Jackson Blatner’s book recommends a limit of 28 ounces of lean meat each week. Better yet, consume three ounces of lean meat three times each week.

What kinds of meat can you consume? Remember that the flexitarian diet’s ultimate objective is to consume more healthy plant-based foods and less meat. When it comes to protein, the majority of your protein should come from plants rather than animals.

This can contain beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, crab, lamb, and any other low-fat item. When you do consume meat, pick organic, free-range, pasture-raised sources or grass-fed beef, chicken, or turkey. Also, consider slimmer cuts to reduce excess animal fat. Due to the flexitarian diet not being strictly vegan or vegetarian, you can choose whether or not to include fish; just be sure to select those caught in the wild.

Do flexitarians consume dairy? Yes! Flexitarians can consume both plant-based and animal-derived dairy products in moderation. The majority of the dairy in flexitarian meals is in the form of milk, yogurt, and modest amounts of lower-fat cheeses like feta, parmesan, and ricotta.

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Will you get enough nutrients? Vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc are the most often deficient nutrients in vegan or vegetarian diets. Plant proteins are insufficient, so vegans who adhere to strict veganism must take dietary supplements. Those who avoid all meat may be lacking in protein, vitamin D3, DHA, and iron.

Vitamin B12 is exclusively present in animal foods and is required for the formation of red blood cells and DNA. 250ml of milk contains around half of the recommended daily amount of B12. Around 30% of the calcium in milk is absorbed by the body, but calcium-rich plant-based milk has large amounts of oxalate and phytates which inhibit calcium absorption. One scoop of whey protein isolate contains 68 percent of your daily zinc requirement. Plant proteins are not sufficient; therefore, ingesting complementary plant proteins to obtain all of the necessary amino acids required by the body can be difficult, especially for pregnant women and elderly people.

Individuals who adopt flexitarian diets can receive all their necessary nutrients by consuming animal-derived foods on occasion, therefore maintaining their health.

What are the merits of adopting a flexitarian lifestyle? Many research studies have found that flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diets may also have potential health advantages, with the greatest evidence pointing to weight loss and metabolic health benefits, such as lower diabetes risk and lower blood pressure. Eating more plant-based foods will also increase the demand for additional land to be dedicated to cultivating fruits and vegetables for human consumption rather than cattle feed. Plant cultivation uses significantly fewer resources than raising animals for food.

What do climate statistics have to say about adopting a flexitarian diet? Animal derived food products (from cattle, in particular) are the principal source of methane emissions. Over a 20-year period, methane is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Therefore, by lowering your meat consumption, you are directly contributing to a campaign to help protect the world. Initially, you could eliminate meat from one meal every day before reducing meat consumption to once or twice a week. Every small step makes a big difference, with studies showing that transitioning from the Western diet with meat in nearly every meal to a flexitarian diet can reduce gas emissions by 7%.

According to a study published in the scientific journal called Nature, switching to a more plant-based, flexitarian diet could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 52% compared to baseline forecasts for 2050.

If everyone began eating less meat, the negative environmental impacts stemming from intensive animal farming would be reduced or even eliminated. Eating more sustainably sourced meat may even have less environmental impact than coffee or cocoa bean consumption which emit greenhouse gases due to deforestation used to clear land for farming.

Image Credits: Pixabay

Where to start?

If you’ve tried and failed to give up meat or dairy, you’re not alone! According to research, 84 percent of vegans and vegetarians eventually switch back to meat, with 53 percent quitting after just one year. That is why adopting a flexitarian diet is an excellent place to start.

According to Blatner, new flexitarians should start simple: attempt two meat-free days per week and eight small amounts of meat dispersed across the rest of your meals. Work your way up to five meat-free days and three small pieces each week. Even if you can only avoid one red meat meal each week, it’s preferable over doing nothing. According to the Committee on Climate Change guidelines, a 20% reduction in beef, lamb, and dairy consumption would help the UK reduce greenhouse gas emissions to near zero by 2050, giving you a target to contribute towards.

If this is still too much, small pledges like Meat-Free Mondays are a great approach to start reducing the effect of your diet on animals, the environment, and your health. Focusing on plant-based cuisine and eating less meat might be difficult for some people. To begin, you can buy fantastic bean-based burgers, canned bean and lentil soup, and bean-based pastas. Once you are more comfortable, it’s much better to prepare your own home-made versions. Don’t be frightened to try anything new with this diet!

About The Author: Valli Tirounavoucarassou is a WILD Food & Drink contributor who is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Sustainable Food Systems at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science in Sweden. Her research expertise entails producing climate-smart and resource-efficient food products. Considering herself a flexitarian; she works on a sustainable way of life with a focus on the food system. You can find her on Linkedin.

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