Is Flexitarianism a way to a healthy weight?

Flexitarianism sounds to me suspiciously like some weird Yoga cult, so what exactly is it?

What is a Flexitarian?

Supporters would say flexitarianism is the key to a healthy diet, but it's actually just the latest food fad to hit the news. Promoted by celebrity healthy eating evangelists like Jamie Oliver and Sir Richard Branson, it's basically a reduction in the amount of meat a person eats.  Some might call it part-time vegetarianism. It follows on from the "Meat Free Monday" crusade started by Paul and Stella McCartney nearly 10 years ago.

Call me a rebel, but I'm always very sceptical of anything or anyone who tells me what to do. I want to know why this is a good idea before I'd even consider doing it myself.

So why switch to flexitarianism?

The newspapers have gone overboard with scare stories about the results of scientific research which link our consumption of red meat to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and other chronic health conditions. The number of studies which seem to suggest that cured meat products like bacon (the number 1 hard to give up food for a vegetarian) are damaging to our health seems to multiply by the week.

Following a study in 2011, the UK government reduced its recommendation for daily intake of meat to 45g per day for a woman between 19 and 64. That's less than 2oz - it's a tiny amount for a confirmed carnivore like myself.

More interesting to me - as someone who grew up on a farm, is the outcry in recent years over intensive farming and animal welfare. This has prompted many of us to make more informed choices about the origins and animal welfare conditions of the meat we buy.

Obviously, the downside of this is that we're paying more to support our farmers. But their quest to produce high quality meat in a kind and environmentally sustainable way, is to my completely biased mind, worth it.

This video explains some of the issues behind flexitarianism.

What are the benefits of becoming semi vegetarian?

But it's not always easy. Interestingly I often have a mental blank when asked to cook for my vegetarian friends. This is quite weird because I actually cook and eat vegetarian food for myself whenever I'm short of time. It's usually much quicker to pull together a meal based on veggies or eggs than to cook meat correctly. Cooking a pasta dinner, for example, is a prime example of a meal which is slowed down if you include meat in the sauce. With a veggie sauce, the pasta is the thing which takes the longest to cook!

Bizarrely, a diet where the meat is always the hero on the plate is actually comparatively restrictive. There are a much wider variety of veggies out there on which to base meals and all of them can be cooked, seasoned and flavoured in hundreds of different ways.

“Meat Free Monday is the most brilliant excuse to focus on the incredible variety of veggies out there – the flavours, textures and wonderful dishes you can create are beyond belief. So here’s to Meat Free Monday and frankly, meat free Wednesdays too”.

- Jamie Oliver

Everybody has their own reasons for wanting to eat less meat, and this kind of flexible vegetarianism means that the personal benefits of consuming less meat can be balanced with a person's lifestyle and social requirements.

For example, if I've been invited out, it's almost always easier for my host not to have to accommodate a vegetarian. Similarly, when dining out, it's nice to choose from the entire menu rather than to have to pick the "goat's cheese tart with red onion marmalade and salad" - which I like, but just not every time...

As with most things, moderation is the key. Many people feel that eating meat in moderation is healthier for our bodies than tucking into the equivalent of a large steak every night, and that's fine. It doesn't mean to say I'm not going to savour a large steak every week - and enjoy a glass of wine with it!

Can Flexitarianism be a diet for weight management?

Of course, most dietary regimes which are planned with intelligence and some nutritional knowledge can be turned into a weight loss diet. Just look at the proliferation of diets in the papers and on the internet. If you follow them to the letter, most of them work - to some degree or another.

Flexitarianism is interesting because it doesn't fit into any of the standard categories of diets for losing weight (low carb, low fat or low calorie). It's not easy (in my opinion anyway) to do a low carb diet and be vegetarian, the omission of meat means that without something to replace it, the result is hunger and inevitable weight loss failure.

This means that to use flexitarianism to lose weight we need to aim for either a low-fat diet or a low-calorie diet. In my view, the key is counting calories. Meat contains more saturated fat and is more calorie dense. This means the meat portion of a meal can be replaced with a much higher volume of low-calorie vegetables or pulses and the resulting calorie deficit can be used to add in a small quantity of healthy fats which balance the diet and make you feel fuller for longer.

A reason to eat and feel virtuous?

So is flexitarianism a way of having your steak and eating it? Yes, I think it is. It has a range of benefits which, depending on your motivation, can help you feel virtuous in a variety of different ways.

Healthwise it can help you eat a more varied diet packed full of the plant-based micronutrients which are vital for good health, while still getting the many (largely unsung) health benefits of eating meat.

You will also feel the benefit in your pocket. Meat is expensive, and a diet which is less dependent on meat will be cheaper.

And for those of us who are passionate about the environment and the fate of farmers in these difficult times, changing the balance of our diets and ensuring that the meat we eat is responsibly and sustainably produced can be a very positive side effect of our dietary choices.

There's no doubt that it's a movement which is gaining momentum. Whole Foods suggests that eating a predominantly, but not exclusively vegetarian diet will be the number one food trend in 2017.

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