How to Gain the Health Benefits of Going "Flexitarian"
Last Updated: Jun 25, 2014
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If you’re not completely ready or willing to give up the occasional chicken breast or hamburger, but you'd like to reap the health benefits of a more plant-based diet, a "flexitarian" lifestyle may be right for you. Flexitarians eat plant-based foods most of the time, but occasionally consume meat, fish or poultry. Like vegetarian diets, flexitarian diets containing modest amounts of meat are linked with a reduced risk of serious diseases like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, according to a Public Health Nutrition report published in December 2012. If you eat a lot of meat, a flexitarian diet can help make sure you're eating a more balanced diet with an emphasis on plant-based foods. Not sure where to start? Check out the following 11 tips.
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MAKE A “FLEXITARIAN FOODS” LIST
“Making a list of foods you can base meals and snacks on is a smart first step to flexitarianism,” says Diane Kress, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and “New York Times” best-selling author. “Categorize the ‘yes foods’ so you can quickly pull together a satisfying meal,” Kress adds. Different categories include protein sources like beans and lentils, green leafy vegetables, fresh fruits, whole grains, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and healthy fat sources, including nuts, seeds and olive oil. Keep the list on your refrigerator or on your phone for convenience while cooking or shopping.
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BALANCE YOUR PLATE
If meat and dairy products currently take up more room on your plate than veggies do, you’ll want to adjust your idea of a balanced meal. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, one quarter with a lean protein and one quarter with whole grains or another starchy carbohydrate source such as a baked potato, suggests the USDA Center for Nutrition, Policy and Promotion. Load half of your plate with a fresh vegetable salad, for example, and then add one serving each of whole-grain rice or pasta and grilled chicken or tofu. To use the same philosophy at breakfast, fill half of your cereal bowl with fresh fruit, then add one serving each of cooked oatmeal and low-fat soymilk or yogurt.
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ADD NUTS AND SEEDS TO CEREAL
Dietary fat plays an important role in nutrient absorption, satiation and, in the case of healthy fats, cardiovascular health. Rather than reaching for buttery or cheesy breakfast items, which contain inflammatory saturated fats, Dina Aronson, a registered dietitian in Montclair, New Jersey, suggests adding heart-healthy nuts or seeds to whole grains. “If you like hot or cold cereal, nuts and seeds are always a good way to add protein as well as a healthy dose of fiber,” Aronson says. These attributes make nuts and grains a particularly filling combo. Choose raw, unsalted nuts over roasted varieties, Aronson recommends, which are typically fried in oil and salted. Add almonds or walnuts to oatmeal, for example, or mix flaxseeds into granola.
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ALLOW ONE ANIMAL PRODUCT DAILY
While there’s no rule that says a flexitarian diet must contain animal products every day, allowing one serving of animal-derived food daily can help ease your transition into the lifestyle, says Diane Kress, RD. “In time, you may decrease the animal-based meal to weekends only or eliminate them completely, but initially allowing one serving of animal products per day may decrease any initial feelings of deprivation.” For the best results, choose the animal product you most desire. If you can easily bypass bacon and eggs at breakfast, but you can’t imagine sandwiches without meat, have only plant-derived foods in the morning and enjoy that turkey sandwich for lunch. If one daily serving seems too sparse, start with two or three daily servings and gradually work your way down.
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USE VEGETARIAN MEAT ALTERNATIVES
Love burgers? Consider trying some different store-bought veggie burgers. There are many different varieties. If you don't like the flavor or consistency of one particular brand or type, chances are you may like a different one. You can also make your own veggie burgers at home using the recipe link below. Other vegetarian meat alternatives include vegetarian "chicken," vegetarian taco filling, and even vegetarian bacon. Explore the vegetarian meat section of your grocery store to find out which options appeal most to your palate.
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INCORPORATE MEDITERRANEAN FOODS
A Mediterranean-style diet contains more whole plant foods and fewer meats than Americans tend to eat and is linked with reduced heart-disease risks and a lower mortality rate. If simply “eating more plants” leaves you drawing a blank for meal ideas, scope out Mediterranean restaurants and recipes. Simple make-it-yourself options include spinach salads topped with strawberries or apple slices, hummus and veggies on whole-grain pita bread and chickpea soup made with canned garbanzo beans, diced veggies, vegetable broth and spices like oregano and parsley.
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SAVOR SMALLER STEAKS
Steaks and other meats in moderation fit within a flexitarian lifestyle. Reducing your portion sizes can help you minimize your animal-product intake, leaving more room for nutritious plant fare. A standard serving of meat is about two to three ounces, according to the American Heart Association, which is significantly smaller than most restaurant-size portions. Whether you dine out or stay home, begin eating two- to three-ounce portions of steak as part of plant-rich, balanced meals. Over time, you won’t likely desire steak as often, writes Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, “because you will be too busy enjoying flavorful and satisfying meatless meals.”
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TRY TO EAT A CUP OF VEGGIES AT EVERY MEAL
Most Americans are failing to meet their recommended daily goal of fruits and vegetables. On average, adults eat slightly more than one cup of vegetables a day and about the same amount of fruit. If you consume 2,000 calories a day, you should be eating 2.5 cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit each day. This fruit-and-veggie deficit means most Americans are likely coming up short on important nutrients like fiber, folate, magnesium and vitamins A, C and K. To increase your intake, add chopped leafy greens, tomatoes and bell peppers to soups, stir-fries and pilafs, for example, and berries or sliced bananas to cereals and yogurt. Because fruits and vegetables add flavor, texture and appealing color to dishes, you’re likely to desire more of the same over time as produce-loaded meals become habitual.
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Meeting your protein needs while eating less animal-based foods may be easier than you think -- particularly if you embrace beans. Beans and other legumes, such as split peas and lentils, are nutritional powerhouses, providing valuable amounts of fiber, protein and micronutrients, such as B vitamins and iron. One cup of cooked soybeans provides 29 grams of protein, the amount found in about six ounces of roasted chicken breast. Garbanzo, black, lima and kidney beans each provide about 15 grams per cup. The Vegan Resource Group recommends eating a variety of legumes and other plant-protein sources, such as nuts and seeds, to ensure that you receive a healthy variety of amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
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ENJOY VEGAN DESSERTS
Many desserts contain animal products like cow’s milk, butter and eggs. Opting for plant-based sweets instead can help your taste buds adapt to flexitarianism and keep you from feeling as though you’re following a restrictive diet. Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, recommends desserts containing nutritious plant foods, such as fruit and nuts, as useful options. To make vegan cakes and muffins, replace eggs with mashed bananas or applesauce, use nondairy milk instead of cow’s milk and substitute vegetable or coconut oil for butter. For added nutrients, use whole-grain flours. Dried fruit, baked apples and pears, candied nuts and vegan oatmeal cookies also provide plant-based nutrition.
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LEARN AS YOU GO
In a culture in which new quick-fix diet plans and pills seems to pop up daily, it can be easy to feel impatient as you adapt to flexitarianism. Cutting yourself some slack can make the process more enjoyable and increase your odds of a successful shift. Diane Kress, RD, recommends taking time to gain familiarity with plant-based foods and celebrating the healthy choices you make. Take a class on vegan or vegetarian cooking. Seek guidance from experts at your local co-op or health-food store. Subscribe to vegetarian magazines and cooking blogs. “Remember that it took time to learn to eat the traditional ‘American way,’” she says, “and it will take time to become totally comfortable with a predominantly plant-based eating style.”
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