By Emer Delaney
Plant-based diets are increasingly popular, but what are the health benefits of being a flexitarian? We asked a dietitian to give her view…
Flexitarianism or ‘casual vegetarianism’ is an increasingly popular, plant-based diet that claims to reduce your carbon footprint and improve your health with an eating regime that’s mostly vegetarian yet still allows for the occasional meat dish. The rise of the flexitarian diet is a result of people taking a more environmentally sustainable approach to what they eat by reducing their meat consumption in exchange for alternative protein sources.
We asked dietitian Emer Delaney for her view…
What does ‘flexitarian’ mean?
Following a flexitarian diet highlights an increased intake of plant-based meals without completely eliminating meat. It is about adding new foods to your diet as opposed to excluding any, which can be extremely beneficial for health. These plant-based foods include lentils, beans, peas, nuts and seeds, all excellent sources of protein.
It is also widely accepted that soluble fibre found in lentils and beans helps to reduce high cholesterol as part of a healthy diet, so including these regularly is definitely recommended. Nuts and seeds such as linseed, pine nuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts are high in the heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats which help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels and provide essential fatty acids. Research has shown that practicing a flexitarian diet in conjunction with physical activity can promote a lifestyle consistent with recommendations for reducing risks of breast and prostate cancer.
What are the healthiest meats to include?
When people do choose to eat meat, opting for good quality lean meat is best, such as chicken or turkey. I would advise having processed meats such as bacon, sausages, salami, ham and pâtés very occasionally as they are high in both saturated fat and salt and provide very little in the way of vitamins and minerals. Research from the World Health Organisation found that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day may increase the risk of colorectal cancer, so it’s best to limit these foods.
How can I ensure I’m getting all the nutrients I need from a flexitarian diet?
If you’re thinking about changing to a flexitarian diet, I would advise plant-based foods at every meal, at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and wholegrain foods. It is a good idea to include alternative sources of iron that may be lacking due to a low intake of red meat. Good sources include low sugar, iron-fortified breakfast cereals and dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, kale and broccoli. As vitamin C increases iron absorption, a small glass (150ml) of fruit juice or salad items like sweet peppers, lamb’s lettuce and tomatoes with meals is recommended.