So, you want to be a flexitarian?
You know about carnivores. You know about vegetarians and vegans. Did you know there is something in the middle? Known as a semi-vegetarian or flexitarian diet, this eating philosophy stresses the importance of putting vegetables and other plant-based foods at the center of your dining table, but you’re not expected to entirely shun animal products.
Indeed, this is perhaps one of the most healthful ways to eat, and it’s supported by numerous scientific studies and most nutrition professionals.
Here’s what you should know about following a semi-vegetarian diet.
What is a semi-vegetarian?
“The diet is full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes and heart-healthy oils, like olive oil. However, it also includes some animal protein, depending on the individual’s preferences,” says Kailey Proctor, a registered dietitian nutritionist and board-certified oncology dietitian at the Leonard Cancer Institute with Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California.
“For instance, a semi-vegetarian may eat vegetarian meals throughout the week, but when they go out to eat they order salmon. Or they only eat chicken a few times during the week. As the name sounds, it is a very flexible diet,” she says.
“There seems to be a wide range of people that consider themselves semi-vegetarian,” agrees Janine Souffront, a registered dietitian and health educator supervisor with L.A. Care Health Plan, “from those who do Meatless Mondays to those who will only eat animal products if at a friend’s house, at an occasional restaurant outing or have turkey on Thanksgiving.”
What are the advantages?
If well planned, the diet can describe a healthy eating pattern that includes all food groups. Semi-vegetarian diets are considered one of the healthier food patterns; some well-known semi-vegetarian diets are the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, which both consistently fall at the top of U.S. News Best Diets overall rankings. “Adopting a semi-vegetarian eating pattern can help people incorporate more plant-based meals into their diet, without the pressure of conforming to a fully vegetarian or vegan eating pattern,” Souffront notes.
This eating plan also aligns with the American Institute for Cancer Research’s guidelines for cancer prevention and survivorship, Proctor says. Plant-based foods provide a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals that are important for overall health.
Of particular note is the diet’s high fiber content, which is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. “Not only does fiber help regulate bowel movements, but it also reduces the risk of gastric and colorectal cancer,” Proctor says.
Are there any dangers and risks?
With most vegetarian diets, including this one, a common danger is that the person relies too heavily on one food group at the expense of proper nutritional balance. “Some may eat too many grain-based or starchy foods with minimal intake of fruits, vegetables and proteins, becoming what could be called a ‘carbotarian,'” Souffront says.
Any diet that focuses too much on one or two food groups at the expense of others risks leaving someone short of essential nutrients that comprise a truly well-balanced eating plan.
Not all ‘vegetables’ are nutritional.
A potato chip is not a potato. Cake may be vegetarian or even vegan, but that doesn’t make it healthy.
“When individuals consume more processed foods than whole foods, it puts them at risk for (nutritional) deficiencies,” Proctor points out. “Not only that, most of these processed, plant-based friendly foods are more calorie-dense and less nutritious, thus easy to overconsume and leading to weight gain over time. At the end of the day, chips are still chips and cookies are still cookies, even if fortified with bean flour. I’d rather people eat actual beans.”
How would you start on this diet?
People who want to cut down on the use of animal products, whether for health, ethical or environmental concerns, but would like to maintain the possibility of eating those products occasionally, are the most likely to choose this type of diet.
“They can start in any way they feel comfortable,” Souffront says. “Many people start by cutting red meats first and gradually moving towards a mostly vegetarian diet. Others choose to use animal products for flavoring, so they may stir fry vegetables with an ounce of smoked turkey instead of eating an 8-ounce steak.”
Proctor also suggests starting slowly, especially if you aren’t used to eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans: “The point of being semi-vegetarian or flexitarian is that it is more of a lifestyle modification versus a trendy diet that ends after a certain amount of time. By doing too much too soon, it may overwhelm individuals, causing them to revert back to their ways.”
Proctor says that those who want to follow a flexitarian diet start by adding one or two servings of fruits or vegetables per day for a week, and then reevaluate.
“The internet also has beautiful plant-based recipes, which makes incorporating more vegetables easier. The point of this way of eating is still to enjoy what you want while getting the nutrition your body needs,” Proctor says.
Who shouldn’t eat this way?
People at risk for disordered eating — such as anorexia, bulimia and other unhealthy eating patterns — should be cautious, Souffront says, and be sure they are making dietary changes for the right reasons and not for psychological factors.
Proctor adds that, for those on active cancer treatment or those who have just had major surgery, it may be difficult to get all their protein needs met if they are only eating animal-based protein sparingly. “Not that it can’t be done, it just requires more planning and attention to combining plant-based proteins and choosing high quality animal-based protein, as these two populations have an increased protein need,” she says.
When do you need supplements?
If the diet is well balanced, there is no need for supplements. “But I would recommend one discuss the diet change with their physician or registered dietitian nutritionist to make sure this is so,” Souffront advises. “If there are children at home or someone is pregnant or lactating, I would recommend they seek professional advice on meal planning and supplementation to avoid possible iron deficiency anemia.”
Proctor says that, depending on the amount and frequency of animal protein intake, you might want to consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement, because this vitamin is only found in animal-based proteins and our bodies can’t make B12 itself.
“Vitamin D is also another vitamin to consider supplementing with because, in general, most Americans are deficient, as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ isn’t found in many foods,” Proctor says. “However, if you are getting a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean animal protein as well as adequate plant-based protein, the diet shouldn’t require additional supplements.”
“If done correctly, this is a very healthy way of eating. It aligns with many health organizations and evidenced-based diets such as the American Heart Association, American Institute for Cancer Research, the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet,” Proctor says.
If you or someone you know would like additional help in adopting this eating pattern, “I suggest they reach out to a registered dietitian nutritionist,” Souffront says.
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