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The Flexitarian Diet – Not as Simple as It Sounds

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As more Americans are getting concerned about their nutritional health, loading up on fruits and vegetables while cutting back on meat products is becoming increasingly popular. These so-called “flexitarians” – not complete vegetarians but discriminating omnivores – are receiving a lot of attention lately from nutrition and health experts who notice the benefits of this rather loose diet prescription.

The term “Flexitarian Diet” was first coined by Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Registered Dietitian and author of a book she published in 2009 under the same title. Based on her experience as a nutrition counselor, she advocates a mostly plant-based eating regimen for people who don’t want to give up meat altogether.

Eating flexitarian-style is about adding more nutritious food groups to your existing diet, rather than taking away items you like and are used to, she explains. For this, she offers fixed weekly meal plans or lets you pick and choose as you make gradual improvements. For example, going meatless at least once or twice a week can be a good start.

Once a meat-lover gets used to the idea that plant foods can be equally as tasty and satisfying, the “conversion” process can continue until a pattern is established where the nutritionally healthiest foods dominate – but not at the exclusion of all others.

Research has shown time and again that plant food eaters tend to consume fewer calories and are far less likely to develop weight problems compared to their meat-eating counterparts. They are also, generally speaking, in a better position to receive essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals. But that doesn’t mean all vegetarians automatically meet their dietary needs.

Essential nutrients are the kind the body must have on a regular basis and cannot make on its own. Therefore, they have to come from food. Among these are dietary vitamins and minerals as well as carbohydrates, certain fats, and amino acids.

Some are easier to come by than others. For example, B-12, an essential vitamin, can only be found in animal food products. Strict vegetarians, a.k.a. vegans, must find ways to avoid B-12 deficiency, e.g. by taking supplements.

Likewise, vitamin C is limited to plant foods. If you don’t eat enough of these, you may encounter health problems in the long run, such as a weakened immune system.

Carbohydrates may have gotten a bad rap among dieters, but they provide necessary fuel for many parts of the body, including the brain. They are abundantly present in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. They are also the only source of dietary fiber there is.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. A sufficient supply of complete protein, which contains all essential amino acids, is important for any number of health reasons, including muscle mass, bone density, organ tissue replacement, and the healing of wounds. It is not impossible to cover your needs for complete protein solely from plant-based sources, but it is easier for someone who eats meat, fish or poultry once in a while.

Obviously, a healthy human body is sturdy enough to endure shortages of certain nutrients for short periods of time. Unfortunately, the so-called Western diet – which is increasingly becoming today’s most popular eating style, not just here but worldwide – is notoriously lacking in wholesome nutrients. The consequences are plain to see.

But even for those who want to make changes for the better, maintaining a perfectly balanced diet is not always easy. The oftentimes inconsistent, if not contradictory, messages conveyed by the latest diet ideas leave people more confused than educated. Experimenting in a ‘flexitarian’ way may be one of the better options we have left – until we get it eventually right.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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