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The Flexitarian Diet – a balanced approach to plant-based eating

For many people a "Flexitarian" approach to eating offers a win-win diet - plant-based eating with the occasional addition of meat.

The premise behind the Flexitarian Diet isn’t so much about demonising meat or other animal products, but focusing on veggie rich dishes – salads, veggies, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds are the stars, while diary, eggs, fish, meat and poultry are occasional additions.

Photo: Getty Images

 by Pip Taylor

Plant based diets are certainly enjoying the spotlight at the moment – amongst athletes as well as the broader health set. Thanks to a growing number of high-profile names, some slick Netflix productions and a swelling consciousness of health, environmental impact and animal welfare, more and more are turning to the power of plants. But what exactly does a plant-based diet actually mean? And is it always healthier?

While in some circles, the term plant-based, and vegan have been used interchangeably, the two are very different and in critical ways. A vegan diet eschews all animal products entirely including dairy, eggs and honey. A plant-based diet, on the other hand, may encompass many approaches including the addition of meat, either in smaller quantities or only on occasion.

This more flexible way of eating even has its own terminology – “the flexitarian diet” – coined several decades ago and rising in popularity over recent years. The premise isn’t so much about demonising meat or other animal products, but focusing on veggie rich dishes – salads, veggies, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds are the stars, while diary, eggs, fish, meat and poultry are occasional additions. It’s a win-win approach for most people. Many of the benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet come from the increased consumption of vegetables, as opposed to the elimination of animal foods. But the addition of occasional or reduced portions of meat still allows for those nutritional benefits such as more easily meeting nutrients such as iron, B12 and Omega 3 – all of which can be more challenging on a strictly vegan or vegetarian diet. With such a strong emphasis on whole fresh vegetables and fruits, the approach also encourages you to cut down on processed and refined foods. So really, despite the fancy name – it’s basically the (sensible) approach that just about every health expert and advocate has been arguing for since, well, forever.

Cody Beals speaks at a Vega event at the 2019 Ironman World Championship.

It’s certainly an approach that’s worked well for Cody Beals, the three-time Ironman champion and six-time half-distance champion pro triathlete from Guelph, Ont.

“About ten years ago, I was strictly vegetarian for several years, then pescatarian. Recently, my diet is best described as flexitarian: mostly plant based with some eggs/dairy, a little seafood and a very small amount of meat.”

This transition for Beals was about balancing the value he saw in a vegan or vegetarian approach with improving his relationship with food by “abandoning a long list of restrictions,” and allowing for some practicalities in his life and pro sporting career.

With no foods actually off the table entirely, it avoids those “dieting” pitfalls where a “failure” or small transgression can lead to a complete falling off the cliff of food guilt and grief – and the inevitable emotional eating that follows. This likely makes it more manageable, long term, for the majority of people.

This resonates with travelling triathletes who are often outside their home environment and needing to source foods in different parts of the country, or world. For Beals this flexibility is particularly valuable socially.

“I really value sharing meals with friends and never want to impose my dietary restrictions on others, so my diet is particularly flexible in social settings,” he says. “Finally, I occasionally crave animal protein and I’m a big believer in listening to my body’s cravings, within reason.”

Then there are the environmental perks. Without a doubt current methods of farming practices and an expanding population are a growing environmental burden. Cutting back, even slightly on meat portions, while opting for quality can help reduce this burden, and also potentially encourage the possibility of more sustainable and ethical food production. Indeed, for Beals, environmental impact, and how diet fits within his lifestyle as a whole, is a key concern.

“My primary motivation is reducing my environmental impact to offset the relatively high environmental impact of my triathlon career. Reducing meat consumption is I believe, one of the single most impactful changes people can make to reduce their ecological footprint. I also look for local food options, which typically result in lower carbon emissions during transportation in addition to local economic benefits.”

As an additional bonus, a flexitarian diet might even be friendlier on your wallet and expand your taste and cooking repertoire. Vegan and vegetarian protein sources such as lentils, beans and other pulses are generally cheaper than many meat products. And, to get the most from them, they are best cooked with plenty of interesting spices and combinations – these additions also bringing their own benefits to the mix.

Almost everyone could benefit from including more vegetables and fruits into their diet. But what exactly should be included or excluded from a diet made up largely of plant matter gets much more personal, emotional and individualized. Everyone should have the right to choose how and what they eat, and there are many ways of eating that support optimal health as well as athletic performance (plus or minus meat). If you like the idea of improving health, as well as being conscious around environmental impact and animal welfare, then perhaps a more flexible approach is what you’re after.

Pip Taylor is a pro triathlete and nutritionist from Australia.This story originally appeared in the January, 2020 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.