What is a flexitarian diet? What do flexitarians eat? Are there sustainable meat options? All questions that I have been asking myself as I sort through my version of ethical eating. Read on for my view on flexitarian eating, and I have included some of my top flexitarian recipes.
The new Canadian Food Guide is out and with the removal of the Dairy Food Group, and the focus on Plant-Based Proteins over meat, it has sparked a lot of healthy conversation. The benefits of a plant-based diet for general health and environmental sustainability have been discussed in previous posts, and if you have landed on my blog you are likely interested in eating for a healthy planet (see my post Plant-Based Diets and Sustainable Eating). For many people, eating meat can be part of a healthy sustainable diet. For those who wish to consume meat sustainably and consciously, and follow more of a ‘Flexitarian” approach, here are some tips on how to make the right choice for environmental sustainability, and your health.
How to Be A Flexitarian
What Is A Flexitarian?
A flexitarian is a person who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish. Following a flexitarian diet may mean that you eat mostly plant-based, but you don’t want to follow the strict rules of using the term ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’.
What Does A Flexitarian Eat?
A flexitarian sources most of their proteins from plant-based proteins including lentils and beans (see this recipe for BEST Lentil Salad with a Mustard Vinaigrette), and will occasionally eat some meat. Those who eat mostly plant-based but consume some seafood but no meat are called ‘pescatarians’, those who eat mostly plant-based but include dairy in their diets are called lacto-vegetarians, and if they eat eggs the term is lacto-ovo-vegetarian.
How Often Do Flexitarians Eat Meat?
There is no defined limit to the amount of meat a flexitarian might eat. As flexitarians eat mostly plant-based proteins, they might eat meat once per week, or as little as once per month, or only when it is served at a gathering.
Do Flexitarians Eat Dairy?
Flexitarians may decide to eat dairy, just like eggs and meat. Flexitarians are mostly plant-based so dairy won’t be a large part of their diet, but they may choose to consume it occasionally or if served it at a gathering.
How To Eat A Healthy Flexitarian Diet
Choose Grass-Fed or Pasture-Raised Beef
Grass-fed cattle have a healthier fat profile compared with conventional beef with higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids including EPA and DHA. Grain-fed cattle have increased levels of omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory, and reduce levels of omega-3 utilization in the body.
Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio In Grass-Fed Beef Versus Feedlot Beef
Studies have documented an omega-3 to omega-6 ratios in grass-fed beef in the order of 1:1 to 1:3, whereas in animals that spend the last portion of their lives on feedlots, the ratios found in their meat can be between 1:5 and 1:7.
Why The Omega-3 To Omega-6 Ratio Is Important
Some researchers attribute the pro-inflammatory state of the human body, and a ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 at 1:10 as a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and any disease with roots in inflammation; this would include dementia and the mental diseases of aging. See How To Get Your Omega-3s for Vegetarians and Vegans for more information on why the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is important for chronic disease prevention.
What About Processed Meat?
Processed meat including ham, bacon and sausages has been linked to colorectal cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of World Health Organisation (WHO) states that with each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily comes an 18% risk of colorectal cancer.
It is important to note that this is a relative risk which really translates to a 1.18% increased risk of developing bowel cancer with each 50-gram serving of processed meat. You can read the World Cancer Research Fund report here. Bottom line – best to limit it.
Chicken Is Healthier Than Beef – But Don’t Eat The Skin
Chicken does contain less saturated fat than red meat. Although the new trend is to not concern ourselves so much with saturated fat, we need to consider that the fatty tissues in the animals we eat are where toxins, hormones and antibiotics are stored. These unwelcome additions will be stored in higher amounts in the skin of a chicken, as well as the fatty tissue of red meat. Choose the leanest cuts, and organic if possible.
Choose Antibiotic-Free Meat
Antibiotics are not only used to treat sick animals but also used in meat production to promote growth in otherwise-healthy animals by giving them sub-therapeutic doses. This has contributed to the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli, which have caused difficult-to-treat human infections.
Limit High-Temperature Cooking of Meat
BBQing or grilling meat can produce the inflammatory Advanced Glycation End Products (AGE). AGEs have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, skin ageing, and rheumatoid arthritis. They are formed when the protein in meat is exposed to prolonged thermal heating (or sterilization). This is commonly found in fried, BBQ’d, broiled, pan-fried, deep-fried and microwaved foods.
How To Reduce Exposure To AGE’s In Meat
To reduce exposure to AGEs, grill using a marinade and do not char the flesh food. Cook at temperatures less than 350F – baking, roasting, poaching and stewing are best. Garlic, mustard, cider vinegar, melon juice and dry wines may slow AGE formation (as well as an increase in antioxidants such as vitamin A, C, E, and selenium which can further delay AGE formation).
Plant-Based Foods Contain Les AGE’s
Carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and even milk contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking. For more information on which foods contain AGEs see here.
Sustainability of a Flexitarian Diet
Sustainability of Grass-Fed Verses Feedlot Beef
Grazing of cattle helps to build soil quality, and the process of raising grass-fed beef will consume much less energy than conventional farming. Feedlot beef requires extra energy input into the growing of the feed (which includes water), making feed into pellets, the use of fertilizers, and transporting the pellets.
Growing Cattle Fed and Land Use
The crops that are grown to feed livestock use 33% of total arable land globally and necessitate land clearing on a large scale. This high need for land for growing feedlot cattle’s grain should be considered when arguing the point of increased land requirements for the grazing of grass-fed beef farming versus feedlot cows.
Some farmers see grass-fed beef as a potential inroad for the next generation of farmers because it doesn’t require as much capital as other farming methods.
Is Fish More Sustainable Than Meat?
Seafood also provides many of the nutrients that meat does, but it also comes with its sustainability considerations. See my post on 5 Sustainable Seafood Tips and Is Aquaculture Sustainable? Or Is There Something Fishy About Fish Farms? for more information on how to choose sustainable seafood.
Why Is Chicken More Sustainable Then Beef?
Chicken is the most efficient terrestrial meat you can eat, with just 2 kilograms of feed input required to produce 1 kilogram of meat. This is significantly less than the 7 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of beef. Chicken is also fairly efficient in terms of land usage, requiring only a small area for a short amount of time.
Why Is Free-Range Chicken More Sustainable?
A free-range chicken will be allowed to roam outside during daylight hours, have a lower stocking density than conventional chicken, and are free from antibiotics (see below on why this is better for the environment) and fed natural foods. Organic is better still – better conditions for the animal and a minimum of 95 percent organic feed (which includes non-genetically modified material – see my post Genetically Modified Foods – What This Means For Your Health and The Health Of The Environment).
Are Eggs Sustainable?
Both chickens raised for meat and laying hens require around the same amount of land and feed. When considering the sustainability of eating eggs it is pasture eggs that get the gold star. The environmental benefit comes from when cattle and chickens are rotated on the same pastureland, where hens can pick out and eat the bugs from cowpies, providing the bird with important nutrients and helping tamp down fly problems. For more on the health benefits of eggs see my post – The Health Benefits of Eggs – And Why I Eat Eggs.
Is Wild Meat More Sustainable Then Beef?
Game meats including bison, venison and moose are better choices in terms of sustainability when compared to cattle, as they release less methane. The methane emissions from the digestion in cows and sheep represent a massive amount of greenhouse gas emissions globally.
Antibiotic Use and Environmental Impacts
Antibiotics from animal feed and waste are released into the environment and leach into soil or drinking water. Many larger and smaller meat production operations have gotten on board with limiting the use of antibiotics. Some producers are looking into the use of probiotics for their animals to produce healthy gut flora and immunity while increasing disease resistance.
So Is A Flexitarian Diet Sustainable?
We have considered some of the major issues surrounding meat consumption – rampant antibiotic usage, contamination of local land and water by fertilizers used to produce feed, the devastation of the world’s forests cleared for land on which to raise more livestock (or for their feed), and water usage.
Above all of this, the more important issue is the creation of greenhouse gas. Livestock produces more greenhouse gas than the emissions caused by transportation or anything else except energy production. In the end, it just makes sense to eat less.
If you do eat meat, choose organic, free-range or grass-fed where possible. It will come with a higher price tag but will also come with health benefits and a smaller environmental footprint. Eating less of it will help mitigate any price difference, and will leave room for other healthy plant-based alternatives including legumes, hemp and fermented soy.
Looking For A Flexitarian Meal Plan?
See my plant-based meal plan below and consider adding in a few of these egg and dairy-based recipes to it, and a few servings of fish. See my post 5 Sustainable Seafood Tips for the most sustainable seafood options.
Here are some flexitarian recipes:
- Healthy Coleslaw Recipe with Toasted Almonds and A Yogurt Dressing
- Beetroot Dip With Cream Cheese
- Easy Moroccan Couscous Salad with Raisins and Feta Cheese
- High Protein Zucchini Lasagna with Cottage Cheese
- Simple Vegetable Crustless Quiche with Feta
- High Protein Omelette with Cottage Cheese
- Crustless Spring Asparagus Quiche With Cottage Cheese
Plant-Based Meal Plans
References for What is Flexitarian – The Environmental Sustainability of Eating Meat
World Health Organisation – Processed Meat and Cancer
World Cancer Research Fund: Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer
Todays Dietitian: Grass-Fed vs Conventional Beef
Todays Dietitian: Antibiotics in Meat
Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical Guide to Their Reduction in the Diet
Mark Bittman: Food Matters
Rachel Dickens is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University and is currently a PhD student at UBC. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on Indigenous Food Sovereignty while sharing diabetes-friendly recipes and tips for diabetes prevention.