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The Flexitarian Diet

Food for planetary health diet


Flexitarianism has definitely taken hold everywhere around the world, becoming a real trend. It’s a new concept of diet, that gives more flexibility combining vegetable proteins with animal proteins few times a week.

The main pillar of the vegetarian diet consists in consuming mainly legumes, vegetables, cereals, seeds and good fats. The legumes are the protagonists of the protein intake, from peas to beans, broad beans, chickpeas and lentils, that offers the possibility to prepare a variety of dishes in many ways and forms.

There is a big debate regarding the quality of animal and vegetable protein in terms of essential amino acid content. Animal proteins contains all the essential amino acids in the correct proportions, hence they are considered of high biological value, while the vegetables can have an incomplete amino acid profile. For this reason the combination of grains and legumes in the same dish (eg. rice and lentils) represents the better substitute of a slice of meat than legumes on its own, as grains contains a different amino acid missing in the legumes.

Furthermore, legumes, as well as fruit, vegetables and oat, contain soluble fiber that can bring to gut a lot of health benefits. Fiber is essential to prevent constipation, hence reducing exposure of the colonic mucosa to waste products. It has prebiotic function, stimulating the growth of beneficial bifidobacteria and lactobacilli in the gut, increasing the natural resistance to pathogens. Finally, the bacterial fermentation in the large intestine and production of short chain fatty acids play role in reduction of risk of colon cancer.

Although legumes have a good overall impact in diet, some “undesirable effects” like flatulence and bloating could be frequently experienced. Furthermore, legumes have some anti-nutritional functions, in fact, during their digestion reduction in digestive efficacy towards proteins and starch is observed, as well as reduction of absorption of iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium is reduced due to some anti-nutrient molecules. Overall, thanks to the high intake of plant-based foods (typically low in saturated fat, rich in polyunsaturated fat and in soluble and insoluble fiber, high in phytochemicals), vegeterians have less risk for development of certain type of cancer and other diseases. However, strict vegetarian diet without any animal proteins may cause various nutritional deficiencies (iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and protein deficiency).

As per all the above reasons, I think the flexitarian diet is a good compromise: having few times per week more variety of animal proteins will also provide better variety of different vitamins and mineral lacking in pure vegetarian diet. The problem of certain animal proteins lies in the way they interact with our organism. Several studies shows that high red meat consumption and the mode of its preparation is associated with increased risk of development of colon cancer. That’s why, although there is no need to completely remove red meat from the diet, it is recommended to reduce intake of red meat once a week.

In conclusion, here are few tips for flexitarian diet:

  • eat at least five portions of fruits and vegetables a day (more vegetables than fruits);
  • include wholegrain at least in one of main meal per day;
  • include different sources of iron that may be lacking due to a low intake of red meat. Good sources include dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, kale and broccoli;
  • use food rich in vitamin C to increase the absorption of iron from vegetables sources: small glass (150ml) of freshly squeezed orange juice, lemon sauce as a dressing, bell peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, kiwi, etc;
  • include animal protein few times a week: salmon, eggs, low fat dairy and chicken;
  • increase the ability to digest and reduce flatulence of the legumes with a long soaking, changing the water during before cooking, and when possible remove the skin.

Dr Andrea Rajnakova

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