Neither total restriction nor a diet that gives priority to foods of animal origin: the flexitarian look for the middle ground. Balance is the key word in this food scheme. For this reason, even if vegetables form the basis of nutrition, as in diets vegetarian and vegans, flexitarians make an exception on certain occasions to consume animal protein. The goal is not to eliminate meat, but to reduce its consumption.
And it can bring many health benefits. By investing in plant-based protein, found in beans, lentils, chickpeas, and tofu, among other foods, you can control your cholesterol levels, reducing your chances of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and heart attack. This happens because foods of animal origin, especially red meat, are usually high in saturated fats which, if consumed in excess, can cause health complications.
There are other important benefits as well. According to nutritionist Tatiana Consoli, member of the Department of Medicine and Nutrition of the Brazilian Vegetarian Society (SVB), this food model allows for a greater intake of fibre, present in vegetables, cereals, fruit and vegetables. Increasing your intake of high-fiber foods can help reduce the absorption of sugar and fat, as well as improve feelings of fullness.
Consequently, in addition to minimizing the chances of cardiovascular complications, reducing the amount of meat consumed can prevent diseases such as cancer. Since 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of the carcinogenic potential of processed meats, such as ham, sausage and bacon. The nutritionist also points out a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, as plant-based diets tend to have less fat and sugar.
However, when cutting down on animal-based foods, it’s common for one question to arise: Am I consuming the amount of protein I need? And that is likely to be the case. “The Brazilian population has a dietary pattern in which protein consumption is far higher than our needs,” explains Tatiana. “When we compare a plant-based diet to one that contains animal protein, we see a reduction in protein consumption, but still meeting and may exceed the body’s needs.”
In certain situations, for example among people who engage in intense and frequent physical activity, it may be necessary to consume more protein than is necessary for the average population. If applicable, nutritional monitoring is important so that the specialist can indicate the best source and way to acquire these proteins.
Another concern is with the vitamin b12, which is present in foods of animal origin, such as meat, eggs, milk and its derivatives. It is responsible, among other functions, for the formation of blood cells and neurons. Therefore, when it is at low levels, the main symptoms are neurological damage and problems with physical and mental disposition.
The recommendation is that vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians supplement this vitamin and do frequent tests to monitor its blood levels. But this isn’t just a concern for those who reduce or remove meat and food products. People who consume animal protein may also have low vitamin B12 levels. If so, due to problems with the body’s absorption.
“About 40% of the omnivorous population, the one that still consumes products of animal origin, has low levels of vitamin B12,” says the nutritionist. “Therefore, nutritional monitoring is important in any dietary pattern to understand if supplementation is needed.”
Flexitarians should also be careful about consuming ultra-processed products. “Sometimes, people reduce the amount of meat and start consuming more ultra-processed foods,” Tatiana explains. Options like burgers, sausages and snacks, albeit with the promise of being plant-based, are ultra-processed foods high in sodium, chemical additives, colors and preservatives. The recommendation is to opt for more natural foods or make your own version of these foods at home.
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Lifestyle on the rise
Public relations Grazi Massonetto, 32, is part of the group that has decided to adopt flexitarianism as a lifestyle. After 10 years of vegetarian diet, she decided it was time to make consumption more flexible, but without neglecting environmental awareness and support for the animal cause. “I started to miss the meat and gradually came back,” he says. «But I eat in specific situations: when I go to a relative’s house or on special occasions, such as Christmas. I usually don’t consume at home and I don’t miss it.”
Vegetables, fruit and vegetables are therefore the basis of her diet and that of her family, made up of her husband, who has been a vegetarian for over 20 years, and her daughter, who, thanks to her parents, has already adopted a flexible lifestyle at the age of 2. “We’ve lived together for three years and we’ve never been to a butcher’s shop,” she jokes, who has no intention of going back to vegetarianism.
Like her, flexitarianism has attracted many fans precisely because it requires little adaptation and offers many advantages. According to an IPEC survey, carried out in 2021, 46% of Brazilians have already stopped consuming meat, of their own free will, at least once a week. This trend is expressed in the numbers of the national food industry plant based. In 2015, the turnover of the sector was 48.8 million dollars, according to data from the Euromonitor agency. Five years later, in 2020, the value nearly doubled: there was $82.8 million in profit. And the estimate for 2025 is that the segment will sell $131.8 million.
It is a market in full growth, but which, even so, divides opinions. “Part of the vegan movement doesn’t really like the term,” reflects Ricardo Laurino, president of SVB, who does not rule out the relevance of this food model, despite the differences. “Flexitarianism represents those people who consciously try to reduce the consumption of animal products for the most diverse reasons,” he says.
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Laurino sees several reasons for adopting this lifestyle. There are those who find in flexitarianism a way of collaborating to reduce the environmental impact generated by the production of food of animal origin. Others become flexitarians in an effort to take a stand against animal cruelty. Whatever the reason, it’s a lifestyle on the rise. “When we look at the global environmental landscape, we understand why flexitarians are emerging and why research to reduce animal products has grown from strength to strength.”
How to become a flexitarian?
- Gradual transition. The reduction of animal foods does not have to be abrupt. And this applies to both the frequency and the amount consumed. It can be easier to ensure a successful transition when it happens gradually and with respect to personal limits and desires.
- Check out other sources of protein. You can acquire protein from plant-based foods. Chickpeas, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, tofu, chia, quinoa and soybeans are some good bets for those who will cut back on the amount of meat.
- Combine with cereals. It’s important to include grains in your flexitarian diet, such as oats and wheat. According to the nutritionist, the traditional Brazilian combination of rice and beans is very nutritious and recommended for flexitarians.
- Plan your menu. Perhaps creating a weekly menu will help you with the transition. Setting out dishes for the seven days of the week or even cooking them and putting them in your lunchboxes can make it easier.
- Consult an expert. When you reduce the amount of meat you eat, you may need to supplement with vitamins, proteins or nutrients. Therefore, nutritional monitoring is essential. The specialist will be able to assess whether or not there is a need for supplementation.
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