Flexitarianism, the latest trend in healthy eating

For those seeking vegetarian health benefits without having to give up meaningful meat moments, flexitarianism is the answer.

Jan 05. Vegetarian dishes. Jan 05. Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National
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What do you call a vegetarian who occasionally tucks into a steak or sometimes adds smoked salmon to a cream cheese bagel? Well, before you dismiss them as not being dedicated to their cause, allow yourself to become acquainted - if you're not already - with the term "flexitarianism".

In 2003, the American Dialect Association declared flexitarian its most useful word of the year, defining it as "a vegetarian who occasionally eats meat". Registered dietitian and the author of The Flexitarian Diet, Dawn Jackson Blatner, elaborates further: "Flexitarian is the combination of two words: flexible and vegetarian. This is an eating style for someone who wants to eat a mostly plant-based diet - and get the health benefits - without having to be 100 per cent strict with the rules. It's an eating philosophy that is pro-plants, not anti-meat."

In terms of both individual health and the environment, the ideals advocated by flexitarianism make sense: medical research has linked excessive red meat consumption to heart disease, cancer, obesity, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Only last month, Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University, London, and adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO), advised a return to medieval-style eating habits, whereby a meal containing meat was seen as an occasional treat, rather than an everyday occurrence.

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Sarah Queen, the consultant director of Nutrition Matters Arabia in Abu Dhabi, explains: "Red meat is higher in saturated fat and it is this type of fat, along with trans fats, that can increase cholesterol levels within our bodies. Deposition of cholesterol on the arteries can build up, so that they become blocked and blood cannot flow freely through the blood vessels. This can lead to heart disease and strokes."

She adds: "Research also suggests that eating too much red meat can lead to bowel cancer and because of this, consumption should be limited."

Queen explains that guidelines citing the specific amount of meat a person can safely eat per week are not currently in place. However, she says: "The overall consensus is that we should all be cutting down on red meat, to no more than 70g a day. Ideally, we would swap this for protein such as chicken, fish, pulses, low-fat dairy products and nuts. We should all be aiming for at least one meat-free day a week."

While the term itself might sound somewhat like a fad, for the confirmed carnivore it offers a realistic and achievable means of reducing meat consumption. As Blatner puts it: "Flexitarian is the answer for how to get vegetarian health benefits without having to be perfect and without having to give up meaningful meat moments, such as Thanksgiving turkey or burgers at a family barbecue."

The effect of livestock production and processing on the environment is significant, meaning that this approach also benefits the planet. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the livestock sector is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global". The FAO also estimates that somewhere between 13.5 per cent and 19 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be traced back to the livestock industry. Organisations such as Meat Free Monday - the initiative championed by Paul McCartney and family - suggest that if enough individuals made a conscious decision to give up meat one day a week, it would have an effect on the environmental issues associated with meat production.

Sandhya Prakash is the founder of Middle East Veg Group (MeVeg), a Middle East-based, volunteer run, non-profit organisation, with more than 2,000 registered members. The group recently hosted the first Middle East Vegetarian Congress in Dubai and is, Prakash explains, concerned with "promoting vegetarianism and the consumption of plant-based products for health and eco benefits". Prakash says they also aim to highlight the appeal of vegetarian food and to represent vegan and vegetarian needs in the region.

The group holds monthly events called MeVeg OASES (Open Access Sustainable Evergreen Saturday), which are free to attend, open to vegetarians and meat-eaters alike and cover a number of health-related subjects, such as the benefits of probiotics and the importance of reading and understanding food labels.

While Prakash is a real advocate of the benefits of a vegetarian diet, she is realistic in recognising that this doesn't appeal to everyone. Instead, she urges that people in the Middle East "abandon the idea that you have to eat meat every day and try a couple of meat-free days each week. You don't have to be a vegetarian to enjoy vegetarian dishes."

For those toying with the idea of adopting flexitarian-style eating habits, the two vegetarian recipes below might help, as will Blatner's tips:

• Reportion your plate. Downsize your meat and grain portions while pumping up the produce. Aim to have 25 per cent of your plate meat/poultry/fish, 25 per cent whole grains (such as brown rice or whole grain pasta) and 50 per cent veggies.

• Reinvent old favourites. Take your current favourite recipes and swap the meat for fibre-rich beans. For every ounce of meat, substitute cup of beans instead.

• Refresh your recipe repertoire. Challenge yourself to try a new vegetarian recipe each week. Ask friends for their favourites or look through vegetarian magazines, cookbooks and websites for one that catches your eye.

• Redirect meaty cravings. You won't miss meat, but you may miss its meaty flavour. Enjoy daily vegetarian sources of "umami" (the Japanese word for meaty/savoury) such as low-sodium soy sauce, mushrooms, potatoes, green tea and tomato sauce.

• For more information about MeVeg, visit www.meveg.info or email info@meveg.info. To learn more about Nutrition Matters Arabia, visit nutritionmattersarabia.com

Baked garlic mushrooms with spinach, Gorgonzola and walnut breadcrumbs

25g butter, at room temperature
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
300g button mushrooms
150g field mushrooms
1 tbsp olive oil
75g brown breadcrumbs
25g walnuts, chopped
3 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 lemon, zest only
50g baby spinach
75g Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled into pieces
salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas 6. Beat together the butter and garlic. Place the mushrooms in a baking dish, top with the butter and season with salt and black pepper. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until tender and juicy.

While the mushrooms are cooking, heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and walnuts and toast for two minutes, until crisp and golden brown. Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly before stirring in the parsley and lemon zest.

Pour a couple of tablespoons of water into a saucepan and place over a medium heat. Add the spinach, cover with a lid and cook for one minute, until it just begins to wilt. Drain well, squeezing out the excess water.

Remove the dish containing the mushrooms from the oven and arrange the spinach and cheese in the gaps between the mushrooms. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top and return to the oven for a few minutes. Serves 2.

Balsamic glazed halloumi with raw winter vegetable salad

2 carrots, peeled
1 fennel
1 courgette
small head cauliflower, divided into small florets

For the dressing

5 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp whole-grain mustard

For the halloumi

1 tbsp olive oil
100g halloumi cheese, sliced
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp icing sugar, sieved
salt and black pepper

Cut the carrots, fennel and courgette into long, thin strips - a mandolin or vegetable peeler is ideal for this. Add to a large bowl, along with the cauliflower florets.

Whisk the dressing ingredients together and season with salt and black pepper. Pour the dressing over the vegetables, tossing well to coat.

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a high heat. Add the slices of halloumi and cook for approximately one minute on each side, or until they develop a golden crust. Pour over the balsamic vinegar and allow to bubble briefly before adding the icing sugar. Turn to coat and allow the sugar to dissolve and the mixture to reduce to form a sweet, sticky glaze.

Divide the salad between two serving plates, add the warm halloumi and serve. Serves 2.