The Joy Of Flex

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, February 28, 2006


That's the word Northwestern University registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner coined to help people eat a more plant-based diet without becoming full-fledged vegetarians.

Being a flexitarian means eating 80 percent of your daily calories from fruit, vegetables, whole grains and beans and 20 percent from lean meat, fish and poultry.

"People want the health benefits of eating vegetarian," notes Blatner, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "But they don't necessarily want to give up their favorite foods."

And a new review of the health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets by Oxford University researchers suggests that flexitarians could be as healthy as vegetarians. While vegetarians and vegans -- those who eat no animal products -- have a slight edge in lower body weight and heart disease risk, the researchers found little difference in other major causes of death between health-conscious non-vegetarians and their vegetarian counterparts.

Nor have studies "shown clear differences in cancer rates between vegetarians and non-vegetarians," concludes Timothy J. Key, lead author of the study, which appears in this month's Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. Overall, the team concludes, the health of Western vegetarians and health-conscious non-vegetarians "is good and similar."

But that doesn't mean there's not room for improvement in both styles of eating. Here are some ways to tweak your diet:

Easy on the processed meat . That's one type of food that has consistently been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. "It doesn't mean that you necessarily have to be a vegetarian, but the less [cold cuts and processed meats], the better," says Lawrence H. Kushi, associate director of epidemiology in the division of research at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif. So instead of pepperoni, sausage and hot dogs, consider the leanest cuts of meat, such as roast beef. Other options: fish, poultry without the skin and the lean cuts of lamb and pork, including tenderloin and chops.

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