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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

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I’m a Flexitarian!

I’ve just discovered I’m a flexitarian—and that I’ve got lots of company. According to Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, a substantial percentage of the population leans toward vegetarianism, but is willing to eat meat, fish or poultry occasionally or in small amounts. The term flexitarian was apparently coined in the early ‘90s, but is only now finding its way into the mainstream.

Flexitarians are flexible in what they eat. According to an Internet search, the earliest citation of the term was a quote from Helga Morath, who used the term flexitarian fare in the Austin American-Statesman, October 17, 1992, to describe the eclectic menu of health/vegetarian food served up in her recently opened Acorn Café at 26th and Guadalupe streets in Austin, Texas.

According to an Associated Press story by J.M. Hirsch that ran in newspapers all over the country a few days ago, the term flexitarians was voted the most useful word of 2003 by the American Dialectic Society. When you realize how many people are included under the flexitarian umbrella, you’ll appreciate why the term is so handy.

While people who never eat meat, poultry or seafood are estimated at 3% (about 5.7 million), those who at least occasionally eat vegetarian food may be up to 40% of the population. According to the AP piece, the growing number of part-time vegetarians has had a huge impact on the food industry. “In recent years the market for vegetarian friendly foods has exploded, with items such as soy milk and veggie burgers showing up in mainstream groceries and fast food restaurants,” Hirsch wrote. Health food markets such as Wild Oats or Whole Foods, which cater to vegetarians, but also sell wonderful meat, fish and poultry are popping up everywhere—and for good reason.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a dietician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, credits the growth of flexitarianism to a better understanding of the diet-disease connection. “Whether you make a commitment to eating strictly vegetarian or not,” she told the AP writer, “cutting back your dependence on meat is something most people acknowledge they know they should do.”

Another perspective is that vegetarians are more likely to insure an adequate intake of protein if they don’t avoid the complete protein found in meat, fish and chicken. That’s the view of Mollie Katzen, a cookbook author and founder of the Moosewood Restaurant, an mostly vegetarian eatery located in Ithaca, N.Y. She advocates a flexible vegetarian-based diet. “I don’t feel it’s wrong if you’ve got a great big plate of vegetables,” she told Hirsch, “[that] your protein is from a healthy, happy chicken, or a grass-fed cow.”

I agree on both counts. What's more, flexitarian eating helps you stay lean. 

  Vegetarian Ticket to Leanness

Atkins-diet hype notwithstanding, people who eat lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables are the leanest people on earth. And, believe it or not, those who eat the most animal protein are the fattest. That’s what a recent four-nation survey shows. 

The study, reported by WebMD News on March 5, 2004, was based on food diaries kept by 4000 men and women age 40 to 59 in the United States, Great Britain, Japan and China.

“Without exception, a high-complex-carbohydrate, high-vegetable-protein diet is associated with low body mass,” study leader Linda Van Horn, PhD, of Northwestern University said at the 44th American Heart Association Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention. “High-protein diets were associated with high body weight.”

Be clear, however, we’re talking about whole foods the way they come in nature, not French fries and white bread.

“The point we are trying to make is that what we consider desirable carbohydrates are complex, or high-fiber-containing carbohydrates: whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—not doughnuts or even polished rice,” Van Horn said. “We are looking at legumes and vegetables that offer fiber as well as protein. We’re not talking about refined carbohydrates, commonly known as sugar.”

How this works is really pretty simple. Vegetarian or plant foods are generally low in fat and high in fiber. They fill you up and make you feel satisfied without giving you more calories than you burn. While low-fiber, animal foods--especially fat-laden varieties--take up little room in your stomach. They are calorie-dense foods. They pack a lot of calories in a small volume. That, of course, makes it easy to overeat. (See my book Lean For Life for specific examples.)

Still, you’ll feel better, more satisfied, including some lean animal protein in your diet. Flexitarian eating is far easier to stick with than a strictly vegetarian regimen. 

  The Pleasure Principle

Eating pleasure is important—very important! You simply won’t stick to a diet you don’t enjoy.

Including some meat in your diet makes eating more enjoyable. It makes it easier to stick to a healthy, plant-oriented diet. Christy Pugh told the AP writer the reason she has no trouble sticking to her vegetarian regimen is: “Eating meat.” Another successful flexitarian told Hirsch, “I really like sausage.”

That’s why I include some skim milk, non-fat yogurt, eggs, chicken or fish--and occasionally lean beef or pork--with most of my meal. This insures that I get enough complete protein. (See Challenge Yourself for the latest on the protein needs of hard training athletes; it is probably less than you’ve been led to believe.) And it makes my meals more enjoyable.

“A boring, tasteless diet really makes no sense,” I wrote in Lean For Life. “It just won’t work. It’s psychologically unsound. I wouldn’t follow such a diet, and I don’t recommend it to others.”

Flexitarian eating keeps me lean--and satisfied. 
(Photo taken by Pat Berrett during the shooting of The Second Ripped Video/DVD)

Whole grains, fruit and vegetables, which make up the major part of my diet, fill you up without giving you too many calories. The fiber and bulk in these foods guarantee that you never leave the table physically hungry. Your stomach is full. But you may still crave the taste of animal foods. Cravings tend to build over time. If not satisfied, they usually lead to overeating--or worse, bingeing.

Flexitarian eating can save the day.

You don’t have to be a total vegetarian to derive the major benefits of a vegetarian diet. It does no harm to add a little meat, chicken or seafood to a vegetable-based diet to add flavor—and satisfaction. That’s a switch for most Americans. They use meat as the main course, while I use animal food mainly to add flavor. And it doesn’t take much. An ounce or two of animal protein adds a great deal of eating pleasure to grains, beans or vegetables—and only a few extra calories. 

For example, Carol recently converted a relatively bland cauliflower and polenta dish into a feast by adding tomato sauce and a few small chunks of lean sausage. The recipe called for a pound, but a few ounces satisfied our taste buds. 

The trick is to keep in mind that the plant-based food, not the meat, is the main course.

Take it from my flexitarian friends and me: A little flexibility in your diet will make and keep you satisfied—and lean.

(See Ripped 3, Lean For Life and Challenge Yourself for many more examples of flexitarian eating.)

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