January may be synonymous with Veganuary at this point, but the flexitarian diet – one of 2021’s biggest food trends – will continue to dominate in 2022, too. After all, our ‘new normal’ has forced us to take a more flexible approach towards how we work, how we socialise, and how we educate our children – so why should our eating habits be any exception? For the uninitiated, the term ‘flexitarian’ is simply ‘flexible’ and ‘vegetarian’ put together. To learn more, we tapped Sabah Mirza, Clinical Dietitian at Beyond Nutrition Health & Wellness Services in Dubai.
“Firstly, I just wanted to clarify that the flexitarian diet is not like the traditional diets that we have heard of in the past, where the emphasis is on weight loss, generally through counting calories, following a scoring system, or the elimination or extreme restriction of certain food groups – the term has actually been around for almost 15 years,” she says, referring to the 2009 book The Flexitarian Diet by registered dietitian Dawn Blatner.
“It was marketed as a way to lose weight, be healthier, and prevent disease, so it’s simply describing a lifestyle approach based on a value system that is environmentally, ethically, and health conscious. The main premise of this diet, or ‘way of life’ as I prefer to call it, is essentially to follow a mostly vegetarian diet while allowing yourself the flexibility to incorporate meat and animal products once in a while. And because there’s no official definition as to what that flexibility looks like in absolute terms, it is customisable to the individual – which I think is a really strong point.” she explains. “It makes the leap less drastic and more attractive for someone who’s not quite ready to become a vegetarian or vegan, but wants to benefit from following a more plant-based diet.”
Delving into the details, Sabah says that flexitarianism promotes shifting our dependence from animal source foods to more plant-based foods, without swearing them off completely. The focus, however, is on vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. “If we look at what the foundation of a healthy diet should be, vegetables are at the bottom – they should make up the foundation of what we eat – so it’s kind of reiterating the science that we, as dietitians, have come to know. It’s also opting for foods in their most natural form while limiting processed foods, added sugars, and sweets.”
On a personal level, Sabah says this approach reflects her own dietary patterns. “I’ve been eating this way for many years – I just didn’t feel the need to label it, especially because the ‘flexitarian’ label wasn’t as mainstream as it is now. Initially, It was due to the health benefits, but very quickly, I realised that I also wanted to follow it for environmental and ethical reasons.” She slowly began to question not only the industrialisation of food production practices, but also their effect on the environment.
And when it comes to her own limited consumption of animal products, she says she tries to seek out the best. “I’ll go for pasture-raised organic poultry, pasture-raised eggs, and free-range grass-fed beef,” Sabah reveals. “And when it comes to fish, I try to go for the wild-caught and line-caught type, as opposed to net-caught. It helped bring this awareness of how we are harvesting food from our planet and what effect it’s having. And it’s causing me to make better choices in all respects.”
Incidentally, Sabah’s career as a clinical dietitian calls for making recommendations to clients that are actually implementable. “Becoming vegetarian or vegan is simply not feasible for a lot of people – or they simply don’t want to completely give up their burgers and steak, and I completely sympathise,” she says with a laugh. “I sometimes find myself in the same boat. While the science clearly supports the many benefits of moving towards a more plant-based diet, the flexibility of the flexitarian diet makes it realistic and achievable for my clients. They can benefit from the health effects without having to eliminate the foods they enjoy. It makes the barrier to entry almost non-existent, which I think is a really positive aspect.”
Balance, she says, is key. “Orthorexia is the perfect example of how something that is considered beneficial, which is serving your health, can become very detrimental when pushed to the extreme. Ideally, we want to strive for a balance – that’s why the South Beach Diet or Atkins diet or keto diet isn’t going to work for the majority. So many people dabble with these diets and then ultimately end up back where they were, looking for something else.”