Flex Your Diet
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How going quasi-veg can bolster your health and running performance
Paleo. Gluten-Free. Raw. There is no shortage of diets for athletes pursuing better health and performance. While these diets all focus on restrictions—no grains, no gluten, no cooked foods—there is an option flying under the radar that focuses on the opposite: the Flexitarian Diet.
A “flexitarian,” or semi-vegetarian, diet encourages eating primarily plant-based foods, while maintaining the flexibility to dabble in the occasional pasta Bolognese when the craving strikes. It’s perfect for any runner who enjoys tofu and lentils but finds the thought of commiting 100 percent to being vegetarian or vegan unappetizing. Think of it as a pro-plant, not anti-meat, dietary lifestyle.
You can start by embracing Meatless Mondays or Tuesdays or make one day each week meat-free. Or, flip things around and designate one day each week to give into your meat or dairy cravings. You could even follow the lead of famed food writer Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and author of VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . for Good, and only allow fowl, meat or seafood to enter the equation during dinner. The sole stipulation of the flexitarian diet is that you make the effort to transition from an animal-based diet to a plant-based one, which offers many benefits for you and the planet.
For starters, a well-thought-out flexitarian menu rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains is likely to be richer in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than that of a full-time carnivore. Studies suggest that a plant-centric diet can slash the risk for a number of maladies including cancer and heart disease. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that semi-vegetarians live longer than those who subsist on a meat-heavy diet. Further, a Journal of the American Dietetic Association study discovered that subjects who consumed a high percentage of their calories from animal proteins were at greater risk of being overweight .
While plant-based diets are abundant with many nutrients, some items such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, protein, iron and zinc—crucial for optimal running performance—can be harder to come by on strict vegetarian or vegan plans. By including reasonable amounts of animal-based foods, you’ll still obtain these nutrients in your diet.
Of course, for any health or performance benefit to occur, a flexitarian diet needs to be heavy in whole foods like lentils, seeds and quinoa and light in the heavily processed foods that characterize the Standard American Diet—baked goods, elephantine white bagels, sumo-sized bowls of refined pasta.
Addicted to Meat?
As a nation, we consume vast quantities of meat—about 200 pounds per person a year including beef, poultry and fish, according to the USDA. The upshot is that Americans consume much more meat-derived protein than what is necessary for good health.
Furthermore, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our meaty tendencies are making Mother Nature frown. Case in point: A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report determined that cattle raising is generating more climate-warming greenhouse gases than a far-more-vilified culprit, our cars. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit devoted to protecting public health and the environment, says that if each American decided to forgo meat and cheese just one day a week for a year, it would be tantamount to pulling 7.6 million cars off the road.
Save Some Dough
A flexitarian diet is also great for penny pinchers. Meat, fish and poultry tend to be among the most expensive items on a grocery list, so replacing them with plant foods like lentils and tofu can keep more cash in your wallet. Then, when you do opt to eat animal products, you may be able to splurge on higher-quality foods such as grass-fed beef, organic Greek yogurt and wild-caught salmon. When it comes to meat and dairy consumption, focus on quality, not quantity.
THE FLEX MEAL PLAN
Flexitarians have the best of both worlds—plants all week, then a juicy steak come the weekend. What’s not to like? As these meals show, it’s easy to be flexible with your diet.
- Meaty Meal: Whole-grain pasta with tomato meat sauce
- Meat-Free Meal: Whole-grain pasta with tomato black-bean sauce
- Meaty Meal: Tuna-salad sandwich
- Meat-Free Meal: Egg-salad sandwich
- Meaty Meal: Chicken and vegetable stir-fry
- Meat-Free Meal: Tofu and vegetable stir-fry
- Meaty Meal: Grilled beef burgers
- Meat-Free Meal: Grilled lentil burgers
- Meaty Meal: Turkey sandwich wraps
- Meat-Free Meal: Hummus sandwich wraps
Further Meal-Planning Inspiration:
- The Flexitarian Diet, by Dawn Jackson Blatner
- The Flexitarian Table, by Peter Berley
- Everyday Flexitarian, by Nettie Cronish and Pat Crocker