The Flexitarian Diet

It was Dawn Jackson Blatner’s blockbuster recipe book, The Flexitarian Diet, that began to turn heads around the globe in its simple approach to sustainable and healthy eating. Although the word flexitarian, a combination of vegetarian and flexible, was announced by the American Dialect Society as the “most useful word of the year” in 2003, it took the publication of a recipe book and a guide six years on for the concept to really take hold.  

Bibimbap with Korean Grains

The flexitarian diet, is not in its truest form ‘casual vegetarianism’, a phrase that’s often tagged alongside. At its heart its philosophy is that choosing mostly plant-based foods and reducing consumption of meat and other animal based products is not just about health benefits or a way to stretch the weekly food budget, but is the only way for us to go if we want to help to protect our environment in the future. It’s the simplicity of its messages and its flexible boundaries that has led to flexitarian becoming arguably the biggest food trend of the moment.

Merchant Gourmet is a UK-based grains, pulses and chestnut brand and their consultant registered dietitian and nutritionist, Sian Porter, believes that to alter a nation’s eating habits, change needs to be easy and accessible. Here, she shares her views on how she believes this can be done and discusses the benefits of the flexitarian diet.

Over the last few years, we have seen a shift in social attitude towards eating meat. In 2016 a British Social Attitudes survey found that just under a third of people said they had reduced the amount of meat in their diet over the year. There are many factors that have contributed towards this shift. The horsemeat scandal in 2013 and its thought-provoking headlines certainly made the nation sit up and take notice and local butchers noticed a swell of customers opting for quality over quantity.

Steak with puglia lentils, truffle oil and blue cheese

Vegan and vegetarian diets are becoming more popular. To reflect this, sales of meat-free products are on the rise, with retail giant Sainsbury’s revealing that sales of its meat-free range are skyrocketing by a massive 20% each week.

The reasons for this could be attributed to the increasing awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet. Not only has it been shown to have potential health benefits, which according to the British Dietetic Association can help you manage your weight, may reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. it also could have a positive impact on our environment, helping us to combat climate change, promote food sustainability, food security and reduce pollution.

Although vegan and vegetarian diets may be becoming increasingly popular, cutting meat out of the diet entirely may not be a desired or available option for many. We are traditionally a nation of meat-lovers and choosing and eating certain meats in appropriate quantities can be part of a healthy balanced diet and lifestyle.

Genovese grains with green beans and Parmesan

The flexitarian diet is gaining more attention as a realistic answer to cutting back on our intake, with 22 million Brits now following it. Rather than cut out meat or other animal products completely, it simply limits the amount you consume, such as “modest” amounts of or occasional animal protein such as red meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs, substituting them for plant-based protein sources such as beans and lentils, some wholegrains and plenty of fruit and vegetables. A flexitarian approach also includes choosing less processed foods and limiting refined grains, sweet foods and added sugar.

Food brands like Merchant Gourmet are beginning to see a considerable shift in the way consumers are shopping. Since Merchant Gourmet came on to the scene in 1995 there has been a loyal fan base made of flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans, who have embraced the quality, ease and flexibility of its grains, pulses and chestnuts. However, this relatively small group of foodies is starting to spread across the UK as Clive Moxham, Merchant Gourmet’s MD says:

“Let’s face it, most of us in the UK couldn’t pronounce the word quinoa 10 years ago, let alone spell it and yet you can see today that it’s made its way onto the supermarket shelves and on every menu in mainstream UK eateries. It’s encouraging for us to see that more and more of our consumers are really having fun with our brand. We’re not just about selling stock on the shelves; we want to extend the love of our grains and pulses much further than that. For us, it’s imperative that we show how easy it is to create truly tasty dishes that can be rustled up in minutes. We have created recipes on our packets, on our website, and GrainBot and we’ve even brought our dishes to the high streets and supermarkets in pop ups across the UK. 

Puglia lentils with mint and creamy ricotta

“Another thing we’ve noticed is the rise of chestnut sales across the year. We sell a staggering amount every Christmas but now they are becoming a staple in every store cupboard all year round as they’re appearing more and more in sweet and savoury dishes – straight out of the packet they are eagerly consumed but they also give some substance and texture to a dish and, as a paste, they make a delicious alternative to butter as well as a delicate sweetener for delicious desserts.

“We don’t want to be seen primarily as a health brand, or just a vegetarian or vegan brand – yes, we create incredibly healthy alternatives to the white starch carbohydrates and we cater for those who choose not to include meat in their diet. But we’re not about exclusion, we’re about inclusion and we will continue to share our knowledge and bring new products to the market.

Alex Mackay, TV chef, cookery teacher and author, is a brand ambassador for Merchant Gourmet and an archetypal flexitarian. He added: 

“The way we cook and eat in the UK continues to evolve beyond ‘meat and two veg’, and it does so with more taste and more excitement on our plates. My lentil and grain one pot Merchant Gourmet recipes are great examples: the meat I add may be a stock of roast chicken or beef – it may not be meat at all when I mix Puglia lentils with ‘meaty’ porcini stock for deep taste and chestnuts for texture.

“I have a teenager and a 10-year-old who both think bolognaise is made with lentils rather than mince. I still love meat but when we eat our chunk of protein now, duck or chicken breasts for example, we buy two rather than four for the four of us and it almost becomes what we eat alongside our vegetables and grains, with a little of the cooking juices for seasoning. Yes, it’s healthy and yes, it’s more sustainable, but I’m a cook who loves food and this way of eating is simply delicious!”

Image credit: Jodi Hinds

Flexitarianism doesn’t mean any one thing, like simply eating less meat – as the name suggests it’s all about being flexible and discovering what works best for you: a way of eating that will allow you to make and sustain the changes in your diet. However, as with any diet, it needs to be planned to include variety and provide all the nutrients you need. A step by step approach can be effective, for example starting off with ‘meat –free Monday’ or substituting beans for meat in a casserole, salad or soup.

There is no need for us to feel that cutting down on our meat and fish means less taste, less variety and more work in the kitchen to rectify the two.

Eating less meat is not going to solve all of the world’s problems alone, but it can have a positive impact on you and on the world around you.  

By Sian Porter, dietitian and nutritionist at Merchant Gourmet – UK-based grains, pulses and chestnut brand

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