What it means to be a flexitarian

It’s the dietary change fast gaining traction in Australia, with people reducing their meat intake as casual vegetarians or flexitarians.

About a third of Americans are cutting back on the amount of meat they eat each week – ditching a big juicy steak or burger in favour of more vegetarian meals.

It’s a dietary change that is taking off in Australia and the UK, too, with people consciously reducing their meat intake, describing themselves as casual vegetarians or flexitarians.

Hard and fast definitions of flexitarianism vary, but essentially it’s a diet doesn’t totally ban meat but reduces the amount of red and processed meats.

Australian healthy eating guidelines recommend having up to 455g or 4.5 serves of lean red meat each week – with a serve being about the size of a deck of cards – and also limiting processed meats such as ham and salami.

“But you can go to a restaurant and eat your week’s intake of red meat in one go if there is a 500g steak on the menu,” says accredited practising dietitian Natasha Murray, of the Dietitians Association of Australia.

Healthy choice cutting down on meat

Eating less meat and more plant-based foods, such as vegetables, legumes, lentils and pulses, has some key health benefits.

Research links a high intake of meat to increased risk of bowel cancer, with studies showing that risk increases 12 per cent per 100g of red meat consumer each day.

The risk increases by 16 per cent per 50g of processed meat eaten per day.

“When you cut down on meat you tend to fill your plate with more vegetables and we know there are health benefits when you increase vegetables in your diet,” says Natasha.

Getting the nutrients you need without meat

But there’s more to casual vegetarianism than simply removing meat.

The nutrients that meat provides, such as protein, iron and vitamin B12, need to come from other sources.

“Plants contain non-haem iron and our body needs help to absorb that and that help comes with vitamin C,” says Natasha.

“So include foods like tomatoes or capsicum or use lemon juice as a dressing. A little vitamin C helps our body use that plant iron as best it can.”

Eggs and dairy products are a good source of vitamin B12.

Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and silverbeet, are rich in iron. Lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and grains also contain iron.

How to go flexitarian

  • Choose the vegetarian option when you go out for dinner or lunch.
  • Instead of using meat in a stir-fry, curry or rice dish, use tofu or tempeh.
  • Have eggs for breakfast or an omelette for lunch or dinner.
  • Make a vegetarian lasagne with layers of ricotta and spinach, capsicum, eggplant and pumpkin.
  • Swap mince in a spaghetti bolognaise or Mexican dish for lentils and legumes.

Explore our vegan and vegetarian recipes for more delicious meat-free dishes.

Written by Sarah Marinos.