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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

A Flexitarian Diet for a Flexible Life

by Dawn Jackson BlatnerYoung amorous couple eating vegetable salad together at home

There’s a new term in town, ‘flexitarian’, which gives us a handle on what many of us are likely doing anyway; we are inclined to eat less meat and more plant foods, but not ready to completely give up chicken or the occasional burger. According to a national survey reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, even the majority of vegetarians don’t do it 100 percent of the time. But, the benefits of eating flexibly vegetarian are many.

First, there are no forbidden foods. Becoming a flexitarian is more about making healthful changes gradually, so they become a natural part of our daily routine. It doesn’t require dramatically starting over by clearing out the fridge and cupboards or buying hundreds of dollars worth of special diet foods. The flexitarian diet I’ve devised relies mostly on common ingredients and cutting back on meat, while eating in a way that is familiar.

When starting out, I encourage people to take it slow, with three steps:

Step One Add, Don’t Subtract. Instead of trying to completely cut out meat, focus on adding beans, veggies, fruits and whole grains to current meals and recipes. For example, instead of giving up the family’s favorite beef dish, boost its nutritional value by adding more chopped vegetables and kidney beans to the original version.

Step Two Do the 50/50 Swap. Now, aim to decrease the meat in daily meals by half and swap in plant proteins such as black beans, pinto beans, white beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans and lentils.     A perfect swap is 1/4 cup of beans for each ounce of meat or poultry. For example, instead of tacos with 4 ounces of chicken, make chicken and black bean tacos, with 2 ounces of chicken and 1/2 cup black beans. (Use rinsed and drained canned beans.)

Step Three Try Meat-Free Recipes. Next, try at least one new completely vegetarian recipe each week, to build up the family’s meat-free cooking repertoire. Get recipes from friends, websites, cookbooks and magazines. Find inspiration for vegetarian options at favorite local restaurants. The Flexitarian Diet serves up more than 100 fast and flavorful recipes.

One meat-free recipe a week can easily turn into an entire meat-free day. Expert flexitarians work up from a couple of meatless days a week, eating a maximum total at 26 ounces of meat or poultry per week, and wind up with five meatless days, or just 9 ounces of meat or poultry a week.

Direct Health Benefits

Dozens of scientific studies analyzed by Nutrition Reviews revealed that people who eat a 100 percent vegetarian diet generally weigh about 15 percent less than meat eaters. An article in the International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders reports that many other studies show that semi-vegetarians (or flexitarians) reap weight loss benefits, as well.

More, flexitarians enjoy lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure than carnivores. The American Institute for Cancer Research estimates that following a flexitarian diet can reduce the risk of cancer by upwards of 40 percent. Finally, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has revealed that flexitarians live 3.6 years longer than non-vegetarians.

Achieving Nutritional Balance

Although it is possible to obtain total balanced nutrition from a plant-based diet, flexitarians need to pay particular attention to 10 vital nutrients: vitamins A, D, B2 and B12, iodine, iron, zinc, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Following is a helpful, four-point checklist to ensure these specific nutrient needs are met every day: 1)    Eat orange and green produce     regularly for vitamin A. 2)    Drink organic milk or almond milk     regularly for quick calcium, vitamin    D, B12 and riboflavin (B2). 3)    Shake ground flaxseed on cereal,     yogurt and salads, or use flaxseed     oil on raw or cooked foods, for     omega-3 fatty acids. 4)    Include plant proteins such as beans    and lentils to meet protein, iron and    zinc needs.

Vegetarianism has long been recognized as the ultimate way to eat for weight loss and optimal health. Now, you can reap similar benefits without completely giving up meat.

On your mark, get set, flex.

Flexitarian for the Family

Grilled Primavera & Fresh Herb Penne Makes 8 servings (about 1.5 cups each)

2 cups (uncooked) whole wheat penne pasta 1 small bunch asparagus 3 large carrots (with green tops on) 1 small sweet onion, sliced 1 large portabella mushroom cap 1 zucchiniOlive oil cooking pump spray Salt and pepper Fresh Herb & Olive Oil Pasta Dressing ¼ cup white balsamic vinegar ¼ cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons) ¼ cup olive oil 2 cups fresh basil, parsley and chives, finely chopped 4 cloves garlic, minced 1/3 cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated (or nutritional yeast)

Grill vegetables, using olive oil pump spray and salt and pepper. Boil and drain penne. Use food processor to blend dressing ingredients. Toss veggies, pasta and dressing. Top with cheese or nutritional yeast.

California Burger Makes 6 burgers

2 cans garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained 1-2 tablespoons olive oil 3 green onions, finely chopped 1 large carrot, shredded Salt and pepper to taste 1/3 -½ cup whole wheat flour

Burger Topping 1.5 cups broccoli sprouts 1 avocado 1 medium tomato 6 tablespoons barbecue sauce

In food processor or with hand blender, puree beans and oil until smooth. Stir in onions, carrots, salt and pepper. Add in flour until mixture comes together. Form six patties. Grill until each side is browned (about 4 minutes per side). Place burger on whole grain hamburger bun, then pile high with sprouts, avocado, tomato and barbecue sauce.

Grilled Pineapple with Vanilla Maple Pecan Syrup grill scenes - grilled pineappleServes 6 and may be served over light vanilla ice cream

1 whole pineapple 3 tablespoons maple syrup 1 vanilla bean ¼ cup pecans, toasted and chopped ¼ cup candied ginger, chopped

Cut pineapple into 12 large chunks. Grill about 8 minutes (turning every 2-3 minutes), until fruit has grill marks. In sauce pan, add maple syrup, scraped vanilla beans and vanilla bean pod. Bring to a boil and turn off heat. Remove pod. Drizzle some syrup on plate, place grilled pineapple chunks on syrup and top with remaining syrup, pecans and candied ginger.

Flexitarian Recipes for One

Grilled Tofu with Nutty Brown Rice & Steamed Broccoli grilled-tofu-with-nutty-brown-rice-steamed-broccoli3 ounces (about ¼ package) firm tofu, drained and pressed to remove extra moisture ½ cup precooked, microwavable brown rice 1 tablespoon each: chopped walnuts, almond and pine nuts 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped flat leaf/Italian parsley 2 cups broccoli, chopped Sea salt and pepper, to taste

Slice tofu into two rectangular cutlets and grill. Warm rice, add nuts and parsley. Steam broccoli. Add salt and pepper.

Pesto Tofu Scramble with Toast pesto-tofu1 teaspoon olive oil 3 ounces (about ¼ package) firm tofu, drained and crumbled 1/8 teaspoon turmeric 1 tablespoon prepared pesto 2 cups baby spinach 1 slice whole grain bread Sea salt and pepper, to taste

Sauté oil, turmeric and crumbled tofu for 1 minute. Add pesto and spinach for additional 5 minutes. Serve mixture on toast and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Arugula Salad Pizza 2 teaspoons pesto 1 whole grain pita 2 cups arugula ½ cup chopped tomatoes 1 tablespoon pinenuts ¼ cup canned white beans, rinsed and drained 1 teaspoon olive oil ½ lemon, juiced

Preheat broiler. Spread pesto on pita and broil until golden, about 4 minutes. Toss remaining ingredients and serve on top of toasted pesto pita.

Spicy Bean & Guacamole Burritos burrito2 small (6-inch) whole grain tortillas ½ cup canned, low-fat refried beans ¼ cup salsa 3 tablespoons pre-made guacamole 1 cup shredded romaine lettuce 1 cup grapes

Stir together beans and salsa. Warm bean mixture in microwave for 1 to 2 minutes. Wrap tortillas with warm beans, guacamole and lettuce. Serve with grapes on the side.

Thai Peanut Noodle Bowl 2 ounces uncooked, whole grain pasta 1 tablespoon organic peanut butter 1 tablespoon lime juice 1 clove garlic, minced 1 inch piece of fresh ginger, grated ½ cup frozen, shelled edamame 2 cups frozen stir-fry vegetables 1 tablespoon chopped peanuts 2 green onions, chopped

Boil pasta according to directions. In skillet, sauté peanut butter, lime juice, garlic and ginger for 1 minute. Add edamame and vegetables and cook for 12 minutes, until vegetables are tender. Top cooked pasta with edamame and vegetable mixture and sprinkle with peanuts and onions.

Carrot Ginger Soup with Walnuts

carrot-ginger-soup-with-walnuts2 teaspoons olive oil 1 small onion, chopped 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger 1 clove garlic, minced 1 pound (16 oz.) pre-sliced carrots 1½ cups water Sea salt, to taste 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts 1 tablespoon fresh chopped flat leaf/Italian parsley

Sauté oil, onion, ginger, garlic and carrots for 8 minutes. Add water and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes, until carrots are tender. In blender, purée mixture and serve with walnuts and fresh parsley on top.

Black Bean Brownies 1 can (15 oz.) black beans, rinsed and drained 3 tablespoons water 1 box (13 oz.) dry brownie mix Cooking oil pump spray

Preheat oven to 350º. With hand blender, purée beans and water until smooth. Stir in brownie mix (will be thick). Spread batter into 8-by-8-inch pan, coated with cooking oil pump spray. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until edges start to pull away from sides.

Dawn Jackson Blatner is a registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She is the online nutritionist for Lifetime Television, a food blogger with USA Today and a natural cooking instructor at The Chopping Block Cooking School. For information on her recipes and guidebook, The Flexitarian Diet, visit

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