A 'Flexitarian' Diet Can Boost Your Health

Kicking off World Meat Free Week is World Meat Free Day, which aims to raise awareness of how going meat-free could improve both the planet and our own health.

As the evidence grows that a plant-based diet brings benefits all-round, many people are currently switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet, but for others it may not be a viable option. However, even just reducing meat and increasing the number of plant-based foods in the diet can make a big impact. Here we round up the recent research which shows how cutting down on meat and going 'flexitarian' instead of vegetarian can still boost health.

Reduced risk of heart failure

Preliminary US research published last year found that eating a mostly plant-based diet could reduce the risk of developing heart failure. After looking at 15,569 patients without known coronary artery disease or heart failure and following them for between six to ten years, the researchers found that participants who ate a plant-based diet most of the time, limiting but not completely cutting out meat, had a 42 percent decreased risk of developing heart failure over the four years of the study, compared to those who ate fewer plant-based foods.

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Reduced risk of heart disease and stroke

A recent Italian study found that a meat-free diet and the popular Mediterranean diet, which includes some meat, were both as effective at reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. After comparing a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, which includes eggs and dairy but excludes meat and fish, and a Mediterranean diet, which includes poultry, fish and some red meat, as well as plenty of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, the team found that on both diets participants lost around three pounds of body fat and four pounds of weight overall, and experienced about the same change in body mass index (BMI). However, the vegetarian diet was more effective at reducing "bad" LDL cholesterol, while the Mediterranean diet was more effective at reducing the level of triglycerides, high levels of which increase the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Reduced levels of cholesterol

A meta-analysis carried out by researchers from St. Michael's Hospital in Canada looked at 112 randomized control trials in which participants replaced animal proteins with plant proteins in their diet for at least three weeks. The team found that replacing just one to two servings of animal proteins with plant proteins every day -- mainly soy, nuts and pulses such as dried peas and beans, lentils and chickpeas -- could lead to a small reduction in the main cholesterol markers, around 5 percent, which could also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

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Reduced risk of obesity

Research presented last month from Erasmus MC Rotterdam in the Netherlands suggests that following a mainly plant-based diet which still includes some meat could provide protection against obesity. The team followed 9,641 adults for a period of 26 years and asked them to complete questionnaires in which they were given a score for how closely they followed a plant-based diet. Positive scores were given for foods such as nuts, fruits, and vegetables and negative scores given for eating animal foods like meat, dairy, and fish. The team found that compared with participants who had a zero-point score on the index, those who had a 10-point score had 0.70 kg/m² lower BMI and 0.62kg/m² lower fat mass index. However, achieving this 10-point higher score can be done in various ways, such as replacing 50g of red meat per day with 200g of vegetables, and does not mean giving up meat altogether said the researchers.