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Flexitarians Might Actually Be onto Something

New research claims that a “pro-vegetarian” diet in which meat and dairy are reduced but not excluded, could significantly lower chances of obesity.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB
Photo via Flickr user Katherine Martinelli

You've probably come across the term "flexitarian" by now. Basically vegetarianism with free passes thrown in, it's the plant-based diet that still allows for maki rolls and the occasional late-night shish kebab. The eating style was pegged as a "key food trend" for 2017, as more of us consider the impact excessive meat consumption can have on the environment, and restaurant veggie options move beyond bland goat cheese tarts and uninspiring risotto.


Despite the annoying moniker, it seems that flexitarians could be onto something in terms of health benefits, too.

A Spanish study presented at the recent European Congress on Obesity in Portugal claims that a "pro-vegetarian" diet in which meat and dairy are reduced but not excluded, could significantly lower chances of obesity.

The study saw Spanish researchers track 16,000 university graduates between 1999 and 2009, by which time 584 were obese. At the beginning of the study, the participants completed questionnaires to determine how pro-vegetarian their diet was. Points were awarded for eating vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, olive oil, legumes, and potatoes; and deducted for dairy, animal fats, eggs, seafood, fish, and meat.

Next, the researchers compared the 20 percent of participants whose food intake was the "most vegetarian" with the 20 percent that consumed the largest amount of animal products. By the end of the study, the results showed that those with pro-veggie diets were 43 percent less likely to become obese.

The study links this reduced risk of obesity with meat consumption. While there was little difference in the amount of fish eaten by the two groups, the participants who ate the most meat consumed nearly 60 grams more per day than those in the pro-vegetarian group. Unsurprisingly, the pro-veggie group also ate more vegetables—731 grams a day compared to the meat-eating group's 348 grams.

Commenting on the findings, one of the study's authors, Professor Maira Bes-Rastrollo, said: "Our recommendation is to eat less meat. Don't increase the consumption of animal foods. Prefer plant-based foods to animal foods."

But as the Guardian reports, the study does have some weaknesses. It is observational and does not explore other reasons that could account for higher obesity rates in the meat-eating group.

Speaking to the newspaper, dietician Gaynor Bussell said: "Other factors could be accounting for the lower obesity in this group; I would also add that although scored negatively, foods such as fish, some meat and dairy are not associated with obesity but it is about the overall balance of the diet."

But with numerous other studies concluding that eating a mainly plant-based diet is best for warding off cancer, climate change, and maybe even infertility, there can't be any harm in taking the veggie option once in awhile.