Go ‘flexi’ and get the benefits – with...

Go ‘flexi’ and get the benefits – without the rules – Irish Independent Article

01 APRIL 2013

Meat-Free Mondays are a great route to a complete flexitarian lifestyle, writes Tanya Sweeney

If cutting down on meat intake is one side of the coin the other is upping the intake of vegetables

Vegging out: Cornucopia in Dublin; David and Stephen Flynn of The Happy Pear in Greystones, Co Wicklow; Paul McCartney and his daughters Mary Stella McCartney (right), with her sister Mary and father Paul, launched Meat-Free Mondays in 2009. Below inset, Erika Doolan

To say that the recent finding of horsemeat on supermarket shelves caused a media storm is probably putting it mildly. And amid ‘Hurricane Horsemeat’ only two groups of folks didn’t feel a pang of retroactive nausea; those with a cast-iron stomach . . . and those that cut meat from their diets long ago.

Still, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that Ireland – where our love affair with meat’n’potatoes runs long – is not the most vegetarian-friendly country.

“It’s changing a lot, though,” concedes Maureen O’Sullivan, secretary of the Irish Vegetarian Association ( “It very much depends on family culture. People grow up thinking that food fed to them by their parents is healthy, but that’s not necessarily true.”

Little surprise, then, that in light of recent revelations, many people are opting for a midway point between meat-eating and vegetarianism. The term that’s been coined for vegetarians who dabble in meat and carnivores who seek out veggie meals is ‘flexitarians’.

Essentially, the diet gives followers the health benefits of a vegetarian diet without having to follow a set of strict rules.

Yet by and large, flexitarians aren’t motivated so much by ethical or animal rights beliefs than the overwhelming evidence that eating less meat is better for us. In other words, the growth in flexitarianism is evidence of the nation’s better understanding of the diet-disease connection.

Celebrities extolling the virtues of a waist-friendly, ‘cleaner’ way of eating has also had a small but significant part in the advent of flexitarianism.

If cutting down on meat intake is one side of the flexi coin, the other is upping intake of fruit and vegetables.

“Whole fruits and vegetables are some of the best foods you can eat,” notes nutritionist Erika Doolan (

“They are low in calories, high in fibre, and brimming with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

“They play an important role in staving off heart disease and stroke, managing blood pressure and cholesterol, helping prevent certain types of cancer, protecting vision, and maintaining a healthy digestive system.

“The vitamins and phytochemicals that give plants their brilliant colours work as antioxidants, immune boosters, and anti-inflammatories in humans.

“Eating fruits and vegetables at the peak of freshness is also great for your health as well as your wallet.

“You’ll benefit from all the vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants these colourful plants have to offer, and since there’s often an abundance of fruits and vegetables during the spring and summer season, you’re more likely to find bargains.”

Across the board, the health benefits of a diet full of nutrient rich vegetables and fruits are immense. According to researchers from the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland, eating fruit and vegetables is even better for promoting a glowing complexion than any spray tan.

What’s more, other research has proven that those who eat a plant-based diet have a lower BMI (Body Mass Index) than meat-eaters, by an average of 15pc. Because a veggie diet also includes lots of pulses, seeds, dairy and nuts, one is more sure of getting a balanced intake of the minerals and vitamins. Studies have also shown that there are lower instances of cancer overall among vegetarians, as well as heart disease. What’s more, many studies have shown a strong link between stomach cancer and processed meat.

Anyone wishing to dip a toe in a meat-free way of life often starts out by going the Meat-Free Monday route. Spearheaded by Stella McCartney (see, Meat-Free Mondays is not only a great way to give your body a break from meat, it’s also a good way, say organisers, to cut down on carbon emissions.

And while Meat-Free Mondays are a roaring success in countries like Belgium, the Irish are taking that little bit longer to warm to the idea.

Yet the true beauty of flexitarianism is that there are no rules; instead of guzzling meat every day, you give your body a break and switch your focus to a more plant-based regime. If you’ve been exposed to a wide variety of food, it shouldn’t take too long to find alternative foods.

“Vegetarians and vegans must be aware and ensure they get adequate amounts of protein, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 in their diet,” advises Doolan.

“Iron carries oxygen in the blood, and iron deficiency can leave you feeling tired. Vegetarian sources of iron include spinach, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, turnip greens, whole-wheat breads, peas, dried apricots, prunes, and raisins.

“Zinc is necessary for a variety of functions including helping maintain the immune system and keeping it functioning properly. Zinc sources include a variety of beans (white beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas), wheatgerm, milk and milk products, and pumpkin seeds. Vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal products and some fortified foods. Vegetarians can get it from milk products, eggs, and B12-fortified products including some breakfast cereals, soy-based beverages, and vegetable burgers.”

Grains often become a cornerstone of the meat-free eating plan: “Research has shown that eating whole grains helps lower your risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol,” explains Doolan.

‘Not only are high-fibre foods tasty but they also help control hunger, lower cholesterol, and maintain digestive health. Fibre is the part of plant foods that our body can’t digest or absorb into the bloodstream, which means it doesn’t provide us with any calories, but it does flush the digestive system as it moves through our bodies.

“Swap your standard breads and pastas for 100pc whole-wheat varieties. Trade out your breakfast cereals for bran or oatmeal, and whole-wheat couscous for white rice . . . little changes like these add up to big benefits.”

Despite the demise of one of Ireland’s best-known vegetarian restaurants (Juice on South Great George’s Street in Dublin), it is still easy to eat meat-free while out and about.

“There are a number of specialised restaurants across the country,” notes Maureen. “Cornucopia, Govinda and Delhi O’Dell in Dublin, Café Paradiso and Iyer’s in Cork, the The Happy Pear in Wicklow, and The Grove in Limerick are all great. When you start breaking it down according to cuisine, it gets even easier; Indian, Chinese and Italian restaurants have plenty of meat-free dishes.”

But what of that niggling roadblock; that mindset from a culture built on meat and potatoes that dictates that a meal isn’t complete without meat?

“Those that do miss meat talk a lot about Vegusto, a line that does a lot of convincingly fake cheese and meat alternatives,” suggests O’Sullivan. “Quorn, TVP (textured vegetable protein), and tempeh are protein sources that also help to ‘bulk up’ a meal. If you’re cooking something like Mexican and you take meat out of your fajita, you honestly won’t miss it because it’s so flavoursome.”

However, both Doolan and O’Sullivan issue a caveat, for a largely meat-free regime doesn’t necessarily equate to a healthy one: “In Ireland, many vegetarians are eating very unhealthy diets; they are not getting the required nutrients from their food,” says Doolan.

“Today, we hear more about Paleo, South Beach, Atkins and Raw Vegan diets. Vegetarian diets are clean, cleansing and alkaline. Raw vegan is a step above the rest and is trending in Ireland but unfortunately our cold climate turns many people off.

“Vegetarian and Vegan diets get bad reviews when the dieter simply cuts out foods and replaces it with refined carbohydrates such as pastries, quiches, creamy white pastas, pizzas, processed veggie burgers, soups packed with salt and other refined carbohydrates,” she adds.

“In Ireland, it is frightening to see the amount of people who simply cut meat, dairy and don’t consider the nutrients they may possibly be lacking. Some live on chips and veggie burgers and are repulsed by meat.”

“If you replace with pasta and cheese, it’s not ideal,” adds O’Sullivan.

“I was hungry for a lot of my teens, but it got easier when I got the protein balance right. It’s not a question of making an instant switch to meat-free food. There’s also a lot of crappy vegetarian ready meals out there that are high in sugar . . . so it helps to do a bit of research and find out what you like.”

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