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Flexitarian’ diet among top recommended food plans for 2021

Flexitarian diet
The Flexitarian Diet, a mainly vegetarian diet that includes meats and other foods in moderation, is among this year’s top recommended food plans from U.S. News and World Report. (Source: Adobe Stock)

Each January, U.S. News and World Report releases its “Best Diet” rankings for people looking to turn over a new leaf, nutritionally speaking, in the new year. This year the Flexitarian Diet, coined from a combination of “flexible” and “vegetarian,” is among the publication’s top choices for Best Diets Overall.

The flexitarian eating plan may be an attractive option for many individuals and families, especially because there are no rigid rules required for following it. It is based on the book “The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life” by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner. 

While the diet allows indulging in a juicy burger or steak if the urge hits, it focuses on mainly plant-based foods – including lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains – that can offer proven health benefits. The key is to eat mainly vegetarian meals most days of the week, replacing many traditional meals centered around a meat dish with plant-based sources of protein like tofu, beans, lentils and seeds. Eggs and dairy, another important source of protein, are also unrestricted on the diet.

While a weekly amount of meat can vary on the flexitarian plan based on individual preferences, the diet generally recommends at least two completely meatless days per week. This could include alternatives to full meatless days, such as eating plant-based breakfasts and lunches but including small portions of meat with dinner.

For those with dietary restrictions or food allergies, it’s also fairly simple to find suitable modifications to the flexitarian diet that can accommodate those needs. For example, pregnant women, who require more dietary iron, could include more servings of meat and plant-based iron sources. Those with diabetes – who need to closely monitor their carbohydrate intake – may also have unique needs, since vegetarian meals are generally higher in carbohydrates. 

Because the flexitarian diet includes all food groups and promotes variety and balance in daily food choices, however, it is considered a safe and healthy choice for most people. U.S. News ranked the diet in a tie for the second-best overall plan this year, with the Mediterranean Diet again ranked at No. 1.

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One highly recommended food on the flexitarian diet – along with other healthy eating plans – is undoubtedly the avocado. Packed with beneficial nutrients, high in fiber and an excellent source of healthy fats, avocados are among nutrient-dense, plant-based options that nutritionists have labeled “superfoods.”

But the creamy green fruit may be a superhero among those superfoods, according to researchers from Penn State University. 

They recently found that eating one avocado a day was associated with lowering levels of small, dense low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particles (the “bad” in bad cholesterol) that can lead to harmful plaque buildup in the arteries of adults who are overweight or obese, which now includes roughly two-thirds of American adults. Specifically, their study showed that avocados help to reduce LDL particles that have been oxidized – which is bad for the body in the same way that exposure to oxygen damages food.

After five weeks, participants who were overweight or obese had significantly lower levels of oxidized LDL cholesterol in their blood than before the study began or after completing the low- and moderate-fat diets. 

“Nutrition research on avocados is a relatively new area of study, so I think we’re at the tip of the iceberg for learning about their health benefits,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, a professor of nutrition at Penn State. “They are such a nutrient-dense package, and I think we’re just beginning to learn about how they can improve health.”

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