Fried brown rice, asparagus and almonds is an example of a healthy meal Dawn Jackson Blatner says flexitarians can eat.
Fried brown rice, asparagus and almonds is an example of a healthy meal Dawn Jackson Blatner says flexitarians can eat. (Special to the Reporter-Herald)

You might call Dawn Jackson Blatner the Mother Confessor of those who stray from a vegetarian diet.

For all who have, on occasion, forsaken the meat-free, dairy-free diet to set their teeth to grinding on a juicy steak or a crunchy coated chicken breast, Blatner is all about banishing guilt and embracing a flexitarian diet.

As a registered dietitian and author of "The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life," Blatner knows firsthand the health benefits of a vegetarian diet and the temptations that might make it difficult to follow.

She's introduced a way of blending vegetarianism and occasional meat-eating without feeling that you're "sinning" or letting yourself down. Her flexitarian style of eating also allows for inclusion in a wider circle of social activities.

"In my experience with a vegetarian or vegan diet, I felt there were too many meaningful moments in life that I couldn't participate in -- traveling abroad and sampling local cuisine that contained meat, for instance, and birthdays, holidays, Thanksgiving -- they all centered around food I wasn't supposed to eat. I think of food as nourishment not only for the body, but for the soul as well, so that didn't work for me," she says.

Blatner first heard the word "flexitarian" in 2003. "It's a marriage of two words -- flexible and vegetarian," she says. "I wanted to know more about it and started looking for the book. But, year after year, I was still looking and finally felt that it was my calling to write it myself."

Published in 2009, her book focuses on building a vegetarian lifestyle that allows for the occasional addition of meat, free from soul searching and feelings of failure.

She emphasizes that it's a pro-plant, not anti-meat, approach.

"Before I became a flexitarian, a vegetarian who ate something not vegetarian was considered bad. That rigidity made it hard to gravitate toward eating vegetarian," Blatner explains. "I'd been a vegetarian for many years, but ate meat on rare occasions. Every time I did, I felt like I was being a bad and lazy vegetarian."

Her flexitarian diet is created for people who want the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, but "just don't want to sit in the corner at a barbecue place with an empty bun on their plate," she says.

People choose to become a vegetarian or vegan for a variety of reasons -- ethics, health, religion, economics, Blatner says. "I'm a dietitian, so my reasons naturally revolve around health issues."

She stresses the difference between an omnivore (who eats everything) and a flexitarian, who eats meat not haphazardly, but in a thoughtful way.

She defines a flexitarian as someone who wakes up each morning with every intention of being a vegetarian, but who may encounter a situation that causes him or her to eat meat. "The beauty is that you can have that burger, enjoy it, and then go back to eating veggies and fruit the rest of the week," she says.

The best way to implement a flexitarian diet is to "be awake and aware" of what and how you're eating, Blatner says. "You don't have to stick to any rules all day, every day. It's not a fad diet; it's simply a healthy way of eating. U.S. News and World Report named it one of the most sensible plant-based diets around. You want to eat from a quality, calorie and conscious basis."

There's no right or wrong way or right way, no too fast or too slow way to make the change to the flexitarian diet, she says. "It's best to enjoy the journey -- embrace the spirit of vegetarianism in your own way and have fun doing it."

How the flexitarian diet is good for you:

It customizes your choice and preparation of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in a vegetarian diet, occasionally adding meat without feeling guilty.

Vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories, weigh less and have a lower body mass index than meat-eating peers. A study by The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that eating a full day of vegetarian meals only once a week can reduce the average intake of saturated fat by up to 15 percent, reducing the risk of heart attacks, strokes and cancer.

Those who adopt a flexitarian diet -- mostly plant-based with small additions of meat now and then -- have been shown to weigh 15 percent less than their more carnivorous counterparts, have a lower rate of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer and live an average of 3.6 years longer.

Dawn Jackson Blatner's easy process to becoming an easy vegetarian:

Continue eating what you normally eat, but reapportion your plate by downsizing the amount of meat and bumping up the veggies and fruit. For instance, instead of 10 ounces of meat, eat 4 ounces.

Try a new vegetarian dish each week and reinvent old favorites by swapping out the meat for beans. One ounce of meat equals 1/4 cup of beans. For instance, swap out some of the meat in beef tacos for beans, eventually going all-bean.

Based on eating 21 meals a week -- breakfast, lunch and dinner each day -- make six of those a vegetarian meal. Next, try to make 9-12 meals each week a vegetarian meal, followed by15 or more vegetarian meals a week.

The 3-4-5 regimen:

Balancing whole grains, protein, produce and healthy fats, keep your daily calories at 1,500.

Make breakfast choices that amount to 300 calories, lunches 400 and dinners 500. Two daily snacks should be 150 calories each. Tweak the plan depending on activity level, gender, height and weight.

About Dawn Jackson Blatner:

Author of "The Flexitarian Diet," Blatner (dawnjacksonblatner.com) a registered dietitian, spokeswoman for the of Nutrition and Dietetics, a health for Lifetime Television's website and contributor to Fitness and Health magazine and a consultant for Diet.com.