Being a Vegetarian or a Flexitarian – which one suits your health?


Many people might have taken a new year resolution of becoming a vegetarian, this year or previous years. There are, estimated to be 78 million such vegans, who are marking their ‘Veganuary’ this month. This population, who thinks that vegan diet is easier and healthier, is definitely increasing in number.

“Five years ago, the main obstacle was eating out at restaurants in Dubai, but now it’s so easy,” says photographer Chandan Sojitra, founder of the Vegans in Dubai group and a dedicated follower of veganism since 2015.

The number of vegan options popping up across menus and meal plans in the UAE would indicate Sojitra is right. Impossible Burger launched to much fanfare this time a year ago and many restaurants across most cuisines have created elaborate dishes, from hole-in-the-mall burger joints to high-end restaurants, notably Ronda Locatelli, which claims to have Dubai’s largest vegan menu.

Inside Ronda Locatelli

Is vegan food healthier?

“Contrary to popular belief, adopting a vegan lifestyle does not necessarily equate to being healthy,” says weight loss and emotional eating expert Deborah Vitorino. “You can eat chips and drink soda all day and call yourself vegan. Or, you can munch on nuts and veggies and be OK for a while, yet your body will most probably start sending you messages that things are not going so well on the inside, because you’re not nourishing yourself properly.” Vitorino believes that any diet you embark on should be bespoke to you and only you.

“I have clients who have gone down the vegan route after being exposed to Instagram and the views of people who are unqualified,” says dietitian Kirsten Jackson, who specialises in coeliac disease and irritable bowel syndrome. While many convert to a vegan diet for ethical reasons, she worries that others joining for the health benefits touted on social media are not informed enough before going cold turkey for Veganuary.

Transitioning to a plant-based diet overnight may result in gut health problems. “You should have 30 grams of fibre a day, but if you are used to having 5 or 10g of fibre, and switch to 30 the next day, you’re going to struggle. It’s like going to the gym and picking up weights for the first time – you feel awkward, your muscles are in pain and it’s difficult to do,” says Jackson, who agrees with Vitorino’s diagnosis on a more tailored diet.

Veganism becomes even more complicated if you have pre-existing issues. Replacing meat and dairy with the protein found in beans and pulses seems straightforward enough, but it’s not advisable for those suffering from IBS.

How Flexitarian influences the lifestyle

2021 is set to be the year of the flexitarian diet. While it traditionally means a semi-vegetarian diet, the term is increasingly being used to indicate meals that are tailored to the individual. While veganism – or the keto, Atkins and detox diets, for that matter – may not work for some, a bespoke diet designed in collaboration with a nutritionist is for all.

“One needs to be flexible with their diet,” says holistic nutritionist Susan Terzian. “Veganism might work for you for a particular amount of time and then after that, if you’re not thriving or energetic – if you’re juicing kale and wheatgrass and all these fabulous things, but you look tired and don’t have energy – how is that diet working for you?”

Thanks to an ever expanding armoury of wearable health-tracking gadgets, smartphone applications and DNA testing, it’s easier now to understand our bodies and how they work. A one-size-fits-all approach to food has always been contentious, and could soon disappear altogether.

Companies such as GenoPalate are creating bespoke dietary plans based on DNA sequencing, putting more emphasis on consumers as individuals and acting as data-driven, AI nutritionists.