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19 June, 11:39203

What Is the Flexitarian Diet?

If you’ve ever considered a vegetarian diet but immediately backed out because you love a good burger, the flexitarian diet may be a good option for you. Combining the words “flexible” and “vegetarian,” this diet suggests that you can reap the benefits of a vegetarian diet while still enjoying meat when the craving strikes.

The key is to focus on vegetarian meals most of the time while allowing for meat in moderation. Experts agree this will naturally increase your consumption of plant-based foods, which are rich in nutrients for overall health promotion. Since you don’t have to eliminate any foods completely, you’re more likely to stick with this balanced meal plan.

What Experts Say

The flexitarian diet is grounded in plant-based eating with flexibility for animal products in moderation. Nutrition experts can stand behind this type of meal plan, which is rich in nutrient-dense foods and sustainable to follow long-term.

Background

Though the concept of eating more plant-based foods is nothing novel, the specific “flexitarian” designation entered the mainstream back in 2009. Registered Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner published her book that year, aptly titled “The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life.”

In the introduction to her book, Blatner describes why she decided to focus on this style of eating:

“I want to be a vegetarian because of the countless health benefits. I also want to enjoy backyard barbecue hamburgers in the summertime, hot dogs at a Cubs baseball game, Grandma’s pork roast made with love…The answer is to become a flexible vegetarian–a flexitarian.”

Many people have embraced this flexitarian diet philosophy, particularly because there are no rigid rules or guidelines. The diet is intended for everyone that wants to eat a more nutritious diet but doesn’t want to give up their favorite meat indulgences.

The focus of the diet is less about restriction and removal, and more about adding in an abundance of plant foods. As Blatner describes in her book, “plants protect people” thanks to their vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

How It Works

When following the flexitarian diet, you’ll focus on eating more vegetarian meals. The diet still allows for meat-based meals throughout the week.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Whole grains

  • Plant-based proteins

  • Eggs

  • Dairy

  • Oils, Herbs, and Spices

  • Meat (in moderation)

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Meat (in excess)

  • Added sugar (in excess)

  • Refined carbs (in excess)

Vegetables

These are the backbone of the flexitarian diet. Increase your vegetable intake by experimenting with new cooking techniques or using vegetables in creative ways (hello, zoodles and cauliflower rice)!

Fruits

Rather than reaching for a pint of ice cream to satisfy your innate sweet tooth, the flexitarian diet recommends turning to fruit. It offers the sweetness we crave along with many nutrients, and is also filling thanks to its fiber and water content. Try creating new desserts with your favorite fruits, like frozen bananas dipped in dark chocolate or baked apples with cinnamon.

Whole Grains

Grains have gotten a bad boy reputation that they don’t necessarily deserve. Whole grains provide fiber and nutrients. Weave in your standard favorites like oatmeal and brown rice, but also try adding in ancient grains like amaranth, quinoa, or millet.

Plant-Based Protein

While you don’t have to eliminate meat, you’ll want to include more vegetarian meals in your diet. Mix in plant-based proteins like tofu, beans, lentils, and nuts and seeds.

Eggs

In addition to plant-based proteins, flexitarians can also eat eggs. Eggs are a great way to add protein to the diet (when you're not eating meat).

Dairy

The flexitarian diet allows dairy, thanks to its bone-strengthening combo of calcium and vitamin D. You can include milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir, or dairy-alternatives on this plan.

Oils, Herbs, and Spices

Get creative in the kitchen through the use of different oils, flavorful herbs, and aromatic spices. These help add flavor in nutritious ways.

Meat (in moderation)

Meat is allowed on the flexitarian diet, but you’ll want to cut down total consumption. The weekly amount of meat will vary based on your personal preferences, but at a minimum the diet recommends two meatless days per week. Others have proposed alternatives to full meatless days, such as eating plant-based breakfasts and lunches but enjoying dinners with small portions of meat.

Meat (in excess)

The purpose of the flexitarian diet is to encourage more vegetarian meals, so it makes sense that excess meat would not be compliant. Every person will have a different definition of “excess”. The best way to determine if you’re being compliant is to analyze whether you’re actively trying to include more vegetarian meals each week.

Added sugar (in excess)

Like most healthy diets, you'll want to minimize added sugar intake if you embark on a flexitarian diet.

Refined carbohydrates (in excess)

While an occasional refined carbohydrate is fine, this plan recommends sticking with whole grains.

Recommended Timing

There's no specific timing of meals required. Blatner's book does outline a 300-calorie breakfast, 400-calorie lunch, and 500-calorie dinner—along with two 150-calorie snacks in-between your meals—for those trying to lose weight. You’ll find slight modifications to this plan if you need a greater or fewer amount of calories.

However, you can work on becoming more of a flexitarian without following any particular schedule or calorie level.

Resources and Tips

While Blatner’s book provides helpful recipes that fit this plan, there are no required recipes to embark on a flexitarian diet. Simply look for vegetarian recipes that are rich in plant-based foods to fit your meatless days. Try any of the following meatless recipes:

  • Mediterranean Quinoa-Stuffed Red Peppers
  • California Summer Vegetable Omelet
  • Baked Coconut Rice

Modifications

If you have dietary restrictions or food allergies, take comfort in the fact that it’s fairly easy to find suitable modifications on the flexitarian diet. Here are a few helpful suggestions.

  • Dairy-free: Use non-dairy alternatives for milk, yogurt, and cheese.
  • Gluten-free: Choose gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice, and be sure other food choices are gluten-free.
  • Soy-free: Skip the tofu and any other soy-based foods (like edamame or soy milk).

Since the flexitarian diet includes all the food groups and promotes variety and balance, it is a safe and healthy choice for most people. However, there are certain populations which may need extra attention to ensure the flexitarian diet meets their needs:

  • Individuals with diabetes: People with diabetes need to pay attention to their total carbohydrate intake at each meal. Vegetarian meals sometimes have a higher proportion of carbohydrates, and this could affect blood sugar levels.
  • Pregnant women: Low iron levels are common during pregnancy, and semi-vegetarian diets have been associated with lower iron levels on their own. Pregnant women may wish to include meat more regularly, increase plant-based iron sources, and/or take an iron supplement if their doctor recommends one. 

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Emphasizes nutritious foods

  • Easy to accommodate personal preferences

  • Budget-friendly

  • Supports weight loss

  • May reduce risk of diabetes

  • Sustainable

Cons

  • May be difficult for daily meat-eaters to follow

  • Potentially low iron intake

  • Additional guidance may be necessary for those with diabetes

Pros

General Nutrition

The flexitarian diet embraces all food groups, and as such, it’s likely that you can meet all your nutrient needs on this diet.

For comparison, stricter vegetarian and vegan diets may fall short in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, found in fish. A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found more than 50 percent of vegetarians in one group reported zero intake of DHA. A flexitarian diet allows for the flexibility for individuals to still consume fish regularly and can provide better overall nutrient balance.

Flexibility

Nothing is eliminated from the flexitarian diet. Rather, the focus is on increasing plant-based foods while controlling the total intake of animal-based foods. Since all foods fit into this diet, it’s easy to build meals around foods that you enjoy. You can also confidently go to a friend’s dinner party or visit a restaurant while still focusing on the core principles of this diet.

Cost

This plan does not require costly meal replacements or special recipes. Instead, you can choose meals that fit your food budget. Though you may spend more each week on produce, it tends to balance out as you may be spending less each week on meat. 

Weight Loss

Several studies have suggested that semi-vegetarian diets are associated with lower body weight. A 2015 study in Clinical Nutrition Research found that post-menopausal women who followed a semi-vegetarian diet had lower body weight, BMI, and body fat percentage compared to non-vegetarian women. Another 2014 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that semi-vegetarians had lower rates of obesity compared to non-vegetarians.

Reduced Risk of Diabetes

Eating a flexitarian diet may help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. Three different studies—one from 2009 in Diabetes Care, one from 2011 in Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases, and one from 2014 in Nutrition Journal – found that a semi-vegetarian diet was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes compared to non-vegetarians. Similarly, a study in Clinical Nutrition Research found that semi-vegetarian women had lower serum levels of glucose and insulin. 

Cons

May Be Difficult for Daily Meat-Eaters

If you grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household, it may be difficult to transition to eating more vegetarian meals. However, the flexitarian diet emphasizes doing this in a way that works for you—this might just mean going meatless two days per week and enjoying your beef, chicken, or pork on the other days.

In addition, recent research suggests that modifying mixed dishes to be more vegetable-centric than meat-centric can result in similar flavor profiles and enjoyment. Try mixing chopped mushrooms into your burger, going half and half on meat and lentils in your burrito bowl, or adding more veggies and less pork to your homemade ramen.

Potentially Low Iron Intake

One study among Australian women found that semi-vegetarian women had increased rates of low iron levels, iron deficiency, and anemia compared to non-vegetarian women. Depending on how frequently you’re including meat on the flexitarian diet, you may need to pay extra attention to adding more plant-based iron sources. These include soy, lentils, beans, seeds, leafy greens, and whole grains.

Additional Guidance for Those With Diabetes

Though research has shown a flexitarian diet is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, those with diabetes may need a little extra guidance when following this diet. Many plant-based protein sources, like beans and lentils, are also rich in carbohydrates. You may find the total carb count on your meals is a bit higher, which could affect blood sugar levels.

If you have diabetes and want to follow a flexitarian diet, it would be wise to consult with a dietitian who can help you plan meals that fit the correct carb counts for your body.

Restrictive Eating Concerns

Two pieces of research—a 2018 study in Ecology of Food and Nutrition and a 2007 study in Public Health Nutrition—have found associations between a semi-vegetarian diet and depression. It’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation in these scenarios, which means a semi-vegetarian diet does not necessarily cause depression. There are other factors that may be at play.

However, it’s plausible that some individuals may turn to flexitarian diets as a way to control and restrict their food intake in a “socially acceptable” manner. Some professionals believe that restrained eating could be related to such depressive symptoms.

If you find yourself having persistent thoughts about restricting food intake or feel like you may have any type of disordered eating, seek help from a qualified professional.

How It Compares

Whether called a flexitarian diet or a semi-vegetarian diet, this eating style is typically balanced and supported by most nutrition experts. It's comparable to current USDA recommendations and offers similar benefits—or even more benefits—from several other popular diets.

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the Flexitarian Diet number 3 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 4/5.

USDA Recommendations

Food Groups

The flexitarian diet lines up with the current USDA nutrition recommendations. All MyPlate food groups are accounted for: fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein, and whole grains. MyPlate emphasizes that protein can come from plant or animal sources, and the flexitarian diet simply shifts the balance to plant sources.

Calories

In addition, both the flexitarian diet and the current Dietary Guidelines support finding an appropriate calorie level for your body. The Dietary Guidelines executive summary states you should: "Choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, support nutrient adequacy, and reduce the risk of chronic disease."

While there is no "official" calorie level for the flexitarian diet, Blatner's book does include meal plans based on a 1500-calorie diet to support weight loss. The book clarifies that calorie levels may vary based on activity level, gender, height, and weight. Suggestions are provided to reduce calories further or add calories as needed.

If you’re curious about estimating your own calorie needs for weight loss, try using this Weight Loss Calorie Goal Calculator. This will help you determine if the 1500-calorie meal plans in the flexitarian diet book are right for you.

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