A Detailed Beginner’s Guide to the Flexitarian Diet
The Flexitarian diet is an eating plan that encourages the intake of plant-based foods along with moderate quantities of meat and other animal products.
The flexitarian diet is more flexible than whole vegan or vegetarian diets.
If you intend to add more plant foods to your diet without cutting out meat completely, then your best bet would be the flexitarian diet.
This article provides a detailed overview of the Flexitarian diet, its health benefits, and the foods to eat.
What is a flexitarian diet?
The Flexitarian diet is the brainchild of Dawn Jackson Blatner, a dietitian. He created the diet to help people enjoy the benefits of a vegetarian diet while still having moderate amounts of animal products.
This explains why the diet is named by a combination of the words flexible and vegetarian.
Vegetarians eliminate meat from their foods. In some cases, they may also exclude other animal products. Vegans on the other hand completely restrict all animal products.
Because the flexitarian diet allows the intake of animal products, flexitarians are not considered vegans or vegetarians.
There is no recommended number of macronutrients or calories on the flexitarian diet. One could consider it to be more of a lifestyle than a diet.
The principles upon which the flexitarian diet is based include:
- Emphasis on plant protein instead of animal proteins
- Emphasis on whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits
- The dieter should be flexible and eat moderate amounts of meat and other animal products
- Limit sweets and added sugar
- As much as possible, eat the natural form of foods.
Because of its flexibility, many people tend to be satisfied with the flexitarian diet.
Potential health benefits of the flexitarian diet
The flexitarian diet has a wide range of health benefits (1).
However, because the diet doesn’t have any clear definition, it becomes difficult to compare its probable benefits with the benefits of other plant-based diets.
Nevertheless, studies on vegetarian and vegan diets give a clue on how semi-vegetarian diets may benefit our health.
To enjoy the benefits of plant-based eating, you must eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and minimally processed whole foods.
Restricting meat consumption while eating plenty of refined foods laced with salt and added sugar is simply counterproductive (2).
Fiber-rich diets and foods rich in healthy fats are good for heart health (3).
An 11-year study involving 45,000 adults found that the risk of heart disease in vegetarians was reduced by over 32%, compared to non-vegetarians (4).
This may be because vegetarian diets contain plenty of fiber and antioxidants. Both nutrients help reduce blood pressure and increase the blood level of good cholesterol.
A review of 32 studies examining the effect of vegetarian diets on blood pressure found that the average systolic blood pressure of vegetarians was approximately 7 points lower than that of meat-eaters (5).
Because these studies focused on vegetarian diets, it is difficult to assess whether the diet would exert a similar effect on heart disease risk and blood pressure.
Nevertheless, since the Flexitarian diet is mostly plant-based, its benefits may be similar to whole vegetarian diets.
The flexitarian diet may be beneficial to your waistline.
This is because flexitarians consume very little high-calorie, heavily processed foods, and focus more on plant foods that are naturally lower in calories.
A review of studies involving over 1,100 subjects found that people who ate a vegetarian diet for 18 weeks lost no less than 4.5 pounds higher than those who did not (6).
Because the flexitarian diet bears greater semblance to a vegetarian diet than a vegan diet, it may promote weight loss but not as much as a vegan diet.
Type 2 diabetes is an epidemic and a global one at that. Eating healthily may help in the prevention and management of this disease.
A study involving over 60,000 subjects found that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes was 1.5% lower in flexitarians or semi-vegetarians compared to non-vegetarians (8).
Further studies have shown that type 2 diabetes patients who ate the vegetarian diet have a 0.39% lower hemoglobin A1c compared to those who ate animal products (9).
Legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits contain antioxidants that help to prevent cancer.
A 7 – year study examining 78,000 colorectal cancer cases found that the likelihood of getting colorectal cancer was 8% less in semi-vegetarians compared to non-vegetarians (11).
So, eating flexitarian may lower your risk of having cancer.
What are the downsides of the flexitarian diet?
A well-planned flexitarian diet can be very healthy.
However, there may be a risk of nutrient deficiency when you reduce your meat intake, as well as your intake of other animal products.
Potential nutrient deficiencies to be aware of on the Flexitarian diet include (12):
- Vitamin B12
- Omega-3 fatty acids
A review of studies on vitamin B12 deficiency found that vegetarians are at risk for deficiency. The study review found that over 90% of elderly vegetarians and 62% of pregnant vegetarians were deficient (13).
Vitamin B12 can only be gotten from animal products. Your dietitian or doctor may recommend a B12 supplement depending on the number of animal products that you choose.
Flexitarian has very low iron and zinc reserves because the body best absorbs these minerals from animal foods. Of course, it is possible to get these nutrients from plant foods alone but to accomplish this, you’ll have to plan your diet accordingly (14).
You can get both zinc and iron from legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Your body absorbs more iron when you add a source of vitamin C to your foods (15).
Some flexitarians may have to reduce their intake of dairy while increasing their plant-based sources of calcium. Examples of calcium-rich plant foods include Choy, bok, chard, and sesame seeds.
Also, Flexitarian diets should be wary of getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, usually obtained from fatty fish. Examples of plant-based omega-3 sources include flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts (16).
Do not forget that eating the flexitarian diet allows you to consume both animal products and meat. If you plan the diet properly and add a variety of whole foods, you won’t have to worry about nutritional deficiencies.
What foods should you eat on the flexitarian diet?
The flexitarian diet emphasizes plant proteins while moderating animal products. Foods to be consumed regularly include:
- Proteins: legumes, tempeh, lentils, tofu, and soybeans
- Non-starchy vegetables: cauliflower, carrots, green beans, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers.
- Fruits: berries, cherries, grapes, oranges, apples
- Starchy vegetables: sweet potato, corn, peas, winter squash.
- Whole grains: farro, buckwheat, teff, quinoa.
- Plant-based milk alternatives: soy, hemp, coconut, and unsweetened almond milk.
- Beverages: coffee, tea, sparkling water.
- Seasonings, spices, and herbs: oregano, ginger, cumin, thyme, turmeric, mint, basil.
- Condiments: Ketchup with no added sugar, nutritional yeast, salsa, mustard, apple cider vinegar, and low-sodium soy sauce.
For animal products, the following are recommended:
- Pasture-raised or free-range eggs
- Wild-caught fish
- Pasture-raised, free-range, or organic poultry
- Pasture-raised or grass-fed meat
- Dairy from pastured or grass-fed animals.