The Flexitarian Diet | What it is and How to Follow It

Written by
Karen Eisenbraun @ 8fit
Fruit and vegetables in paper bag
Written by
Karen Eisenbraun @ 8fit
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Do you want to experience the health benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet, but don’t want to completely give up meat? Consider adopting a flexitarian diet instead. A flexitarian diet is a way of eating that is mostly plant-based, but still allows some animal foods in small quantities. It can provide numerous health benefits but isn’t as restrictive as a fully vegan or vegetarian diet.

Continue reading to learn more about the flexitarian diet, its health benefits, and how to adapt your diet to fit its guidelines.

What is the flexitarian diet?

Flexitarian is a combination of the word “flexible” and “vegetarian.” The flexitarian diet was popularized by registered dietitian nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, who developed the flexitarian diet as a way of achieving the health benefits of a vegan diet without giving up meat completely.

Blatner was a vegetarian herself for 10 years but occasionally allowed some meat in her diet, which made her feel like a “bad, lazy vegetarian.” She developed this way of eating to give herself and others who wanted to experience the health benefits of a vegetarian diet but wanted a little more flexibility in their way of eating.

Principles of the flexitarian diet

As the name suggests, the flexitarian diet is intended to be flexible. There are no strict rules for flexitarian eating, but it’s based on the following principles:

  1. Diet should consist mostly of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains

  2. Protein should come primarily from plant sources rather than animal foods.

  3. Meat and other animal foods can be included occasionally

  4. The diet should focus on whole, unprocessed foods

  5. Sugar and sweets should be limited

Overall, the goal is to eat more whole plant foods and less meat, but the exact composition of the diet will look different from one person to the next.

Health benefits of the flexitarian diet

The health benefits of plant-based diets stem from their high fruit and vegetable content. Many fruits and vegetables help fight inflammation and oxidative stress, which are linked to numerous degenerative diseases.

Because there is no exact definition of the flexitarian diet, identifying health benefits is difficult.

But, research on plant-based diets provides clear evidence of the health benefits of eating more whole plant foods. Plant-based diets have been shown to promote weight loss; reduce the risk of health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes; improve symptoms associated with arthritis; and improve digestion and gut health.

Research has shown that even small changes in the direction of a more plant-based diet can reduce the risk of diabetes. A study that followed the diets of more than 400,000 Europeans for 13 years found that those whose diets were at least 70 percent plant foods had a 20% lower risk of death from heart disease than those whose diets were only 45% plant foods.

This way of eating is also similar to a vegan paleo diet, which combines the plant-based vegan diet with the paleo principles of focusing on whole, unprocessed, organic foods.

How much meat is allowed on a flexitarian diet?

Again, while the exact makeup of the diet will look different for everyone, Blatner has developed three levels of flexitarian eating to help people adapt to and progress with the diet. The most important aspect of the diet, she stresses, is not how many days during the week you eat meat, but that you make an effort to include more whole plant foods in your diet and prepare more vegetarian meals.

The three levels of flexitarian eating are:

Beginner

In this stage, aim for two meatless days per week. This amounts to roughly 26 ounces of meat or poultry per week.

Advanced

Work your way up to 3-4 meatless days per week. Total meat consumption for the week is roughly 18 ounces.

Expert

In the expert stage, you are eating meat only two days a week, or about nine ounces per week.

This phased approach makes it easier to transition for people who are used to eating a diet that is heavy in animal products. For many of us, meat is the focus of nearly every meal. Instead of thinking of meat as the main dish and vegetables as the side, start thinking of vegetables as your focus, and include meat only in small portions. Gradually, you can start to remove meat from many of your meals throughout the week.

For people who are used to eating a lot of meat or processed foods, newer forms of plant-based meats are designed to look and taste more like real meat. While these foods are processed and shouldn’t form a large part of the diet, they can make transitioning to a plant-based diet easier.

Quality matters

Many nutritional studies have shown that meat consumption is associated with health conditions such as heart disease and cancer. However, the quality of the meat that we choose plays an enormous part in our risk of degenerative disease.

Much of the meat available today is low-quality, factory-farmed meat, which is full of hormones and other chemicals. Factory farmed meat has been shown to increase cholesterol and cause inflammation. It’s this chronic inflammation that is linked to the health conditions that are associated with the standard Western diet, including heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

Healthy forms of meat, however, are actually anti-inflammatory. Grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish contain healthy omega 3 fats, while factory-farmed meat contains pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats. When choosing the meat products to include in your flexitarian diet, make every effort to choose clean, organic sources of meat.

These products are often more expensive and more difficult to obtain, which is another reason to reduce the amount of meat in your diet. It’s far better to have smaller, fewer portions of high-quality animal products than to eat poor-quality meat on a regular basis.

Benefits for the environment

Eating less meat is also better for the environment. The meat industry uses massive amounts of land and water, and is responsible for 13-18% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions globally. Growing plants requires far less energy than raising animals for food. If more people switched to a flexitarian diet and reduced their meat consumption, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7%.

Getting enough protein

When people switch to a vegetarian diet or cut back on animal foods, getting enough protein is always a concern. Protein is an important macronutrient that is necessary for many functions throughout the body, including building healthy bones, skin, blood, and muscle. Ideally, every meal should include some protein, along with plant foods and healthy fats.

On the days when you don’t eat meat, make sure you are getting enough plant sources of protein. Vegan protein sources include beans, legumes, quinoa, seeds, nuts, and nut butters. Many vegetables and greens include protein as well, including spinach, cabbage, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

When choosing sources of protein, it’s also important to eat a varied diet in order to obtain all nine essential amino acids. Animal foods, including dairy, eggs, poultry and seafood, are complete proteins, but many plant sources of protein are not. Some plant products, such as soy and quinoa, are complete proteins. Other plant foods that are especially good sources of protein include lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, almonds, spirulina, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and beans with rice.

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