A Flexitarian Diet May Be The Middle Ground Many of Us Need
Throwback to 2009, when the words “flexible” and “vegetarian” were first joined in holy matrimony to launch the phenomenal flexitarian diet. Lo and behold, over a decade later, this semi-vegetarian diet is recommended by registered dietitians everywhere, as the simple, straightforward, and healthy lifestyle is gaining traction for its efficiency and efficacy. If you’re looking to dabble in the plant-based world, but you’re still wanting to satisfy your occasional burger cravings, a flexitarian diet may be the middle ground you need.
- A flexitarian diet is a plant-based, vegetarian diet that allows you to consume meat in moderate amounts.
- The flexitarian diet is more of a lifestyle than a diet, and it is more sustainable than an average diet.
- Making a flexitarian diet a lifestyle, rather than adopting it short-term, will not only lead to weight loss in participants, but decrease the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
What is a flexitarian diet?
A flexitarian diet is essentially just a semi-vegetarian diet. It sits comfortably between being vegan and vegetarian with the ability to enjoy minimal animal products (and eat meat) at your leisure. The term was conceived over a decade ago in 2009 by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner when she published her book titled The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life.
The truth is, most Americans don’t consume the recommended amount of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, or dairy. In other words, their MyPlate is out of whack (iykyk.) While a complete diet swap can be extremely intimidating, and honestly, extremely unrealistic, the flexitarian diet aims to make the transition to a more nutritious diet a bit easier. More specifically, it highlights what foods should be added to the diet rather than what should be eliminated.
Most calories in the flexitarian diet should come directly from nutritious, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Protein should come directly from plant-based proteins such as soy, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, and dairy, rather than meat. Because the diet emphasizes whole foods, it limits the consumption of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. So as a byproduct of munching on more vegetables and less meat, you’re limiting your intake of the unnecessary stuff– and you don’t even have to go out of your way to think about it!
How is it different from other diets?
The flexitarian diet has recently been ranked second (after the Mediterranean diet) on the US News Rankings of Best Overall Diets. Why? It’s simple, straightforward, easy to maintain, and healthy. What more could you ask for? It’s a lifestyle that the whole family could follow, likely with ease.
Most diets imply a “start and stop” idea that can be stress and headache-inducing. I mean, it’s intimidating having a defined period of time that you’re supposed to “make a change” in your health. The stress imposed by dietary restrictions often leads to a failed diet or a near-immediate reversion back to the pre-diet lifestyle.
Focusing on a flexible, plant-based diet that is less of a diet and more of a lifestyle adaptation has a higher chance for sustainability, and thus, success. A recent study concluded that just 3% of people surveyed follow a vegan diet, 3% identified as a pescatarian, 5% were vegetarian, and 53% considered themselves omnivorous. However, 36% of consumers identified themselves as flexitarian, revealing that the number of those identifying as so is rising.
With all of the “new” diets making their appearances, they’re all starting to sound the same. Here’s how a few diets with similar ideas and eating patterns compare to the flexitarian diet.
Both are plant-based diets, but one is far more strict than the other. Veganism is much more rigid than the flexitarian diet; however, both diets enjoy many, many fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains. Vegans exclude all meat and animal products, so no dairy, eggs, honey, and of course, no meat.
Obviously, the flexitarian borrows from the vegetarian diet (hence the hybrid name,) but there are some notable differences. In both diets, you can indulge in animal products; however, the main difference is that vegetarians do not consume seafood or meat at all. Flexitarians enjoy them in moderation.
The Mediterranean diet and the flexitarian diet are the most similar of the three. They both include a full spectrum of food groups and emphasize a plant-based diet. The main difference is that the Mediterranean diet doesn’t limit meat intake; the day-to-day diet may include more seafood or lean meats. Realistically, though, it just depends on personal preferences.
Benefits of a flexitarian diet
Overall, by increasing plant consumption and reducing meat consumption, studies suggest that people partaking in this lifestyle will not only lose weight, but drastically improve overall healthy by minimizing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
The philosophy behind flexitarian diets directly correlates with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which suggests choosing more nutrient-dense foods, less processed and red meats, less sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and less refined grains. The positive effects of these guidelines are thought to be the result of mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and phytochemicals.
A 2016 review of 25 studies (21observational studies and 4 controlled studies) analyzed the impacts of choosing a flexitarian diet. The standards of the flexitarian diet in these studies were limited to those that consumed red meat or poultry at least once a month, but ate all meats combined in a “moderate level of animal intake.” The results? The flexitarian diet can drastically improve metabolic health, minimize the risk of type 2 diabetes, and reduce blood pressure. Even more, they concluded that semi-vegetarian diets can play a large role in the treatment of bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease.
Tips for trying a flexitarian diet
If you’re looking to take on (half of) the title of “vegetarian,” here’s how I recommend getting started.
- When choosing your protein source, try selecting a plant-based source of protein. Think soy, tofu, tempeh, dairy, or eggs.
- For each meal, try building your plate around five key components: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats.
- Include less pre-packaged foods and more whole foods. This will naturally decrease your consumption of food and beverages chock-full of added sugars, salt, saturated fats, and calories.
- Lastly, enjoy the flexibility of the diet and take full advantage of the opportunity to choose what you eat! Make sure to nourish your body, but keep your portion sizes in mind.
Written by Morgan Taylor
- Photo by Iñigo De la Maza on Unsplash