If you’re looking for a healthy diet that doesn’t involve counting calories, super strict rules and allows you to enjoy meat from time to time – look no further. A flexitarian diet is one that encourages mostly plant-based foods but still allowing meat and other animal products in moderation. Therefore, It’s more flexible than vegetarian or vegan diets. This is perfect If you’re looking to add more plant foods to your diet but don’t want to completely cut out meat. The best thing about it - there are no specific rules or suggestions, it's more of a lifestyle than a diet!
Flexitarianism It’s based on the following principles:
- Eating mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
- Focusing on protein from plants instead of animals.
- Incorporating meat and animal products from time to time.
- Reducing intake of processed foods.
- Limiting added sugar and sweets.
The Flexitarian Diet was created by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner to help people receive the benefits of vegetarian eating while still enjoying animal products in moderation. The overall idea is to eat more nutritious plant foods and less meat. That’s why the name is a combination of the words flexible and vegetarian - since flexitarians eat animal products, they’re not considered vegetarians or vegans. Vegetarians eliminate meat and sometimes other animal foods, while vegans completely restrict meat, fish, eggs, dairy and all animal-derived food products.
The three basic stages of cutting down on meat:
When someone is first starting out on the flexitarian diet, it’s recommended to go without meat at least two days a week. In the beginning stage you should keep your overall meat consumption to no more than 750g a week for the five days you actually do consume it.
As you move through the diet and get used to eating more fruits and vegetables, focus on following a full vegetarian diet three to four days a week.
Follow a vegetarian diet for five of the seven days in a week. On the two days you do consume meat, do not eat more than 250g.
Health Benefits of a flexitarian diet
Adopting a flexitarian diet might be a great way to start living a healthier lifestyle. Folic acid, vitamins C and E, magnesium, unsaturated fat, and a plethora of phytochemicals are all linked to increased fibre consumption. Vegetarians and flexitarians frequently have lower cholesterol, have lower blood pressure, and have a lower risk of heart disease as a result of this lifestyle. Diets like these are frequently chosen for other reasons besides health and well-being - economic, environmental, and social reasons are also taken into consideration.
A study following 45,000 adults over 11 years found that vegetarians had a 32% lower risk of heart disease, compared to non-vegetarians. This is most likely owing to the fact that vegetarian diets are generally high in fibre and antioxidants, both of which help lower blood pressure and raise good cholesterol. Because most research focuses on vegetarianism, it's difficult to say whether the flexitarian diet would have the similar impact on blood pressure and heart disease risk. However, flexitarian eating is meant to be primarily plant-based and will most likely have benefits similar to fully vegetarian diets.
Flexitarians limit high-calorie, processed foods and eat more plant foods that are naturally lower in calories. Therefore, people who follow a plant-based diet may lose more weight than those who don’t.
A study in over 60,000 participants found that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes was 1.5% lower in semi-vegetarians or flexitarians compared to non-vegetarians. This is likely due to the fact that plant-based diets promote weight loss and include a variety of foods that are high in fibre and low in unhealthy fats and added sugar. As a result, eating a nutritious diet, particularly one that is primarily plant-based, may aid in the prevention and management of diabetes.
Nutrients and antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes may help prevent cancer. Vegetarian diets have been linked to a lower overall incidence of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, according to research. As a result, eating flexitarian and adopting more vegetarian foods may lower your cancer risk.
May Be Good for the Environment
Not only does the flexitarian diet benefit your health but the environment too! Reducing meat consumption can help preserve natural resources by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as land and water use.
According to a review of research on the long-term sustainability of plant-based diets, transitioning from the typical Western diet to flexitarian eating, where meat is largely substituted by plant foods, might reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7%. More space can be devoted to cultivating fruits and vegetables for humans rather than feed for cattle. Plant cultivation uses significantly fewer resources than raising animals for food. Simply put, eating flexitarian and substituting plant protein for meat is healthy for the environment.
Even reducing your meat consumption by just half, or going plant-based a few times per week rather than fully vegan can make a huge difference. Small changes made by everyone can be just as effective for sustainability!
Pros of flexitarianism
With some good planning, you'll most likely be able to meet all of your nutrient needs on this diet because the flexitarian diet embraces all food groups. In comparison, stricter vegetarian and vegan diets may fall short in vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA.
No food groups are eliminated from the flexitarian diet. Rather, the focus is on increasing plant-based foods while reducing the total consumption of animal-based foods. Since all foods fit into this diet, it’s easy to make changes to suit your lifestyle and build meals around foods that you enjoy.
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 on meat.
Downsides to Eating Less Meat and Animal Products
When flexitarian and other plant-based diets are well-planned, they can be very healthy. However, some people may be at risk of nutrient deficiencies when they cut back on meat and other animal products depending on the adequacy of their other food choices.
Possible nutrient deficiencies to be aware of on the Flexitarian Diet include:
Flexitarians may have lower zinc and iron stores because these minerals are best absorbed from animal foods. While it is possible to obtain enough of these nutrients from plant foods alone, flexitarians must plan their diets accordingly. Iron and zinc are found in most nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Including a source of vitamin C is an excellent way to boost iron absorption from plant-based foods.
Some flexitarians may limit dairy and need to eat plant-based sources of calcium to get adequate amounts of this nutrient. Plant foods rich in calcium include, kale, chard and sesame seeds.
Finally, flexitarians should be wary of getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, usually found in walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds.
Foods to Eat on the Flexitarian Diet
Flexitarians emphasise plant proteins and other whole, minimally processed plant foods while limiting animal products.
Foods to eat regularly include:
- Proteins: Soybeans, tofu, tempeh, legumes, lentils.
- Non-starchy vegetables: Greens, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, green beans, carrots, cauliflower.
- Starchy vegetables: Winter squash, peas, corn, sweet potato.
- Fruits: Apples, oranges, berries, grapes, cherries.
- Whole grains: Quinoa, teff, buckwheat, farro.
- Nuts, seeds and other healthy fats: Almonds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, peanut butter, avocados, olives, coconut.
- Plant-based milk alternatives: Unsweetened almond, coconut, hemp and soy milk.
- Herbs, spices and seasonings: Basil, oregano, mint, thyme, cumin, turmeric, ginger.
- Condiments: Reduced-sodium soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, salsa, mustard, nutritional yeast, ketchup without added sugar.
- Beverages: Still and sparkling water, tea, coffee.
Foods to Minimise on the Flexitarian Diet
The Flexitarian Diet not only encourages limiting meat and animal products but also limiting highly processed foods, refined grains and added sugar .
Foods to minimise include:
- Processed meats: bacon, sausage, sandwich meats.
- Refined carbohydrates: white bread, white rice, bagels, croissants.
- Added sugar and sweets: fizzy drinks, donuts, cakes, cookies, candy.
- Fast food: burgers, chicken nuggets, milkshakes.
Who Should (and Shouldn’t) Consider a Flexitarian Diet?
If you are overweight, at increased cardiovascular risk (including those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes or people with a family history of metabolic health issues) or have ethical concerns about eating meat, you may benefit from adopting a flexitarian lifestyle.
However, you should discuss this diet with your doctor or dietitian if you have:
- Iron deficiency or any other type of anaemia
- Dietary allergies or intolerances that limit your intake of non-meat foods
- A history of eating disorders or drastically restricting your diet.
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