If you’ve researched the benefits of plant-based diets, you’ve probably heard of the Flexitarian diet. So, what exactly is a Flexitarian? It’s not a new form of vegetarian who only eats the bendiest snacks.
The Flexitarian diet is an interesting approach to better eating habits that encourages people to eat more plant-based foods, while still allowing themselves small amounts of meat and animal products.
There are many benefits to eating a more plant-based diet. These include better heart health, improved brain health, and decreased cancer risk. If you’ve been thinking of changing your eating habits to incorporate more plant-based foods, but you’re not ready to give up meat entirely, the Flexitarian diet could be perfect for you. This strategy could also be particularly appealing for people who have genetic intolerances to certain foods – reducing the kinds of meals they can make.
Today, we’re going to explore the ins and outs of the Flexitarian diet, and how you can decide whether it’s right for you.
What is a Flexitarian? Flexitarian Diet Basics
The Flexitarian diet was first introduced by Dawn Jackson Blatner (a dietician), who wanted people to reap the benefits of a vegetarian diet, while still getting access to some animal protein. Unlike vegetarians or vegans, Flexitarians have fewer restrictions on what they can eat.
While the rules of your diet plan may vary according to your specific nutritional needs, the most common rules to follow include:
- Eat mostly fruits, legumes, vegetables, and whole grains
- Prioritise proteins from plants, rather than protein from animals
- Eat non-processed, natural, and whole forms of food
- Minimise the consumption of animal products
- Limit sugar intake and exposure to other unhealthy foods
The ultimate aim of the Flexitarian diet is to harness the advantages of the vegetarian and vegan diet for healthier plant-based living, without the difficulties associated with removing an entire food group. You get a huge range of benefits from eating more plants, while still enjoying the advantages of small amounts of animal protein.
Flexitarian Diet Plan: What to Expect
Flexitarians emphasise plant protein consumption while reducing the intake of animal products. As a Flexitarian, you should expect to eat almost no processed meats like sausage, or bacon. They also refrain from eating minimal refined carbs, like white bread, croissants, and white rice.
Flexitarians also aim to cut out added sugars, sweets, and fast food. That means that soda, cakes, doughnuts, candy, burgers, and fries are off the menu. Foods you will eat in the Flexitarian diet include:
- Plant proteins: Tofu, soybeans, lentils, and legumes
- Non-starchy vegetables: Brussel sprouts, carrots, greens, bell peppers, cauliflower
- Starchy vegetables: Peas, squash, sweet potato, corn
- Whole grains: Farro, Teff, Quinoa.
- Fruits: Cherries, grapes, berries, oranges, and apples
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, cashews, pistachios, chia seeds
- Healthy fats: Avocados, olives, and coconut
- Plant-based milk alternatives: Hemp, soy, coconut, and almond milk
- Herbs and spices: Basic, mint, thyme, oregano, ginger, and turmeric
After reading the above, you’ve probably guessed that Flexitarians often lose weight and feel healthier. When incorporating animal foods, you’ll be encouraged to consume free-range and pasture-raised eggs, organic, free-range poultry, wild-caught fish, grass-fed meat sources, and organic dairy.
Health Benefits of a Flexitarian Diet Plan
Flexitarian diets aren’t just a fun way to shake up your menu. Studies show that eating this way could promote a range of health benefits. Many of the benefits of plant-based diets apply to the Flexitarian diet, such as increased vitamin and mineral intake, better nutrition, and reduced exposure to processed substances. However, you’ll still need to be cautious about what you eat.
Decreasing your meat consumption but continuing to eat lots of highly processed foods rich in saturated fats, salts, and sugar won’t make you healthier.
When adopted correctly, a Flexitarian diet can deliver the following health benefits:
Improved Heart Health
Diets rich in healthy fats and fibres are great for your heart. Studies on vegetarians show that people eating plant-based diets have a 32% lower risk of heart disease. The researchers believe this reduced risk comes from a higher intake of fibre and antioxidants – something you can also get from a Flexitarian diet.
Another review of 32 studies into vegetarian diets also found that vegetarians have systolic blood pressure levels up to 7 points lower than people who eat meat. Reducing meat intake in your diet could therefore improve your blood pressure too.
One of the most enticing reasons to consider a diet change is a desire to lose weight. Flexitarian eating may be great for your waistline because it involves reducing processed and high-calorie foods. Studies frequently show that people following a plant-based diet might lose more weight.
A review of research into 1,100 people discovered that those eating a vegetarian diet for 18 weeks lost 2kg more than those who didn’t. Though you might not achieve the same weight loss with a Flexitarian diet as you would as a vegetarian, you should notice some results.
Reduced Risk of Diabetes
Diabetes (Type 2) is rapidly gaining attention as a global epidemic. Doctors and specialists often recommend eating a healthy diet as a way to minimize the risks of diabetes. A plant-based diet, like that of a Flexitarian, can help reduce your exposure to unhealthy fats and added sugar.
One study into 60,000 people found that the evidence of type 2 diabetes was around 1.5% lower in people who ate less meat, like Flexitarians, compared to non-vegetarians. Animal products may even have an impact on your average blood sugar readings.
Should You Eat a Flexitarian Diet?
A wide range of potential health benefits can be attributed to eating a Flexitarian diet… Research suggests that vegetarian and plant-based diets are often associated with a lower incidence of various cancers. Additionally, some experts feel that a Flexitarian diet might be beneficial both to human health and the environment. Lowering meat consumption helps to preserve natural resources by reducing greenhouse emissions.
Reviews into the sustainability of plant-based diet reveal that switching to Flexitarian eating, where the meat of a standard diet is replaced partially by plant foods, can decrease greenhouse gas emissions by around 7%. Cultivating plants also requires far fewer resources than raising animals for food.
Downsides to the Diet
Of course, there are potential downsides to changing your diet, too. Some people who already have genetic predispositions to nutritional deficiencies and other dietary issues can be more likely to suffer from problems due to lower intake of:
- Omega fatty acids
- Vitamin B12
Reviews have found that around 90% of elderly vegetarians and 62% of pregnant vegetarians are often B12 deficient, as B12 Is only found in animal products. Zinc and iron are also most prevalent in animal products, though it is possible to consume more of these substances through supplements, or nuts and seeds.
A DNA test can give you an insight into the deficiencies you’re most likely to face if you choose to switch your diet. You could find that you’re genetically more likely to suffer from iron deficiencies, and you’ll therefore add iron supplements to your diet. Adding a source of vitamin C to your diet will also help to improve iron absorption. Alternatively, if you’re concerned about deficiencies in calcium, you can look into plant foods like bok choy, sesame seeds and chard.
Your DNA assessment can also help you to decide which kinds of animal products you’re going to eat (like fatty fish for more omega 3). Since Flexitarian diets allow for some animal products, there’s more leeway to adjust your diet to suit you.
An Example Flexitarian Diet Plan
If you’re following the Flexitarian diet plan correctly, you should experience a greater sense of well-being, less fatigue, more energy, and even some weight loss. However, it’s important to remember that the influence of the Flexitarian diet happens over time – it’s not an immediate fix.
Eventually, you’ll be a lot healthier, because you’re reducing processed foods and meals that are high in fats, sodium, and sugar. You’ll also have a positive impact on the planet. However, it might take a while to find a meal plan that works for you. Here’s an example of a typical day on a Flexitarian diet from Western Oregon University:
- Breakfast: Eggs, whole-wheat toast with avocado, and cooked spinach
- Lunch: Quinoa salad with corn, bell peppers, tomato and corn
- Dinner: Grilled fish tacos with onions and bell peppers
- Snacks: Almonds, grapes, or cashews
Exploring a More Flexible Diet
A Flexitarian diet could be an interesting choice for someone looking to shake up their meal plan with a few healthier meals while reaping the benefits of plant-based foods. Unlike going entirely vegan or vegetarian, a Flexitarian diet doesn’t require you to make any major changes to the way you eat straight away. Instead, the diet emphasizes a higher intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains, while still giving you some room for animal products.
Research indicates that Flexitarian diets and other plant-based meal plans generally have the best environmental and personal health benefits. However, people still need to ensure they’re getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals to reduce the risk of nutritional deficiencies.
If you think you might benefit from switching to the Flexitarian diet, start by getting a DNA test to see which nutritional deficiencies you might be at higher risk of experiencing. When you’re ready to start this healthier eating plan, ease in slowly, and pay attention to your body’s response.