Considering starting a new diet to improve your health or lose weight? Most of us want to start the New Year with a healthy mindset and decide to follow some diet, but in order to succeed, you need to choose wisely. Not all diets are equal; some are just not good for you. Chances are high you have heard or read a thing or two about the flexitarian diet, but still aren’t quite sure whether it works or how it can help you. We’ve got you covered; scroll down to learn more about this diet.
What is a flexitarian diet?
The term flexitarian is a combination of two words flexible and vegetarian. So, the flexitarian diet is, essentially, a more flexible approach to vegetarianism where a person mainly consumes produce and plant-based foods without having to avoid eating meat completely. The diet was created by Dawn Jackson Blatner, a dietitian, and author of The Flexitarian Diet book, where she described a simple way to get all the benefits of a vegetarian diet without giving up meat. It didn’t take long for the flexitarian diet to become popular across the globe. The US News ranked the flexitarian diet #3 in best diets overall, out of 41 diets their expert panelists reviewed (1). People adopt this style of eating for many reasons, including health benefits such as weight loss.
How does the flexitarian diet work?
Flexitarians are not vegans or vegetarians; they are persons whose diet focuses on plant-based products while they still enjoy meat in limited portions. This diet is simple, and it works to improve our health through higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods abundant in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, fiber, and other nutrients. The Flexitarian Book explains everything a person should know about this diet and how it works, and it introduces different levels of flexitarians. They are (2):
- Beginner – includes making seven out of 21 meals a week meatless
- Advanced – 14 meatless meals a week
- Expert – eating meat six or fewer times a week or going completely meatless for a few weeks. Meat is eaten on special occasions
In a flexitarian diet, nothing is off-limits; this eating pattern is flexible. But, instead of making meat the star of your diet, it should be on the sidelines while the center stage belongs to vegetables and fruits.
Benefits of the flexitarian diet
Going flexitarian can benefit your health in more ways than one. Many diets that take the world by storm today are not that good for health, but the flexitarian diet is the exception. This diet rests on reasonable principles that focus on enriching the body with nutrient-rich foods. As you’re aware, our body requires a plethora of nutrients to function properly. Below, you can learn more about some of the most important advantages of becoming a flexitarian.
Flexitarian eating proves to be good for your waistline. The reason is simple; people who adhere to this diet limit consumption of processed foods high in calories in favor of plant-based alternatives lower in calorie count. High fiber intake suppresses appetite and helps people eat less. Studies confirm that people who adhere to a plant-based diet may lose more weight compared to their counterparts who do not (3). It’s important to mention that while a flexitarian diet can aid weight loss, how much you eat still counts. In other words, to make the flexitarian diet work for weight loss, it's important to pay attention to how much you eat i.e., don't overcompensate and eat excessive amounts of other foods just because you lower meat or fast food intake.
Better heart health
Heart health depends on the nutrients we consume. Healthy fats and fiber are vital for proper heart function, and the flexitarian diet has a lot to offer. People who adhere to vegetarian-style diets have a 32% lower risk of heart disease compared to those who don’t (4). Flexitarian diet improves heart health and decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease thanks to weight management, consumption of healthy fats, and fiber, and it also delivers antioxidants that neutralize free radicals and damage they would cause.
Adherence to a flexitarian diet has the potential to lower glucose levels and tackle insulin resistance. Both high blood sugar and insulin resistance increase the risk of type 2 diabetes or worsen the condition in people who are diagnosed with it. Plant-based diets such as flexitarian are high in fiber and healthy fats but low in unhealthy fats and sugar. This diet, like other plant-based diets, promotes weight loss, which plays a role in the prevention and management of diabetes.
Plant-based diets are considered helpful for cancer prevention. In fact, studies show that a vegetarian diet reduces the risk of all cancers, particularly colorectal cancer (5). Of course, more studies on this topic are necessary to uncover all mechanisms of action that lead to cancer prevention, but a high intake of antioxidants could be the factor.
- Energy boost
- Longer life
- Improves digestion
- Better for the environment
Disadvantages of a flexitarian diet
Despite many health benefits, a flexitarian diet has certain disadvantages as well. For example:
- Restrained eating is common among flexitarians which can lead to a struggle to maintain control over food intake (6)
- Scarcity of evidence focusing only on a flexitarian diet
- Cutting back on meat can lead to nutritional deficiencies and depleted levels of vitamin B12, zinc, iron, calcium, and Omega-3 fatty acids
- Although a straightforward eating style, it may be difficult to navigate for people who eat meat on a daily basis
Foods to eat
The flexitarian diet focuses on limiting the intake of animal-based products while relying on plant-based proteins and other whole foods that are minimally processed. Foods to consume regularly on the flexitarian diet are:
- Beverages: tea, coffee, still and sparkling water
- Condiments: ketchup (without added sugar), apple cider vinegar, mustard, salsa, nutritional yeast, reduced-sodium soy sauce
- Fruits: oranges, apples, cherries, grapes, berries
- Herbs and spices: oregano, basil, thyme, mint, ginger, turmeric, cumin
- Non-starchy vegetables: cauliflower, carrots, green beans, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, greens
- Nuts, seeds, healthy fats: flaxseeds, almonds, chia seeds, cashews, walnuts, peanut butter, pistachios, olives, avocados, coconut
- Plant proteins: lentils, legumes, tofu, soybean, tempeh
- Plant-based milk alternatives: hemp milk, coconut milk, soy milk, almond milk (all unsweetened)
- Starchy vegetables: peas, sweet potato, corn, winter squash
- Whole grains: buckwheat, quinoa, brown rice, oats
When it comes to animal-based products, as mentioned above, their consumption should be limited. So, in cases when you want to use some animal products, it is important to choose wisely. Good options are:
- Grass-fed or pasture-raised meat
- Free-range or pasture-raised eggs
- Wild-caught fish
- Organic dairy from free-range or pastured animals
- Organic poultry, free-range or pasture-raised
Foods to limit
People who follow the flexitarian diet are encouraged to limit the consumption of animal-based products, but it’s also important to minimize the intake of heavily processed and refined foods. While this diet is not overly restrictive as it promotes wise food choices, make sure to reduce consumption of:
- Burgers, fries, chicken nuggets and other types of fast food
- Donuts, cakes, candy, cookies, and other sweets
- White rice, white bread, croissants, bagels, and other refined carbs
- Sausage, bacon, and other processed meats
- Animal fats such as whole milk, cream, butter
- Animal proteins
How to get started with a flexitarian diet?
Getting started with the flexitarian diet is easier than you think. Three simple steps are necessary to make this diet a part of your lifestyle easily. First, start by switching things up in meal portions. Downsize the quantity of meat and grains while increasing the amount of product you put on a plate. Vegetables and fruits should be the center of your plate (50%), while meat and whole grains should take up 25% of it each.
Make some changes in the foods you cook on a daily basis. For example, instead of meat, you may want to use beans, lentils, or chickpeas. Generally speaking, add ¼ cup beans for every ounce of meat you replace in the recipe. Experiment with ingredients. There is no reason to give up of foods you love to make; just modify them a little bit and voila – you have a flexitarian diet-friendly meal.
And the third step would be to try a new vegetarian recipe every week. The reason is simple; if you strive to prepare tons of vegetarian foods over the course of a few days, it can be overwhelming. This is particularly the case if you haven't followed a similar diet pattern before. Trying a new recipe every week allows you to ease into this eating pattern and do it effortlessly. That way, you will also get to combine the best of both worlds: a vegetarian diet and animal products (but reduce their intake, of course).
Do I need to exercise when on a flexitarian diet?
Losing weight or following a certain diet without exercise is a wish that many people have. However, a well-balanced diet and regular physical activity should always go hand in hand. The flexitarian diet is not an exception. People who want to follow this diet are encouraged to exercise. Ideally, 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week or 20 minutes of intense exercise three times a week would be ideal. Generally speaking, any form of exercise is better than no workout at all. To support your weight loss and experience other health benefits of this eating pattern, you should definitely, combine the flexitarian diet with regular exercise.
Is it expensive to follow a flexitarian diet?
Healthy diets are often considered too expensive to incorporate into the lifestyle of an average person. The reality is different. A person can adhere to a healthy eating pattern, such as the flexitarian diet, without spending a fortune on groceries. The flexitarian diet is not expensive because you can make meals from easily accessible ingredients. This diet doesn’t revolve around meals with exotic ingredients (unless you really want so). Groceries for the flexitarian diet shouldn’t cost more than they typically do. Yet another reason why the flexitarian diet is beneficial for the wallet is the absence of meat, which tends to cost more than plant-based ingredients. Moreover, the individualized nature of this diet gives people the liberty to cook meals they like and buy ingredients that suit their budget. However, to get the most out of the diet, people are encouraged to buy The Flexitarian Diet book.
Is the flexitarian diet easy to follow?
Difficulty to adhere to some diet is the primary reason why so many people give up. Complicated diets are not easy to incorporate into day to day life, and a person loses interest after a week or two. You will be glad to know that the flexitarian diet is easy to follow. The greatest advantage of this diet is that it focuses on progress, not perfection. What makes the flexitarian diet easy to follow is the flexibility and the lack of restrictions characteristic for other eating patterns. Moreover, eating out is manageable and allowed. Foods consumed on this diet produce a feeling of fullness, thus helping a person avoid cravings.
The flexitarian diet is easy to follow and produces a plethora of health benefits. However, there are certain risks that you need to consider before deciding whether to start with this diet or not. If you are determined to see what’s the flexitarian diet, all about making sure to exercise regularly as well. The diet leaves a lot of room for experimenting with different ingredients and is easy to incorporate in your lifestyle. Unfortunately, not many studies have focused on the flexitarian diet itself, so it's important to carry out further research. Studies investigating the flexitarian diet and its benefits or risks could help learn more about this eating pattern and get the most out of it.