The word ‘dieting’ can be confronting, especially when you come face to face with a long list of restrictions and guidelines. Whether you simply wish to lose a few pounds, improve your overall health or add a few more leafy greens to your plate, knowing where to start or how to stick to your new eating habits can be difficult. A survey conducted by the U.K. food company Alpro revealed that five out of seven participants who underwent regular dieting quit within the first week. Only 20% made it to three months.
Failing to stick to diets may be the result of many things, including unrealistic standards, following a meal plan that doesn’t suit your individual health requirements and even the threat of disappointment looming if you sneak a chicken wing into your completely vegetarian diet. Sometimes a diet that’s less black and white can be helpful.
For instance, rather than completely eliminating meat from your diet, which may not suit you or your lifestyle, you could instead convert to a largely plant-based diet, while still allowing yourself the occasional steak or hotdog. While this type of flexibility isn’t possible within a vegan or vegetarian diet, the “flexitarian” diet, as it’s called, could be your guilt-free golden ticket to eating well, while keeping some flexibility.
What is the Flexitarian Diet?
The flexitarian diet has a strong focus on plant-based foods. However, it doesn’t limit individuals to these products alone. Animal products are accepted in moderation.
This concept was developed by nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner who understood why some vegetarians would struggle to go entirely meat-free. She introduced the flexitarian diet as a way to prove that minimising, rather than excluding, animal-product intake altogether can potentially aid in weight loss and optimised health just as well, if not better than other diets.
This lack of limits has led approximately 30% of the United Kingdom’s population to identify themselves as ‘flexitarians’ or ‘semi-vegetarians’. At the same time, it’s important to note that the core elements of the diet are obviously health-focused, with an emphasis on gradually increasing vegetable consumption, rather than being ‘limitless’ in the sense of eating to excess. Overall, the diet aims to reduce the stress of restrictive eating.
What is Included in the Flexitarian Diet?
Each flexitarian’s diet plan will differ slightly depending upon their needs and level of commitment. Here is a general guide as to what foods are included and/or recommended:
- Up to 28 ounces of lean meat/poultry – organic or free-range chicken, turkey, wild-caught fish
- Plant-based protein – soybeans, tofu and legumes
- Fruits – berries, oranges, apples and grapes
- Vegetables – greens, carrots, cauliflower and bell peppers
- Oils, herbs and spices
- Legumes – lentils, beans, seeds (linseed, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds) and nuts (pine nuts, walnuts)
- Whole grains – quinoa and buckwheat
- Sugar and treats (small amounts)
- Plant-based milk alternatives – Unsweetened almond, coconut and soy
- Still or sparkling water
- Tea and coffee
Avoiding heavily processed, unhealthy foods, for the most part, is a key component of this diet. This is especially true when it comes to processed meats like sausages, bacon and ham.
Here are some examples of what daily menus might look like:
- Breakfast: Avocado on toast
- Lunch: Kale ranch bowl
- Dinner: Tacos
- Breakfast: Baked eggs with tomato and sweet peppers
- Snack: Apricot and chia balls
- Lunch: Beat and bean burger
- Snack: Apple and cheddar cheese (20g)
- Dinner: Spicy dhal with eggs
What Are Some Possible Health Benefits?
Along with being easier to stick to, allowing, as it does, for a large pool of delicious recipes, the flexitarian diet has also been connected to a wide range of benefits for people, animals and the environment.
If weight loss is one of your top dieting priorities, plant-based eaters are believed to weigh 15% less than non-vegetarians, according to a review published by Nutrients. If general health is your prime concern, you may find comfort in knowing that U.S. News and World Report ranked the flexitarian diet as one of the best diets of 2021. It was also suggested to be one of the best diets for diabetics.
Below is a list of possible health benefits from the flexitarian diet. Definitive benefits can be hard to pin down, due to the diet’s malleable nature. Therefore, some of the advantages listed below may focus more so on full-vegetarian or vegan diets, rather than partial. However, seeing as how the flexitarian diet is semi-vegetarian, the research will still apply to some degree and is worth acknowledging.
Possible benefits include:
May Contribute to a Longer Life
It’s suggested that plant-based eaters are likely to live up to 3.6 years longer than those who consume large quantities of meat.
Possible Lower Risk of Diabetes and Insulin Resistance
A study published by Diabetes Care revealed that out of 60,000 participants, type 2 diabetes was 1.5% lower in prevalence in those sticking to a predominantly vegetarian diet. They also stated that flexitarians generally had lower body mass indexes (BMIs).
Potential for Weight Loss
A study published by the Journal of General Internal Medicine revealed that those eating a vegetarian diet lost 2kg more than those who didn’t.
Jan England, managing director of England Marketing, also highlighted the increasing concern about obesity among children in the U.K. due to poor diet. Of the 80% who don’t hit the dietary health mark, a fifth are considered obese – that’s around 16% overall. The flexitarian diet is suggested to improve their plant intake and reduce and/or manage their obesity.
Could Reduce Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke
According to a report published by the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, the flexitarian diet may also be effective in preventing and managing heart failure. A study of 45,000 people over eleven years highlighted that those who ate a plant-based diet were 32% less likely to suffer from heart disease. It’s also suggested that the diet may lower blood pressure.
May Aid in Preventing Cancer
The nutrient and antioxidant content of the flexitarian diet may lower the risk of cancer. Vegetarian diets have been associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer in particular. A study exploring the likelihood of colorectal cancers revealed that out of 78,000 individuals, semi-vegetarians were 8% less likely to develop cancer of that type.
Reduces Carbon Footprint
The reduction in meat consumption can lead to fewer greenhouse gas emissions and the preservation of land and water resources. Research has revealed that adopting the flexitarian diet may decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 7%.
How Affordable is a Flexitarian Diet?
This diet doesn’t require anything too fancy or expensive, so your weekly budget shouldn’t be affected too much. While you may end up spending more than usual on produce, your reduction in spending on meat should end up balancing out the average cost of your shopping cart.
There is also no membership or sign-up fee required to dive into this new, leafy experience. All you may need is a copy of a book, like The Flexitarian Diet, or some general knowledge of how it works so you can try out your own recipes.
How Does the Diet Impact Nutrition?
It should provide you with some comfort to know that nutritional experts have called the flexitarian diet’ sustainable and full of nutrient-dense products’. The nutritional value is quite high considering that the diet embraces all five food groups. It’s important, however, to ensure you’re consuming appropriate portions, so that you don’t eat too much or too little. It’s recommended to fill half of your plate with vegetables, a quarter with meat and the other quarter with whole grains.
While healthy, reducing a person’s intake of animal products can make some people susceptible to nutrient deficiencies, including:
- Vitamin B12
- Omega-3 fatty acids
If you suspect that your iron levels may drop during or after your dieting endeavours, it may be wise to seek out alternative sources. This is especially important for individuals who have specific dietary needs, such as diabetics or pregnant women.
Sources of iron include:
- Iron-fortified breakfast cereals
Increasing your Vitamin D intake slightly may also prove beneficial when it comes to raising your body’s ability to absorb iron. (6) (12)
If you’re curious, and you want to read more, here are some resources that can help you start off on the right foot:
- Healthline – The Flexitarian Diet: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide
- WebMD – The Flexitarian Diet
- Food Network – Our Best Plant-Based Recipes
- The Spruce Eats – What Is a Flexitarian?
If your grandmother would gasp at the fact that you’ve given up meat altogether, the flexitarian diet may be a kinder approach. It has grown in popularity due to its flexible nature, an abundance of compatible recipes, the many potential health benefits and the fact that you can still sneak some treats in without feeling overwhelming guilt (or the need to quickly hop on the treadmill).
If you’re environmentally-minded, but find it hard to commit to vegetarianism or veganism fully, the flexitarian diet will still allow you to do your bit. As long as you balance your portion sizes and nutritional intake, you should also be able to maintain a healthy (mostly) plant-based lifestyle.