- The flexitarian diet is a more flexible take on going vegetarian, allowing meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs in your meal plan in moderation.
- There are no strict guidelines to the flexitarian diet, but experts generally recommend centering most meals around plant-based foods, while treating meat and dairy as an accent rather than the main dish.
- Some of the health benefits of including more plant-based foods in your diet may include improved digestion, stronger immune system, and improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
An ever-growing body of research suggests that eating less meat and dairy and more plants can do wonders for your health. However, a vegan or vegetarian diet isn’t for everyone.
Fortunately, there is a middle ground: the flexitarian diet. As the name suggests, it’s a more flexible take on going vegetarian, meaning that you’re still allowed to eat meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs in moderation.
Here’s more about the flexitarian diet and what you should know before trying it.
What is the flexitarian diet?
The flexitarian diet is a type of plant-based diet. Although some people on a plant-based diet might opt to cut out animal products entirely, flexitarians still enjoy varying amounts on occasion.
The term flexitarian seems to have emerged around 2004 and gained steam after dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner published a book about the diet in 2008. Since then, its popularity has been steadily mounting.
The flexitarian diet is also a form of reducetarianism or reducing your total consumption of animal products. The difference, according to The Reducetarian Foundation, is that reducetarians steadily decrease their intake of all animal products — typically intending to eventually eliminate them.
Benefits of a flexitarian diet
“There are many health benefits to a flexitarian diet,” says registered dietician Shena Jaramillo, MS.
“A flexitarian diet may lead to an overall increase in fruits and veggies, a reduction in saturated and trans fats, and an increase in fiber intake. This can help to lower cholesterol, improve bowel function, increase immunities, and reduce inflammation in the body,” Jaramillo says.
It makes sense why a flexitarian diet might be good for your overall health. Not only does eating more plants help you get more of the vitamins and minerals your body needs, but it also makes it easier to meet your daily recommended intake of fiber — which plays a key role in gut health as well as blood sugar control.
Meanwhile, when you reduce the number of animal products you eat, you also reduce your intake of saturated fat, which has been shown to raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol, thus increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.
What to eat and drink on the flexitarian diet
“The majority of a flexitarian diet should come from fruits and veggies — fresh or frozen — beans, lentils, tofu, and whole grains,” Jaramillo tells Insider. “When eating animal products, try choosing leaner meats like chicken and fish.”
There are no strict guidelines on how much animal products to consume on the flexitarian diet. Experts generally recommend centering most of your meals around plant-based foods, while treating meat and dairy as an accent rather than the main dish.
Flexitarians may opt to have red meat once or twice a week, or nix red meat entirely and enjoy fish, poultry, and eggs in moderation. The point is to prioritize plant-based foods over animal foods, reducing the quantity of meat and dairy you’re eating overall, and focus on quality instead — eating free-range, organic, and grass-fed meat and dairy products whenever possible. Anyone can benefit from a flexitarian diet, not just those with the budget and access to these foods.
Not all vegetarian diets are created equal, of course, and experts generally recommend focusing on whole plant-based foods rather than processed meat substitutes (like some soy-based frozen veggie burgers) and snacks. In other words, foods in their natural state are healthier. The fewer ingredients, the better, generally speaking.
As a general rule, registered dietician-nutritionist Scott Keatley, CDN, says to fill your plate with twice the amount of vegetables or fruit per serving of whole-grains, beans/legumes, and nuts/seeds.
“Highly processed foods like cookies, candies, and crackers may be plant-based, but they are often heavy in calories while not offering a lot of nutrient density,” says Jaramillo.
Disadvantages of a flexitarian diet
One of the few disadvantages to following a healthy flexitarian diet is that you will likely need to spend more time planning, prepping, and cooking your meals in advance — which may feel like an adjustment if you’re used to grabbing whatever’s convenient.
There are also some potential nutritional deficiencies. For example, since calcium and vitamin B12 are more prevalent in animal products, you may need to seek out a fortified nutritional yeast, cereal, or dairy-free milk — or take a supplement — to fill that gap. Note that broccoli, kale, collard greens, bok choy, and navy beans are all plant-based sources of calcium, and eggs, yogurt, cheese, and fish can all help you to meet your recommended daily intake of vitamin B12.
According to Keatley, the stricter your plant-based diet is, the more prone you are to iron-deficiency anemia. That’s why it’s important to incorporate certain iron-rich foods into your diet, such as spinach, lentils, chickpeas, and cashews.
A flexitarian diet offers many of the same benefits as a vegetarian diet, provided you can significantly cut down on your consumption of animal proteins.
It can also be a viable way to lose weight, as long as you focus on eating nutrient-dense, fiber-rich plant-based whole foods, reduce the heavily processed foods and sugary foods you’re eating, and create a calorie deficit.
“The flexitarian diet can be very healthy,” says Keatley. “But like with every other diet, your choices still matter.”