The Flexitarian Diet
#3 in Best Diets Overall
The Flexitarian Diet, which emphasizes fruits, veggies, whole grains and plant-based protein, is a smart and healthy choice.
No. 3 The Flexitarian Diet
The Flexitarian Diet outperformed many of its competitors, with particularly high scores in nutritional completeness, easiness to follow and long-term weight loss as well as for heart health. The flexibility of the diet makes it a good fit for many people, and a more sustainable option compared with stricter diets.
Overall rank: 3
Overall score: 4 out of 5
The Flexitarian Diet: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide
What Is It?
Foods to Eat
Foods to Avoid
The Flexitarian Diet is a style of eating that encourages mostly plant-based foods while allowing meat and other animal products in moderation.
It’s more flexible than fully vegetarian or vegan diets.
If you’re looking to add more plant foods to your diet but don’t want to completely cut out meat, going flexitarian may be for you.
This article provides an overview of the Flexitarian Diet, its benefits, foods to eat and a one-week meal plan.
What Is the Flexitarian Diet?
The Flexitarian Diet was created by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner to help people reap the benefits of vegetarian eating while still enjoying animal products in moderation.
That’s why the name of this diet is a combination of the words flexible and vegetarian.
Vegetarians eliminate meat and sometimes other animal foods, while vegans completely restrict meat, fish, eggs, dairy and all animal-derived food products.
Since flexitarians eat animal products, they’re not considered vegetarians or vegans.
The Flexitarian Diet has no clear-cut rules or recommended numbers of calories and macronutrients. In fact, it’s more a lifestyle than a diet.
It’s based on the following principles:
Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
Focus on protein from plants instead of animals.
Be flexible and incorporate meat and animal products from time to time.
Eat the least processed, most natural form of foods.
Limit added sugar and sweets.
Due to its flexible nature and focus on what to include rather than restrict, the Flexitarian Diet is a popular choice for people looking to eat healthier.
The creator of the Flexitarian Diet, Dawn Jackson Blatner spells out how to start eating flexitarian by incorporating certain amounts of meat per week in her book.
However, following her specific recommendations is not required to start eating in a flexitarian way. Some people on the diet may eat more animal products than others.
Overall, the goal is to eat more nutritious plant foods and less meat.
The Flexitarian Diet is a semi-vegetarian style of eating that encourages less meat and more plant-based foods. There are no specific rules or suggestions, making it an appealing option for people who are looking to cut back on animal products.
Possible Health Benefits
Eating flexitarian may provide several health benefits (1).
However, since there is no clear definition of this diet, it’s difficult to assess if and how researched benefits of other plant-based diets apply to the Flexitarian Diet.
Nevertheless, research on vegan and vegetarian diets is still helpful in highlighting how semi-vegetarian diets may promote health.
It appears to be important to eat mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and other minimally processed whole foods in order to reap the health benefits of plant-based eating.
Decreasing meat consumption while continuing to eat refined foods with lots of added sugar and salt will not lead to the same benefits (2).
Diets rich in fiber and healthy fats are good for heart health (3).
A study following 45,000 adults over 11 years found that vegetarians had a 32% lower risk of heart disease, compared to non-vegetarians (4).
This is likely due to the fact that vegetarian diets are often rich in fiber and antioxidants that may reduce blood pressure and increase good cholesterol.
A review of 32 studies on the effect of vegetarian diets on blood pressure showed that vegetarians had an average systolic blood pressure almost seven points lower than that of people who ate meat (5).
Since these studies looked at strictly vegetarian diets, it’s hard to assess if the Flexitarian Diet would have the same effect 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.
Flexitarian eating may also be good for your waistline.
This is partially because flexitarians limit high-calorie, processed foods and eat more plant foods that are naturally lower in calories.
Several studies have shown that people who follow a plant-based diet may lose more weight than those who do not (6, 7).
A review of studies in more than 1,100 people total found that those who ate a vegetarian diet for 18 weeks lost 4.5 pounds (2 kg) more than those who did not (6).
This and other studies also show that those who follow vegan diets tend to lose the most weight, compared to vegetarians and omnivores (6, 7).
Since the Flexitarian Diet is closer to a vegetarian diet than a vegan one, it may help with weight loss but possibly not as much as a vegan diet would.
Type 2 diabetes is a global health epidemic. Eating a healthy diet, especially a predominantly plant-based one, may help prevent and manage this disease.
This is most likely because plant-based diets aid weight loss and contain many foods that are high in fiber and low in unhealthy fats and added sugar (6, 7).
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 (8).
Additional research showed that people with type 2 diabetes who ate vegetarian diets had a 0.39% lower hemoglobin A1c (three-month average of blood sugar readings) than those with the condition who ate animal products (9).
Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes all have nutrients and antioxidants that may help prevent cancer.
Research suggests that vegetarian diets are associated with a lower overall incidence of all cancers but especially colorectal cancers (10, 11).
A 7-year study on cases of colorectal cancers in 78,000 people found that semi-vegetarians were 8% less likely to get this type of cancer, compared to non-vegetarians (11).
Therefore, incorporating more vegetarian foods by eating flexitarian may reduce your cancer risk.
The Flexitarian Diet may aid weight loss and reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. However, most research analyzes vegetarian and vegan diets, making it difficult to assess if flexitarian eating has similar benefits.
May Be Good for the Environment
The Flexitarian Diet may benefit your health and the environment.
Reducing meat consumption can help preserve natural resources by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as land and water use.
A review of the research on the sustainability of plant-based diets found that switching from the average Western diet to flexitarian eating, where meat is partially replaced by plant foods, could decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 7% (12).
Eating more plant foods will also drive the demand for more land to be devoted to growing fruits and vegetables for humans instead of feed for livestock.
Cultivating plants requires far fewer resources than raising animals to eat. In fact, growing plant protein uses 11 times less energy than producing animal protein (13, 14).
Eating flexitarian and swapping meat for plant protein is good for the planet. Plant-based diets use fewer fossil fuels, land and water.
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 (15):
Omega-3 fatty acids
A review of the research on vitamin B12 deficiency found that all vegetarians are at risk for deficiency, with 62% of pregnant vegetarians and up to 90% of elderly vegetarians being deficient (16).
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. Depending on the number and amount of animal products a flexitarian chooses to include, a B12 supplement may be recommended.
Flexitarians may also have lower stores of zinc and iron, as these minerals are best absorbed from animal foods. While it’s possible to get enough of these nutrients from plant foods alone, flexitarians need to plan their diets accordingly to accomplish this (17).
Most nuts and seeds, whole grains and legumes contain both iron and zinc. Adding a source of vitamin C is a good way to increase iron absorption from plant-based foods (18).
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 bok choy, kale, chard and sesame seeds.
Finally, flexitarians should be wary of getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, usually found in fatty fish. Sources of the plant-based form of omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), include walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds (19).
Keep in mind that eating flexitarian gives you flexibility to consume varying amounts of meat and animal products. If the diet is well-planned and includes a variety of whole foods, nutritional deficiencies may not be a concern.
Limited consumption of meat and other animal products may lead to some nutritional deficiencies, particularly B12, iron, zinc and calcium. Flexitarians may be at risk depending on their food choices.
Foods to Eat on the Flexitarian Diet
Flexitarians emphasize 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.
When incorporating animal products, choose the following when possible:
Eggs: Free-range or pasture-raised.
Poultry: Organic, free-range or pasture-raised.
Meat: Grass-fed or pasture-raised.
Dairy: Organic from grass-fed or pastured animals.
The Flexitarian Diet includes a variety of whole plant-based foods with an emphasis on plant over animal proteins. When including animal products, consider choosing free-range eggs, wild-caught fish and grass-fed meat and dairy.
Foods to Minimize 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 minimize include:
Processed meats: Bacon, sausage, bologna.
Refined carbs: White bread, white rice, bagels, croissants.
Added sugar and sweets: Soda, donuts, cakes, cookies, candy.
Fast food: Fries, burgers, chicken nuggets, milkshakes.
Eating flexitarian does not just mean decreasing your meat consumption. Limiting processed meats, refined carbs and added sugars are other important aspects of the Flexitarian Diet.
A Sample Flexitarian Meal Plan for One Week
This one-week meal plan provides you with the ideas you need to start eating flexitarian.
Breakfast: Steel-cut oats with apples, milled flaxseed and cinnamon.
Lunch: Salad with greens, shrimp, corn, black beans and avocado.
Dinner: Lentil soup with whole-grain bread and a side salad.
Breakfast: Whole-grain toast with avocado and poached eggs.
Lunch: Burrito bowl with brown rice, beans and vegetables.
Dinner: Zucchini noodles with tomato sauce and white beans.
Breakfast: Coconut yogurt with bananas and walnuts.
Lunch: Whole-grain wrap with hummus, vegetables and chickpeas.
Dinner: Grilled salmon, baked sweet potato and green beans.
Breakfast: Smoothie made with unsweetened almond milk, spinach, peanut butter and frozen berries.
Lunch: Kale Caesar salad with lentils and tomato soup.
Dinner: Baked chicken, quinoa and roasted cauliflower.
Breakfast: Greek yogurt with blueberries and pumpkin seeds.
Lunch: Chard wraps with mixed veggies and peanut dipping sauce.
Dinner: Lentil stew and a side salad.
Breakfast: Over-easy eggs with sauteed veggies and fruit salad.
Lunch: Peanut butter sandwich with crushed berries on whole-grain bread.
Dinner: Black bean burgers with avocado and sweet potato fries.
Breakfast: Tofu scramble with mixed veggies and spices.
Lunch: Quinoa salad with dried cranberries, pecans and feta cheese.
Dinner: Stuffed bell peppers with ground turkey and a side salad.
Eating a flexitarian diet is about limiting the consumption of meat and animal products while focusing on nutritious plant-based foods. Some people may choose to eat more or fewer animal products than shown in the above meal plan.
This one-week meal plan provides meal ideas to get you started with flexitarian eating. Depending on your preferences, you may choose to take away or add more animal products.
The Bottom Line
The semi-vegetarian Flexitarian Diet focuses on healthy plant proteins and other whole, minimally processed plant-based foods but encourages meat and animal products in moderation.
Eating flexitarian may aid weight loss and reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. It may even be good for the planet.
However, planning your flexitarian food choices well is important to prevent nutritional deficiencies and reap the most health benefits.