Health Benefits of the Flexitarian Diet and How to Get Started
One of the things diets excel at is setting up rules. They tell you exactly what to eat and what's off-limits (looking at you, keto). Unfortunately, that's also why people can only stick with them for a certain amount of time before jumping to the next trend.
The flexitarian diet, however, skirts those expectations—and that's why it works. First, what is it? "Flexitarian is the combination of two words: flexible and vegetarian," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, CSSD, author of The Flexitarian Diet. In essence, it encourages a "more flexible style of being a vegetarian, or being 'vegetarian-ish.' The eating style is pro-plants, not anti-meat" she explains.
What are the health benefits of a flexitarian diet?
Pictured recipe: Slow-Cooker Tofu Lo Mein
There's a reason that U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks the flexitarian diet as one of the top diets in both health and weight loss by their panel of pros. (In 2019 it ranked #3 out of 41 diets in both categories.)
"Research shows plant-based eating is extremely good for you, but you don't have to give up meat completely to get health benefits," says Blatner.
A 2017 review of 25 studies on flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diets, published in Frontiers in Nutrition, found that flexitarian diets could be effective in weight loss, as well as reducing blood pressure and the risk of diabetes. Past research shows that semi-vegetarians also tend to have lower BMIs than meat eaters. That may be because swapping plants for meats helps them eat about 300 fewer calories a day compared to carnivores.
What's more, it's good for your ticker. People following a "pro-vegetarian diet" (a flexitarian diet) had up to a 20% decreased risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who ate more animal-based foods, per preliminary research published in 2015.
What are the downsides?
Pictured recipe: Tomato & Squash Pizza with Cauliflower Crust
Here's the deal: it's a sensible diet. Because it doesn't advise eliminating any food group, it's designed so that you can stick with it for the long haul. That's great! Except, as Blatner says, "Results don't come as fast as a crash or fad diet."
If your main aim is weight loss, that slower march toward your goal could be frustrating, or make you want to quit in favor of a fad diet. But Blatner urges you to think about the other non-scale victories you're gaining, like more energy from a higher-quality diet, and fewer cravings. Weight loss and an improvement in metabolic health, like cholesterol levels and blood sugar numbers, are more long-term benefits.
This might also be a departure from how you normally eat. If you're used to cooking a large hunk of meat as dinner's main event, then learning to cook more plant-based is a learning curve. It's certainly one that can be overcome, particularly if you pace yourself. There's no need to overhaul your diet overnight—take small steps, Blatner urges. For example, she says, a beginner flexitarian would aim to eat seven meatless meals a week. That's just one per day, but you can count breakfast in there too.
Try It: 20-Minute Vegetarian Dinners
Also know that you can have small amounts of meat or a meat meal if that's something you want. Just because you're eating a bean burger does not mean that you'll never have a beef one again.
Lastly, Blatner warns that when you eat less animal protein, it's important to replace it with the recommended plant proteins like beans and lentils. "The most common nutrient deficiencies for stricter plant-eaters such as vegetarians and vegans are protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fats," she says.
Related: Top Vegetarian Protein Sources
What foods can you eat on a flexitarian diet?
The good news here is that you can enjoy all food groups. The difference is that you'll be focused on packing your diet with more plant-based proteins, including beans (of all kinds), tofu, tempeh and lentils, says Blatner. You'll also fill up on whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats), white and sweet potatoes, vegetables, fruits, cow's milk and nondairy milks, eggs, olive oil, avocado and fish.
- Whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats, etc.)
- Potatoes (white and sweet)
- Nondairy milks
While foods aren't off-limits, the aim of a flexitarian diet is to eat less meat, so you'll limit the amount of poultry, red meat, pork and animal fats (like butter), explains Blatner. You can do this by either swapping meat for plant proteins or by eating a smaller serving of meat. (In traditional recipes, you can replace every 1 ounce of meat with 1/4 cup of beans, she says.) You'll also focus on eating less refined or heavily processed foods like white bread, as well as white pasta and white rice.
Related: Vegetarian Meal Plans
Sample One-Day Flexitarian Menu
Here's what Blatner says one day on the plan might look like, including different options to make the meal vegetarian or not. One big thing to notice: familiar foods (like chicken, eggs and white fish) are still on the menu.
Avocado, spinach and egg on sprouted-grain toast (get inspired by our avocado toast recipes)
Chicken or chickpeas over a kale salad with tomatoes, roasted sweet potato cubes and ranch dressing
Apple and pecans
White fish or lentil tacos served in corn tortillas with cabbage slaw, guacamole and salsa