Beginner's Guide to the Flexitarian Diet

At this point, most of us realize that eating a vegetarian diet is probably the healthiest choice (Vegetarians live 3.5 years longer than meat eaters 1). That being said, some of us just can't seem to give up enjoying a hamburger or piece of chicken every once in a while. In addition, there are many people who enjoy eating meat but realize it may be in their best interest to reduce their carnivore habits.

If you happen to fit into any of these categories, we have good news for you. It's known as the Flexitarian diet plan, a trending way of eating.

When you really get down to it, the flexitarian diet means that you are a vegetarian but you're willing to be flexible. You will dine on fruits and vegetables, tofu, legumes, and your other vegetarian favorites. On occasion, however, you will be allowed to indulge yourself with meat or fish. If it sounds easy, it is! Here are some of the details to get you started.

How Much Meat Can You Eat?

Since you are dealing with a flexible diet, it's a good idea to understand the basic guidelines. The book says that those who are new to the flexitarian diet should give up meat two days per week and over the remaining five days, spread out 26 ounces of meat in any way you like. For easy reference, 3 ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of playing cards according to Pam Nisevich Bede 2, a dietitian with Abbott's EAS Sports Nutrition.

As you continue and eventually become an advanced flexitarian, you would eat a vegetarian diet three or four days out of the week but on the remaining days, you can eat meat but no more than 18 ounces combined. When you reach the expert level, you can eat 9 ounces of meat two days per week but you will be full vegetarian for the other five days.

When you make the change to a flexitarian diet, don't think of it as being the removal of all meat from your dinner plate. Think of it more as making vegetarian choices a priority. Grains, nuts, dairy, eggs, beans, and produce will be part of the diet but you will be avoiding sweets and processed foods. Laura Cipullo, R.D, a nutritionist from New York says: "It's more than cutting down on the meat, it's cutting down on the processed food 3."

What Are the Benefits of a Flexitarian Diet?

You get to enjoy a lot of the benefits of a vegetarian diet when living the flexitarian lifestyle. Since you are consuming less meat and fish, you are reducing your carbon footprint and helping the environment. You also have health benefits, such as a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and stroke 4. Vegetarians also have lower average BMIs compared to those who eat meat. Since meat will still be part of your diet, you will still be getting plenty of protein, iron and B vitamins.

There is another benefit that is worth considering, however, the fact that this diet is flexible. "I love the flexitarian diet because it doesn't necessarily pigeon hole you into one way of eating or another," says Bede 2. "We know that certain diets like vegetarian or vegan sometimes get to be a little bit too restrictive, and the more flexibility that you can introduce while still staying on a regimen is a good thing."

Imagine eating a healthy diet without having to count calories. You have enough flexibility in your diet that you can explore new foods and enjoy some of your favorites. Since you will feel less deprived while on this diet, it is more likely that you will stick with the plan.

Another benefit is the financial savings. Since you will be filling your cart with plant-based proteins rather than meat, you will likely pay less at the cash register.

Are There Downsides to the Flexitarian Diet?

One of the downsides to choosing a flexitarian lifestyle is the simple process of changing from one diet to another. Sometimes, people have a difficult time feeling satisfied when they eat a vegetarian meal. "You'll get hungry and then start eating tons of carbs and nuts to get the protein you need, so you may take in more calories than you would if you just took in more animal protein," says Cipullo.

If that describes you, you may need to plan ahead to combat those hungry feelings. If you eat meat, it's not difficult but if you are a flexitarian, you need to be strategic about it. "If you're just eating a spinach salad, there's no way you're going to hit it, but if you throw in some lentils, tofu, or a protein shake, you can absolutely get to that target," says Bede.

It is also important to watch your levels of vitamin D, iron, calcium, and B12. Choose dairy or nut milk that has been fortified with vitamin D and calcium. If you already have an iron deficiency, then eat a vegetarian diet only two or three days a week rather than pushing the limit.

The Final Word

Those who have been eating a vegetarian or vegan diet for quite some time may feel as if a flexitarian lifestyle is a copout. In reality, eating more vegetables and less meat without going to the extreme still has many benefits to your health and the environment. Is it worth it? Both Bede and Cipullo say absolutely. "This is a diet we can all embrace and think about, if nothing else to introduce new variety," says Bede 2. Even going vegetarian for one meal or one day is a step in the right direction.

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