Beginner's Guide to the Flexitarian Diet
If you're drawn to the health benefits of a more plant-based diet, but you're not ready to go full vegetarian, we have good news for you. It's known as the Flexitarian diet, an eating style that's trending for understandable reasons.
The flexitarian diet is just what it sounds like: a vegetarian-leaning diet with flexibility. 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?
Even a a flexible diet should have some basic guidelines. To start the flexitarian diet, try giving up meat two days per week. 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 get used to this style of eating, you can further reduce your meat consumption. An advanced flexitarian would eat a vegetarian diet three or four days a week, and on the remaining days, eat no more than 18 ounces of meat 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.
Rather than centering your meals around the meat, start making vegetarian food choices more of 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?
The flexitarian lifestyle includes many of the benefits associated with a vegetarian diet. By consuming less meat and fish, you are reducing your carbon footprint and helping the environment. Eating less meat also has health benefits, such as a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and stroke 4. At the same time, since meat will still be part of your diet, you will still be getting plenty of protein, iron and B vitamins.
But one of the best benefits of the flexitarian diet is the flexibility itself. "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?
The transition to a flexitarian lifestyle may take some adjustment. 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. As a flexitarian, you have to be more conscious about getting enough protein when you aren't eating meat. "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 keep an eye on your levels of vitamin D, iron, calcium, and B12, as these nutrients are harder to find in abundance in plant-based foods. Choose dairy or nut milk that has been fortified with vitamin D and calcium. If you have an iron deficiency, you may want to eat a vegetarian diet only two or three days a week. A daily multivitamin can help you make sure you are getting the full range of nutrients you need.
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 cop-out. But eating more vegetables and less meat still has many benefits for your health and the environment, even if you are less strict about it. 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.
1. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association: Is Meat Killing Us?, May 2016
2. Nutrition News: PAMELA NISEVICH BEDE, MS, RD
3. Laura Cipullo, R.D., of Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition in New York
4. Health benefits and risk associated with adopting a vegetarian diet, 2014;65(1):9-14