Think of it as an eco-friendly twist on having your cake and eating it, too. Slim down with your hip, healthy vegetarian diet while grilling your burger or T-bone, too. (Definitely no cake, though.) It’s called the flexitarian diet — and as you might have guessed from the name, it’s a combination of being “flexible” and being a “vegetarian.” While fashionable eating trends tend to buckle under the weight of reality — hello, keto; goodbye, paleo — the flexitarian diet has gained traction as a legitimate lifestyle hack.
Colorado-based Planterra Foods and its plant-based protein brand OZO Foods have gone so far as to declare the second Monday of June — June 13 this year — as “Eat Flexitarian Day.”
Whether the holiday catches on, the plan has. U.S. News & World Report recently ranked it as the second-best overall diet — behind only the revered Mediterranean. You have questions? We have answers — here are 10 of them about the flexitarian diet.
How long has the flexitarian diet been around?
American dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner introduced “flexitarianism” in 2008. Unlike most all-or-nothing diets, Blatner’s plan offered a (mostly) restriction-free alternative. While emphasizing the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle, the flexitarian diet doesn’t force you to abstain from meat. Instead, it seeks a reasonable, sustainable middle ground. No calendars. No carved-in-stone rules to live and starve by. She reasoned the fewer restrictions, the greater the likelihood people might stick with the plan for the long haul.
What do I eat?
Make no mistake: you’ll be eating much less meat than you would with a “normal” Western diet. The goal is moderation. Instead of relying on meat for your protein, turn to such plant-based alternatives as tofu, lentils, and legumes. Eat more nuts, seeds, whole grains, and, of course, fruits and vegetables. And as is always advised — regardless of your diet — try to avoid sugary sodas and snacks, refined carbs found in white rice and pastries, and such processed meats as fast-food burgers, sausage, and bacon.
What meats can I have?
Just because meat is allowed doesn’t mean you can start scheduling a weekly trip to the drive thru. Blatner says flexitarians should max out their weekly meat intake at about 28 ounces of lean meat. That means looking for beef, chicken, or turkey that is organic, free-range, or grass-fed. Similarly, if you have fish, it should be wild caught. (Although, if your B12 or iron levels are a concern, you should probably opt for red meat.) One way to reduce your meat consumption? Use it as a side dish on your plate with a plant-based alternative as the main meal.
Is being a flexitarian better than being a vegan or vegetarian?
Anyone considering a new diet should first consult with their doctor. And for some people, the flexitarian diet may be a more nutritional alternative to straight veganism or vegetarianism since meat is a substantial vitamin B12, iron and zinc source.
Can I eat dairy?
Like meat, dairy isn’t off-limits, but the flexitarian diet encourages moderation. For most flexitarians, that means sticking to healthier cheeses — such as ricotta and feta — and yogurt. For milk, you should seek out such plant-based alternatives as unsweetened almond, soy, and coconut.
Will it help me lose weight?
As we all know, most diets offer great short-term results. But after you drop the weight, sticking to a strict regimen becomes tougher with time, and the pounds eventually return. Because the flexitarian diet emphasizes plant-based food — which carries fewer calories than meat — you will likely lose weight. Better still, because it encourages moderation — and allows for the occasional ribeye — you are more likely to sustain the diet over the long haul, keeping those pounds off.
How will it boost my overall health?
Eating more greens and less meat reduces the risk of many diseases, notably cancer. By how much? One study from Oxford University found that vegetarians have a 14% lower chance of developing cancer than meat-eaters. Even pescatarians — who avoid meat, except for fish — reduced their risk of cancer by 10%, according to the survey of more than 470,000 people. Because the flexitarian diet emphasizes filling up with plants, it carries the same benefits, including lower cholesterol, lower body mass index, and lower blood pressure. That, in turn, can reduce the chances of developing other illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.
How is being a flexitarian eco-friendly?
Most people start a diet for the sake of their health. But it can also help the environment. If we all ate less meat, it would cut greenhouse gases — cows are notorious emitters of methane — and lessen the strain on such natural resources as water. Plants, not cows, after all, are meant to be grown on the planet.
But won’t it cost more money?
Probably the opposite. Although healthy diets are usually believed to be more expensive because they rely on fresh produce, alternative proteins such as beans tend to cost less than animal-based products. And remember, if you have a garden, you can always grow your own vegetables, too.
If I want to start, what’s next?
Again, before switching diet plans — or if it’s your first diet — you should seek out your health professional's advice first. They can guide you through what foods are best for your body and overall health. Different people have different deficiencies. Afterward, if you’re still interested, keep things simple. Western Oregon University offered this blueprint, based on 21 meals a week:
Beginner: Six to eight meals a week without meat.
Intermediate: Nine to 14 meals a week without meat.
Advanced: Fifteen or more meals a week without meat.
And remember, “flexible” is in the name. That means you can always amend or adjust your plan according to your own needs.