A flexitarian diet is a term that is quickly gaining popularity, it’s a healthy approach to eating that emphasizes a plant-based diet with occasional meals containing meat. In short, it is a flexible vegetarian diet as the name suggests that allows meat-eating for those who don’t want to go without completely.
What is a Flexitarian Diet?
The term flexitarian diet is a term coined by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, where she developed a more practical solution to help people who would like to follow a vegetarian diet but don’t entirely want to part ways with meat.
The concept of a flexitarian diet isn’t exactly new as there are great similarities between flexitarianism and the diet people eat in Blue Zone areas (areas where people live the longest and past 100).
Contrary to a vegan diet that cuts out all animal products and a vegetarian diet that excludes meat products and derivates but allows dairy and in some cases eggs, a flexitarian diet is a less restrictive and some find it easier to follow.
A flexitarian diet encourages you to gradually eat more vegetables while still enjoying meat with some meals. It’s not a cold turkey scenario where you go all-in from the start, you can reduce meat “dependence” gradually. You can say that the Blue Zone diet follows the concept of a flexitarian diet as most Blue Zone areas focus on eating plants and small portions of meat on occasion.
What do People in Blue Zone Areas Eat?
- Whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds daily
- Most people in Blue Zone areas eat less than 50g of meat five times a month – that’s just over once a week! They will typically have a roast and splurge on meat once a month
- Fish-eating is also limited to small portions, no more than 3 times a week usually consisting of sardines, cod and anchovies. These types of fish often contain less mercury
- 5-10 portions of fruits and vegetables a day (95% veg a day)
- They avoid sugary treats, beverages and any processed foods that contain preservatives. Cake, cookies etc are served on special occasions and never every day
- They enjoy homecooked food made from scratch, think Italian pasta from Sardinia in Italy made entirely from scratch
What do Flexitarians Typically Eat?
- Mainly foods of plant origin and whole grains
- Some meat and animal products
- Most protein comes from plants sources such as beans and legumes
- They sidestep sugar by avoiding sweets and sweet beverages
- They avoid processed foods including processed meat
The principles of the Blue Zone and Flexitarian diets are strikingly similar in many ways as you can see from the two lists above.
Potential Benefits of a Flexitarian Diet
With the flexitarian diet being a relatively new term and the Blue Zone and vegetarian diets a more researched approach you can, in theory, draw some conclusions from both these and apply it to the flexitarian concept.
Keeping the above in mind following a flexitarian diet can be a good way of lowering your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It can also help to maintain a healthy weight, especially given the focus of this diet to reduce processed and sugary foods including “sugar-free” drinks. We’d say this is a sensible option for weight loss, especially if you’re someone who is eating sweat treats and processed foods regularly.
Ensuring the vegetables and meat you do eat is organic and from sustainable farms will also help towards better health as you will be able to lower exposure to harmful chemicals and pesticides.
In terms of overall health benefits, we’d say that a flexitarian diet is one of the healthiest diets you can follow, especially if we take a cue from the Blue Zone diet as it is the best evidence we have today – people who live past a 100 is proof in itself. However, you’ll have to make up your own mind on which gospel to believe as the science is still a work in progress.
Maintaining a healthy weight can be easier said than done, the sheer size of the weight loss industry is testament to this. But cutting out processed foods alone can help you lose weight as there is a strong correlation between obesity and the rise of processed foods over the last few decades.
Eating a diet of healthy whole foods is likely to lower cravings for unhealthy foods, again helping your waistline in the process.
Saying that as with any way of eating it’s important to keep an eye on portion size as too much of anything will settle around your waistline.
Getting Enough Protein
For most people protein deficiency is not a risk, and your risk on a flexitarian diet will be less than those for vegans and vegetarians. However, it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on the types and amount of protein you do eat every day as just cutting meat and replacing it with starchy vegetables or bread isn’t the best option. You do need to include healthy plant protein that contains good fibre into your daily diet as a minimum.
The research on protein and nutrition is ongoing and recommendations are not definitive so there is no hard and fast answer here. According to the Harvard Medical School, the current minimum recommended protein amount is 0.8 g per kilogram of body weight a day which equates to 56 g for someone who weighs 70 kg / 154 lbs.
I wouldn’t worry about eating too much organically grown plant-based protein as it is high in fibre so it’s unlikely to cause you any harm if you keep an eye on portion size and remember to eat a variety of veggies as well of course.
The jury is still out on animal protein, however, with some studies suggesting it can increase chances of cancer, especially when eating processed meat as it contains additives. This might be amplified by unhealthy farming and meat processing practices rather than the meat itself.
Other Potential Deficiencies to Consider
Flexitarians can potentially fall victim to the same deficiencies than vegetarians, so it’s important to eat a balanced diet overall.
Of course, flexitarians do eat meat and fish but can still have potential deficiencies. Here is a list of possible deficiencies with plant-based sources to consider:
- Vitamin B12: Flexitarians can get plant-based B12 from mushrooms, tempeh, seaweed and nutritional yeast. Marmite is fortified with Vitamin B12 and helps to add a meaty flavour to vegetarian dishes
- Zinc: Get plant-based zinc from firm tofu, lentils, yoghurt, wild rice, squash seeds, black beans
- Iron: Get plant-based iron from lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts and chia seeds
- Calcium: In addition to milk and cheese get plant-based calcium from leafy green vegetables such as kale, broccoli, tofu, tempeh, tahini
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Flaxseeds, walnuts, algae, chia seeds etc. Note that organic pasture-raised milk and meat contain more omega 3 fatty acids than intensively-farmed milk and meat
There is an increasing amount of research showing that healthy gut microbes are essential for good health. Some even suggest that it can influence our mental health, weight, immune system and cognitive ability. Following a whole food diet that includes fermented foods and lots of fibre is a good way to support gut microbes.
There is also evidence that periods of fasting help gut microbes grow more effectively as they have a bit of time to “rest” and multiply when your stomach is empty. As a flexitarian diet consists of whole foods and fibre, it is a healthy way to support gut microbes.
The Environmental Impact if a Flexitarian Diet vs the Average Diet Today
The environmental impact of intensively farmed meat products is relatively well documented with beef and lamb being the most problematic in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Most western diets contain a lot of meat every day, putting stress on the environment.
Research published in Nature, a science journal compared baseline projections for 2050 and found that adopting a plant-based flexitarian diet can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 52%. And as it is likely to be easier for the average person to adopt a flexitarian diet rather than a vegan or vegetarian diet, it might just be a viable and obtainable option for helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
With the reduction of meat consumption, there is also a better case for widely adopting regenerative farming techniques, promoting soil health and carbon sequestration within healthy eco-systems. Meat produced using more sustainable and regenerative farming practices produce less greenhouse gas than coffee and cocoa beans that are grown as a result of deforestation.
Foods to Eat as a Flexitarian
A flexitarian diet puts focus on plant-based foods consisting of:
- Plant-based proteins and healthy fats that occur in foods such as beans, lentils, nuts and seeds
- Vegetables and fruits of all colours including greens, peppers, sprouts, broccoli, carrots, squash, corn, sweet potato. Fruits such as apples, oranges, berries, grapes, bananas
- Whole grains such as brown rice and buckwheat
- Flavourings – herbs, spices, oils and seasoning that include most natural spice and herbs. Condiments that doesn’t contain lots of sugar such as mustard, soy – be mindful of ketchup as it’s high in sugar
- Beverages that includes tea, coffee and water (still or sparkling)
Meat products to include:
- Grass-fed or pasture-raised meat – this often contains more omega 3 fatty acids than intensively farmed meat
- Pasture-raised eggs
- Organic, pasture-raised and grass-fed dairy – this usually contain more omega 3 than intensively farmed dairy
- Wild-caught fish – go for options that contain less mercury and are more sustainable such as some squids, sardines and salmon
Foods to Avoid as a Flexitarian
If you think about the foods that people in Blue Zone areas such as Sardinia in Italy won’t eat it gives you a good feeling about the foods to avoid as a flexitarian. These will include:
- Processed foods including meat and foods that contain a lot of preservatives and sugar. Fast foods and ready meals will fall into the processed foods category. Anything with more than 5 ingredients should be avoided where possible
- Sugary treats that you didn’t make yourself – eat on special occasions only
- Sugary beverages including “sugar-free” drinks
- Refined carbs such as white bread
How Does a Flexitarian Diet Work in Practice?
Following a flexitarian diet is based around focusing on five food groups within your diet. Note that this diet maybe a little more difficult to implement if you have a wheat allergy as it includes whole grains and complex carbs so will need adjustments to accommodate allergies. But with gluten-free starches widely available that should be too difficult to achieve.
You don’t have to follow the meal plans outlined in Dawn Jackson Blatner’s book to the T to gain health benefits, although it might be helpful to read the book for background information. She seems to follow a do what you can when you can approach.
Not everyone enjoys planning their meals in advance, but if you would like to learn more about meal planning, please ready our practical meal planning guide to get started.
If you are planning ahead for a full week, that should include 21 meals or you can leave one or two open for interpretation. There are no specific meal timings, but can be broken down into 300 calories for breakfast, 400 calories for lunch, 500 calories for dinner and 150 calories for snacks if you’re trying to lose weight. You can adjust the splits if you don’t snack, are not looking to lose weight or burn calories through exercise.
Counting calories, might not be the most effective way of managing weight as resting metabolic rate varies from person to person and calorie calculations on foods can vary as much as 20%. When it comes to eating enough, listen to your body and don’t be afraid to skip meals if you’re not hungry as intermittent fasting can be beneficial in short bursts.
Diet is a very personal thing, what works for someone else might not work for you. We all respond to food differently as our gut microbes vary and a one size fits all guideline is not a sure-fire way to good health.
You can create a meal plan without considering calories in too much detail if you have go-to recipes that consider portion size and keep to those.
Special Considerations for Pregnancy and Diabetes
A flexitarian diet includes foods from all groups and promotes a variety and balance, which means an overall healthy diet for most. However, those with diabetes and pregnant women need to take extra care when it comes to getting the right nutrients and foods:
- Pregnancy: Iron, folate and Vitamin B12 are important during pregnancy as deficiencies are common even amongst women who eat meat regularly. It might be worth increasing the amount of good quality meat while pregnant and when breastfeeding. Speak to your healthcare provider for advice.
- Diabetes: Many studies have shown that a plant-based diet can offer benefits to those with diabetes. However, if you have diabetes, take note of your body’s response to foods and how it affects your blood sugar. Complex carbs are much better to control blood sugar, but it’s important to take care and know what works for you.
We like the idea of a flexitarian diet, the Blue Zone diet or even the Mediterranean diet (that we didn’t mention) as research suggests it’s good for our health. These diets are also better for the environment than a traditional western diet.
However, nutrition is a bit of a dark art and research has not provided definitive answers on the most optimal levels and recommended daily intake amounts. And there is evidence that a one size fits all model is ineffective as our bodies are all unique, even when comparing pairs of twins, variations do occur.
Sometimes we have to be our own guinea pigs and see what works best for us. We have been following a combination of a flexitarian and blue zone diet at home and it has worked really well for us as it’s not alienating the meat-eaters or causing uncomfortable silence when the topic “what’s for dinner” comes up.
Reducing meat has taken some adjustment but overall we find it less stressful as it’s not too restrictive. It’s kept us in good health thus far and it helps us to live more sustainably. Most of our recipes are based on these principles, here are our favourite recipes to try at home:
Flexitarian Recipes to Try
See our recipe page for more meal ideas