What Is The Flexitarian Diet?

The dieting industry operates much like a minefield, most of us mooch around it, and every now and again we stand on a mine and realise we’ve perhaps not fuelled our bodies enough or have missed out on crucial nutrients. 

The good thing is that we can draw on decades and decades of people trying different diets to figure out what may be best for us.  

The general consensus, no matter where you look is that a diet high in plant-based foods is good for us.  Some, therefore, choose to eat nothing but plant-based products opting for a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but for others, this is a step they don’t want to make (for many reasons).

For these, the flexitarian diet may be right up their street.  In a nutshell, the flexitarian diet is being vegetarian-ish.  It prioritises plant-based foods but gives a little wiggle room on the inclusion of meat products.

We first noticed the concept of a flexitarian diet around 2009, but the reality is, as a human species, we’ve been doing it for decades! Generations before us would have looked forward to their Sunday Roast, and then use the meat leftovers for Monday and/or Tuesday.  The rest of the week could have easily been meat-free.  For some, meat was an occasional treat 3 or 4 times a year.  Fish on the other hand was a year-round staple. (i)

So what exactly is a Flexitarian diet?

The flexitarian diet is thought to have three levels:

👉  Beginner – a typical week has 21 meals, and so a beginner flexitarian may opt for 7 meat-free meals a week. This is just one meal per day that is meat-free (which you likely do if you have porridge or eggs for your breakfast!).

👉  Advanced – in this bracket, aim for 14 meat-free meals per week. This is two meals per day that are meat-free. 

👉  Expert – in this bracket, aim to eat meat, less than 6 meals per week. So this is one meat-based meal for 6 out of 7 days.  

There isn’t any hard evidence that any level is any better for your health, but there is evidence that increasing plant consumption is beneficial.

A meta-analysis published in April 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine explored data from 39 studies and concluded that people who followed a vegetarian diet had lower blood pressure on average than those who followed omnivorous diets. (i)

A study published in August 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that eating a plant-based diet may reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 16 percent and dying of this health condition by about 31 percent. (i)

Another study published in June 2016 in PLoS Medicine found that eating a plant-based diet filled with high-quality plant foods reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 34 percent. (i)

plant-based foods is good for us

Eating more plants can help manage weight too. According to a small study published in March 2017 in Nutrition & Diabetes, 65 overweight adults who followed a whole-food, plant-based diet for one year lost 9.25 pounds on average. (i)

Plant based diet

A plant-based diet may also help you live longer. The Journal of the American Heart Association study found that a plant-based diet lowers the risk of all causes of mortality by 25 percent (i)

In addition, a review of nine studies, published in 2017 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, found that eating an extra 100 grams of fruits and vegetables per day (about one-half cup) led to a 13 percent reduction in the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. (i)

That said, there are known nutrient deficiencies experienced by many who opt for a vegan or vegetarian diet; for example, there are no known plant-sources of vitamin B12.  

For that reason, the flexitarian diet is considered to be the best of both worlds.

flexitarian diet

And to start, all you really need to do is re-portion your plate.  Think of what you can add to your diet, rather than the meat you are removing.  

Look at how you can increase your fruit and vegetable intake and view meat as a side as opposed to the main attraction.  The key is that you are eating a plant-based diet, rather than a meat-based diet.  Opt for meat being a quarter of your plate, with whole grains being the other quarter, the other half being vegetables.

Top Tips

  1. If you like using minced meat in dishes, reduce the meat quantity and bulk the recipe out with beans or lentils – cottage pie works well with lentils and you can bulk our your tacos with red beans!  
  2. Recreate old favourites – veggie chillis really have no limits, the same with veggie lasagne.  If you’re a fan of stroganoff, opt for a range of mushroom species rather than beef!
  3. Bulk up breakfasts – most will find breakfast the easiest to go meat-free.  Overnight oats are super easy, pop some oats in a mason jar, with a milk of choice, and top with any additions you fancy!  Frozen berries are a great option!  You can swap the oats for chia seeds, mix with milk, peanut butter and cinnamon if you like a sweet treat! Really, anything goes!

The flexitarian diet is simply that, so it goes without saying there aren’t any hard and fast rules – it’s simply about increasing fruit and veg intake, whilst reducing meat intake.  

But if you do want to give it a go, it’s based on the following principles:

  • Eat mostly fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains
  • Maintain adequate protein levels
  • Be flexible and incorporate animal proteins from time to time
  • Eat less processed food
  • Limit added sugars

Focus on what you can include, rather than what you restrict.

There aren’t any medals for the levels so choose one that suits your preference and lifestyle.  Be mindful of how any dietary changes make you feel and how they affect your health.  If you are concerned about getting the right nutrients, speak to a qualified practitioner.