13/07/2024 1:36 PM


Swing your Cooking

Everything You Need to Know

Everything You Need to Know

Eating meat has never been less popular in the UK. A study published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health found that the UK’s daily meat consumption has fallen by 17% in the last decade. But while the public are shying away from eating meat, we’re not yet a nation of plant-based eaters, with just 2% of the UK population describing themselves as vegan.

So if we’re eating less meat, but we’re not willing to go fully plant based, just how are we eating? Well, 13% of the UK public now describe themselves as flexitarians or ‘casual vegetarians’. On that diet, plant-based eating is encouraged, but meat eating isn’t outlawed. It’s also a diet that its devotees use to reduce their carbon footprint and improve their health, while some use it as a stepping stone to a full vegan diet.

To find out more about the flexitarian diet, we spoke with three leading dieticians, and this is what they told us.

What Is the Flexitarian Diet?

The flexitarian diet can be defined in different ways. Some say that anyone who isn’t on either the carnivore or the vegan diet is a flexitarian. And while they’re not wrong, the actual diet is a little more nuanced than that.

“A flexitarian diet is a semi-vegetarian style of eating where consuming more plant-based foods and less meat is encouraged,” says Sasha Watkins, registered dietitian and co-founder of Field Doctor. “The diet has been inspired by the evidence that plant-based diets are not only better for our health but also for the planet. The term flexitarian was created from a combination of the words ‘flexible’ and ‘vegetarian’, and as the term ‘flexi’ denotes, there are no rigid rules or absolutes to this diet, making it accessible for those who are looking to slowly adjust to a more plant-based way of eating.”

What Are the Benefits of Following a Flexitarian Diet?

Farming animals is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the production of red meat accounts for 41% of those emissions. Choose to go flexitarian – or further – isn’t just a good choice for you, it’s a good choice for the environment too. However, there are still plenty of individual health gains to be had.

Everything You Need to Know

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Research indicates that there are several health benefits that can be derived from following a semi-vegetarian diet, such as a lower risk of getting cancer or heart disease, a healthier body weight, improved markers of metabolic health, reduced blood pressure and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes,” says Watkins. “This is due to both an increased intake of foods that are lower calorie but rich in antioxidant, fibre and healthy fats from plant foods.” You’re also eating less processed foods that are higher in unhealthy fats, such as saturated fat.

What Foods Should I Avoid on a Flexitarian Diet?

While no foods are banned on the flexitarian diet, there are some foods that are best avoided. “As always, any good dietary strategy can be undone by eating processed and ultra-processed food on a regular basis,” says dietician and founder of City Dieticians, Sophie Medlin. “I see lots of patients who move to vegan diets for perceived health benefits but replace meat with ultra-processed vegan foods and get sick as a result. If you’re going to start incorporating vegan or vegetarian foods into your diet, be sure to choose un-processed protein alternatives such as pulses, tofu and soya.”

What Foods Should I Eat on a Flexitarian Diet?

While processed meats should be off the menu, some meat is needed on the flexitarian diet, and according to Watkins you should always go for quality not quantity.

The World Cancer Research Fund advised that you avoid processed meat completely,” says Watkins. “We do, however, need protein in our diet for maintaining and repairing our muscles, but we currently eat more of it than we need to in the UK. We don’t need to eat meat every day and when we do, I advise eating less but better quality.

“Studies show that there are some differences in the nutritional composition of organic grass-fed vs grain fed beef. Organic grass-fed beef usually contains less saturated fats, more omega-3 fatty acids and contains more vitamin A, E and other nutrients like antioxidants. Knowing where your meat comes from is also important for ethical and environmental reasons.”

In addition to grass-fed beef, oily fish is also an important component of the flexitarian diet. “I would not cut our lean sources of red meat because it contains lots of iron – flexitarian diets are low in iron,” says Dr Mayur Ranchordas, sports nutritionist at Sheffield Hallam University. “Also, oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines to get Omega-3. It makes sense to eat servings of these each week.”

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How Can You Ensure You’re Getting All the Nutrients You Need on a Flexitarian Diet?

You should be able to get most of your nutrition from food on a well-planned flexitarian diet. However, in general, there are some nutrient deficiencies to be aware of when you cut down on animal products. This includes the following:

Vitamin B12

“This is a vitamin that is important for normal function of the nervous system, blood cell formation, energy and mood,” says Watkins. “It is only found in animal products, so depending on how stringent you are when excluding animal products, you may need to take a supplement for this. Good food sources are fortified nutritional yeast, yeast extract, fortified cereals, such as bran flakes, or plant milks, such as soya milk. The UK Reference Intake advises that people should be having 1.5mcg per day.”


“Zinc is needed for multiple processes in the body, for example in DNA synthesis and for brain function, and we need a daily supply of it as it is not stored in our body,” says Watkins. “Good food sources are fortified nutritional yeast flakes, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, tempeh, quinoa and brown rice. Men are advised to take 9.5mg/day and women 7.5mg.”


“Adults need 700mg of calcium a day for healthy bones, teeth and to prevent blood clotting,” says Watkins. “Dairy products are a rich source, so choose fortified plant milks, tofu, kale, sesames seeds or even tempeh for a plant boost of calcium.”


Iron is needed to make haemoglobin found in your red blood cells. Iron is found in plant foods but is more easily absorbed from animal products,” says Watkins. “Substances called phytates, found in some plant foods, reduce the amount of iron that is available to your body. When eating a rich source of iron, such as spinach, kale or legumes, combine the meals with a food high in vitamin C to aid absorption, such as oranges, peppers or a kiwi. Aim for 8.7mg for men and 14.8mg for women a day.”


Milk and dairy are a key source for iodine in our diets,” says Watkins. “Iodine is a crucial component of a thyroid hormone called thyroxine needed for a range of bodily processes and a healthy metabolism. If cutting down on milk foods, choose fortified dairy alternatives. The UK Reference Intake is 140mcg per day.”

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

“Flexitarians should be wary of getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet if they are cutting down on fatty fish,” says Watkins. “Plant-based sources of omega-3 include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from walnuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds and flaxseeds.”

flexitarian diet

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Should You Be Taking Supplements on the Flexitarian Diet?

As we said previously, your diet should be able to satisfy all your nutritional needs, but, we all live busy lives and it may not always be possible to get enough of key vitamins or minerals from your food (such as B12 and omega-3). In that case you might need to choose a fortified food product or supplement to fill the gap. As Watkins says, however, “be careful not to overdose on mega strength supplements or believe all the claims, as these can also be harmful, and the vitamin industry is not regulated. If you think you need some help with your diet, please go see your GP or a registered dietitian.”

Both Watkins and Ranchordas agree that one vitamin we should all be supplementing, especially in winter is vitamin D. “One vitamin we cannot get from our diet is vitamin D [it is produced in our skin when we are in the sun], so it is advised everyone takes a vitamin D supplement of 10mcg. Vitamin D helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, which is needed to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy,” says Watkins.

Is the Flexitarian Diet Pretty Much the Ideal Diet?

People have different needs so there’s no one perfect diet, but done correctly, the flexitarian diet is undoubtedly a very healthy way of eating and has the added benefit of being eco-friendly too.

“I think that a flexitarian diet, if it is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, oily fish with moderate meat and dairy and low in processed, sugary and fatty foods, mirrors the Mediterranean Diet,” says Watkins. “This dietary pattern is the most researched diet in the world and there is substantial, quality evidence to show that it can reduce the risk of having a heart attack or a stroke, is linked with less weight gain, a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, better gut health, improved mental health and healthier ageing.”

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