There’s an ongoing dietary movement shifting focus away from animal products toward plant foods; this is no secret. And there are many reasons people might limit or avoid meat, including religious beliefs, concern for the ethical treatment of animals, health concerns, and concerns about the well-being of the planet. While most people think of vegetarian or vegan diets as the only options, there is another one — a flexitarian diet.
Most everyone has an idea of what constitutes a vegetarian or a vegan diet, but what about a “flexitarian” diet? A blend of the terms “flexible” and “vegetarian,” the term was introduced more than a decade ago, and was even entered into the dictionary in 2014, making it official.
As the name suggests, it describes a flexible, semi-vegetarian diet that emphasizes, but is not limited to, plant foods. That makes it less restrictive than a vegetarian or vegan diet, as it allows for the inclusion of small amounts of animal products, like meat, eggs and dairy foods. In other words, the diet boosts the intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while keeping meat and other animal products to a minimum. This is good news for meat lovers who want to eat more healthfully, but don’t want to completely eliminate hamburgers or steak from their diets. It avoids the “all-or-nothing” approach associated with vegetarianism or veganism.
There are even more specific diet classifications that describe the philosophies behind reducing meat consumption, such as “climatarian,” which describes reduction in beef and lamb consumption for the benefit of the planet, and “reducetarian,” which describes a diet that aims to include less meat — red meat, poultry and seafood — as well as less dairy and fewer eggs, regardless of how much intake is reduced or the motivation behind it. There is even a Reducetarian Foundation to promote the diet philosophy.
How flexible is the flexitarian diet?
Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner author of “The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life” laid out a plan in her book for the flexitarian way of eating. In the book, she classifies flexitarians as beginners, advanced and experts. The higher the classification, the fewer animal foods she prescribes. The meat prescriptions range from having six to eight meatless meals to fifteen or more meatless meals each week.
However, Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, INHC, dietitian, health coach, and author of “The Little Book of Game Changers: 50 Health Habits for Managing Stress & Anxiety,” believes strict classifications don’t always work. “I think that the optimal number of animal-based meals per week can vary from one individual to the next,” she says.
While a flexitarian diet is sometimes used as a transition to a vegan or vegetarian diet with a stricter limitation or elimination of meat and other animal products, it doesn’t have to be viewed as a temporary transition diet. It can be a permanent healthy lifestyle change. The beauty of the flexitarian diet is that it allows for splurges on special occasions like hot dogs on the Fourth of July, turkey at Thanksgiving and eggnog at Christmas.
How does the diet stack up?
Each year, US News & World Report magazine ranks popular diets. For 2021, it evaluated 39 diets and, once again, the flexitarian diet ranked second (tied with the DASH diet — Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) only to the Mediterranean diet, as the best diet overall. If you look closely, you’ll find that flexitarian diets can be quite similar to the No. 1-ranked Mediterranean diet.
A review of 25 studies evaluated the health benefits of flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diets. Early findings suggest that diets that limit the intake of animal foods were linked to improved body weight, and improved indicators of metabolic health, blood pressure, and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. It has even been suggested that following a Flexitarian diet can be beneficial to brain health.
Previous studies have shown a significant association between meat intake and body mass index (BMI). The greater the meat intake, the higher the BMI. Your BMI is a rough measure of your weight relative to your height. (If you want to know your BMI, you can find several BMI calculators online.) While BMI is not a perfect predictor of health, researchers have found that the higher your BMI, the greater risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, gallstones, breathing problems and certain cancers.
While dietitian Cording says the term “flexitarian” is familiar to nutrition professionals and people deeply interested in food and nutrition, it’s not a widely recognized or used term. But based on what we know about the flexitarian way of eating and its health benefits, that’s likely to change.
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)