- The flexitarian diet can be generally defined as a semi-vegetarian diet with moderate intake levels of animal products.
- The principles of the flexitarian diet are aligned with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans because of its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grains and its broad range of protein foods, including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Emerging evidence suggests that potential benefits of the flexitarian diet include improved markers of metabolic health, lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
It’s no secret that the majority of Americans aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables. While it can seem daunting to overhaul your diet, one style of eating—the “flexitarian diet”—focuses more on what we can add to our diet rather than what we should take away. You may not have heard the term “flexitarian diet” before, but 3% of people in the IFIC Foundation 2019 Food and Health Survey reported trying this style of eating at some point in the last year. What is the flexitarian diet, and can it work for you? Let’s find out.
Basics of the flexitarian diet
A flexitarian dietary pattern can be generally defined as a semi-vegetarian diet with moderate consumption of animal products. Flexitarian is a play on two words: flexible and vegetarian. The term was first introduced by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner.
The flexitarian diet is based on the idea that we can receive the health benefits of a vegetarian diet without being 100 percent vegetarian. It focuses more on what plants we can add to our diets rather than on what animal sources to take away.
Flexitarians tend to get most of their calories from fruits, legumes, whole grains and vegetables. When it comes to protein, they eat mostly plant-based sources (e.g., soy foods, legumes, nuts and seeds) with a moderate amount of animal sources (e.g. dairy, seafood and meat). Lastly, limiting the number of calories you eat from added sugars and sweets is also recommended.
Flexitarian diet and health
A review of 25 randomized control trails and/or observational studies specifically examined the health effects of adopting a flexitarian diet. It should be noted that the definition of this diet in these studies varied slightly, ranging from “a diet comprised of a total of red meat or poultry ≥1 time/month but all meats combined (including fish) <1 time/week and eggs/dairy in any amount” to “a diet recommending moderate levels of animal intake.” The results of these studies found emerging evidence suggesting that potential benefits of the flexitarian diet include improved markers of metabolic health, lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. A semi-vegetarian or flexitarian diet may also have a role to play in the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease.
Health benefits of adding plants
Decreased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Eating more plant-based foods may reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease. This overview of plant-based foods and the prevention of cardiovascular disease found evidence from prospective cohort studies that “a high consumption of predominantly plant-based foods, such as fruit and vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, is associated with a significantly lower risk of CVD.” The protective effects of these plant-based foods are thought to be due to multiple beneficial nutrients contained in these foods, including mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidant vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber and plant protein.
Plant-based foods can help you get your daily dose of dietary fiber, which is important considering that most Americans consume about half the amount of fiber that is recommended. In fact, only about 5 percent of the population meets the recommendations for dietary fiber intake. Fiber is a carbohydrate that can’t be broken down by our digestive enzymes, so it passes through the gastrointestinal tract without being absorbed. There are two main types of dietary fiber: insoluble and soluble. Soluble fiber (named as such because it can dissolve in water) is known for slowing digestion and helping the body absorb nutrients from foods. It is found in foods like oats, beans, peas, some fruits and vegetables, and in psyllium seed-based fiber supplements. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water and instead sticks around to keep things moving through the gastrointestinal tract. It’s found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Dietary fibers are a key part of good gut and bowel health, which can promote adequate digestion and absorption of several nutrients. As part of a healthy diet, certain types of dietary fibers also can lower total and low-density lipoprotein (or LDL) cholesterol, may reduce the risk for certain types of cancer and can improve blood sugar control.
Vitamins and Minerals
Plant-based foods contain many vitamins and minerals that are good for your health, including vitamins A, C, E, K and folate and the minerals potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese. These nutrients are vital to the health of our eyes, immune system, muscles, heart, nerves, skin, gut, brain and more. What’s more, plant-based foods often contain the nutrients that we don’t eat enough of.
Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins and minerals. Varying the color of the produce you eat can help you get more of the nutrients you may be lacking in your diet. But fruits and vegetables aren’t the only plant-based source of vitamins and minerals. Fortified foods like cereals and pastas can be great nutrient-dense options as well.
Building a bridge: plant-based and flexitarian
There are many benefits to adding more plants to our diets, but it can feel overwhelming to overhaul your diet. The flexitarian diet offers a way to think about it differently—in smaller bites, if you will. Eating healthier doesn’t have to happen all at once. The flexitarian diet offers potential health benefits by focusing on what we can add (gradually) rather than what we need to (immediately) take away from our diet.
Additionally, the principles of the flexitarian diet are aligned with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Both emphasize fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grains and a broad range of protein foods, including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. Unlike the vegetarian (or the vegan) diet, a flexitarian dietary pattern contains both plant and animal-based foods.
It’s important to find an eating style that works for you. The flexitarian diet allows for flexibility, which may be appealing to some who are looking for a path to improved health that has fewer rigid rules. If you’re looking for a plant-forward option that allows you to have your steak and eat it, too, the flexitarian diet might be for you.
This article includes contributions from Kris Sollid, RD, and Allison Webster, PhD, RD.