Looking to eat less meat, but not interested in going totally vegetarian? The flexitarian diet (Flexible + vegetarian) might be for you. A flexitarian diet can have a positive impact on health, while being less strict than a 100%-vegetarian or vegan diet.
The main purpose of this diet is to slowly increase one’s plant intake over time without omitting animal foods. With its emphasis on plant and plant-based foods, the flexitarian diet is comprised of beneficial vitamin-, mineral-, and fibre-containing foods and has been associated with a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, says the European Food Information Council (EUFIC) in an article in Food Insight (17 May 2021).
What is a Flexitarian Diet
- The flexitarian diet can be generally defined as a semi-vegetarian, plant-forward diet.
- More specifically, the flexitarian diet is a flexible eating style that emphasises the addition of plant or plant-based foods and beverages, incorporates dairy and eggs and encourages meat to be consumed less frequently and/or in smaller portions.
- There are no set calorie or macronutrient goals in a flexitarian diet.
- The plant-forward philosophy of a flexitarian diet aligns with the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans which recommend choosing more nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean proteins and healthy fats) and beverages and relatively less red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and refined grains.
Studies Show It Benefits Health
A 2016 review of evidence-based literature that included 25 studies (4 randomized controlled trials and 21 observational studies) examined the effects of adopting a flexitarian diet.
The review described emerging evidence suggesting that the flexitarian diet can help improve markers of metabolic health, reduce blood pressure, and decrease the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
The same review found that 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.
The protective effects of the foods emphasised in the flexitarian diet 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, fibre and protein.
Provides Dietary Sources of Vitamins and Minerals
Plant-based foods contain many vitamins and minerals that are good for health, including Vitamins A, C, E, K and folate and the minerals potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese. These nutrients, which are often not consumed in adequate amounts, are vital to the health of our eyes, immune system, muscles, heart, nerves, skin, gut, brain and more.
While the main emphasis of this diet is on the benefits of plant-based foods, dairy and eggs are also allowed and provide high-quality protein in addition to other nutrients. Dairy contains B vitamins, potassium, calcium and Vitamin D and eggs provide Vitamins A, D, E, choline, iron, lutein and folate.
Tips for Trying a Flexitarian Diet
The flexitarian diet is a style of eating that makes it easier to shift dietary choices by focusing more on what can be added to the diet rather than what should be taken away.
Here are some useful tips from EUFIC on how to adopt this diet:
- At each meal, build a plate with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats.
- When choosing protein sources, opt for plant-based foods (e.g., soy foods, legumes, nuts and seeds), dairy and eggs most of the time.
Take advantage of the flexibility of this plan – meat can be incorporated from time to time, but be mindful of its portion sizes.
Include more whole, nutrient-dense foods, which may naturally reduce the consumption of foods or beverages that are high in calories, saturated fat, added sugars and salt.