Flexitarian is the new healthy eating buzzword that is catching peoples’ attention, but what does it mean?
Derived from the words flexible and vegetarian, the Flexitarian diet is a way of eating mainly plant-based foods, while reducing meat and animal products without totally cutting them out.
What is the Flexitarian Diet?
Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner coined the term Flexitarian diet to help people eat more vegetarian food yet still enjoy meat, fish and other animal products in moderation. It is also sometimes referred to as being semi-vegetarian.
This is compared to vegetarians who stop eating meat and fish completely as well as other animal foods. However, vegans do not eat any animal food or animal by-product for example any dairy products and eggs.
Rather than thinking of it like a traditional diet as there are no calories or macronutrients to count which can be difficult to sustain for any great length of time, this is more of a lifestyle choice.
The main principles of being Flexitarian are:
- Eating mostly fruits, legumes, vegetables and wholegrains;
- Consuming plant-based protein instead of animal protein;
- Eating meat and animal products every now and then;
- Consuming very little, if any processed food, opting for natural foods instead;
- Greatly reducing the consumption of sweets and food with added sugar.
The appeal of this diet to many people who want to eat healthier is how flexible it is. When it comes to how much a person should reduce their meat intake by in a week, there is no specific requirement so this will vary from person to person. The focus however is to eat more plant-based foods overall.
Are there any health benefits to being Flexitarian?
There are several health benefits to eating a flexitarian diet. However as there hasn’t been any specific research into the health benefits of a flexitarian diet this is difficult to assess.
The use of existing research on vegan and vegetarian diets may help to show the positive health benefits of a flexitarian diet and how it can promote your health.
They key to a semi-vegetarian diet is to consume mostly fruit, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains and to avoid processed foods that are high in sugar and salt. Only then will you see and feel the benefits of eating plant-based food.
If you approach this lifestyle by reducing your meat consumption but keep refined foods in your diet, you will not reap the same benefits.
A flexitarian diet and:
To maintain good heart health, you need to eat a diet that includes rich sources of fibre and healthy fats.
A study in 2013 monitored 44,561 men and women from England and Scotland, 34% of whom followed a vegetarian diet. The results of the study found that those who followed a vegetarian diet were at less risk of having heart disease by 32% compared to those who ate meat.
The reason for the lower rate of heart disease could be put down to the fact that a vegetarian diet has foods that are rich in fibre and antioxidants. This in turn reduces blood pressure and increases good cholesterol.
To investigate the effect of a vegetarian diet on blood pressure, there was a review of 32 studies that had taken place from 1946 to October 2013 and from 1900 to November 2013, respectively. The review concluded that those who followed a vegetarian diet had an average systolic blood pressure that was nearly seven points lower compared to those who consumed meat.
Something to bear in mind is that all the studies under review concerned strictly vegetarian diets so to know what effects on blood pressure and on the risk of heart disease a flexitarian diet would have is hard to assess. Saying that, seeing as the flexitarian diet centres on eating mostly plant-based foods, it will more than likely have health benefits like those achieved by eating a strict vegetarian diet.
A flexitarian lifestyle in addition to the above health benefits can lead to some weight loss. This can be put down to eating less high-calorie processed foods in favour of lower calorie plant-based foods.
Type 2 diabetes is now a global epidemic the cause of which is predominantly making poor lifestyle choices. A way to counteract the effects of Type 2 diabetes is to eat a diet that contains mostly plant-based foods, the effects of which are better blood glucose control. For those who don’t have the condition the flexitarian diet should help to keep it at bay.
The flexitarian diet is a good source of fibre, low in unhealthy fats and added sugar.
By eating more plant-based food such as legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables and whole grains there is a possibility of reducing the risk of developing cancer as all these foods are good sources of antioxidants.
Is being Flexitarian good for the environment?
There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about how switching to a Flexitarian diet can not only benefit your health but can also help the environment.
If the world’s meat consumption were to reduce the positive effects on the environment would be significant. It would help to preserve natural resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use.
With less demand for meat products, much of the land used for livestock could be used for growing fruits and vegetables. This will become more necessary in the future as it will help to feed a growing population.
According to information from the Friends of the Earth, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be an extra 2 billion people on the planet. To feed the world’s population, food production will need to increase by about 70% by 2050. Meat production will need to increase by 200 million tonnes to meet demand.
If most people in the UK, which is recognised as being a high meat-eating nation, switched to a flexitarian diet, there would be less pressure on food producing systems and more people could be fed with less harm to the environment.
Are there any risks of becoming a Flexitarian?
Although the Flexitarian diet can be a great option for healthy eating, this will only be the case if the diet is planned out properly.
By not giving much thought to what you are eating and the quantities, there is a risk of developing certain nutrient deficiencies as you reduce your meat and animal product intake.
The type of nutrient deficiencies to be watchful for are:
- Calcium – Eating a flexitarian diet means that you must consume enough foods that contain calcium, which is still possible even if you limit the amount of dairy you eat. Non-dairy foods that are good sources of calcium are chard, bok choy, kale and sesame seeds.
- Iron & Zinc – Semi vegetarians that have significantly reduced their consumption of animal products may find they have low stores of zinc and iron. While these minerals are abundant in meat and animal products, they are also plentiful in plant-based foods. Problems occur when diets are not planned properly so not eating the right quantity of foods rich in zinc and iron to get the full benefit.
A good source of iron and zinc are seeds and nuts, wholegrains and legumes. By drinking a glass of orange juice for example or any other source of vitamin C when eating these foods will help to increase the absorption of iron.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – This nutrient is one that many vegetarians and flexitarians alike may not be getting enough of. Rich sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are oily fish such as: herring, tuna, salmon, sardines. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in plant-based (alpha-linolenic acid) foods such as: chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts.
- Vitamin B12 – Previous research shows that a high proportion of vegetarians are at risk from vitamin B12 deficiency. This is mainly because meat and other animal products are the only sources of the vitamin, it is does not occur naturally in plant-based foods. Those who are especially susceptible are pregnant vegetarians – 62% and elderly vegetarians – 90%.
For a flexitarian the risk of vitamin B12 deficiency depends on how much animal products they wish to have in their diet. If consumed in small amounts B12 supplement may be necessary.
Being a flexitarian means that deficiencies should never be an issue because you will be consuming animal products albeit in small quantities and a variety of whole foods. However, bear in mind that deficiencies will only become an issue if you do not plan of what you need to eat and how much of it.
What Should a Flexitarian eat?
The foods a flexitarian should aim to eat are less animal-based and processed foods while increasing intake of plant proteins and whole foods. The following list includes the foods that should be eaten on a regular basis:
- Condiments – apple cider vinegar, tomato ketchup (no added sugar), nutritional yeast, mustard, salsa, soy sauce (reduced salt).
- Drinks – coffee, tea, water
- Fruits – apples, berries, cherries, grapes and oranges
- Herbs, seasonings and spices – basil, cumin, ginger, oregano, mint, thyme, turmeric
- Non-starchy vegetables – bell peppers, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, greens, green beans
- Nuts, seeds, healthy fats – almonds, avocados, cashews, chia seeds, coconut, olives, peanut butter, pistachios, walnuts
- Milk alternatives – almond, coconut, hemp and soy milk (all unsweetened)
- Proteins – lentils, legumes, soybeans, tofu
- Starchy vegetables – corn, peas, sweet potato, squash
- Whole grains – buckwheat, farro, quinoa, teff
When eating animal products as part of a flexitarian diet try to eat the following:
- Dairy – best to eat organic products from grass-fed and pasture-raised animals
- Eggs – go for free-range or pasture-raised
- Fish – not farmed but caught wild
- Meat – best to eat meat that has been grass-fed and pasture-raised
- Poultry – should be organic, free-range or pasture-raised
What foods should a Flexitarian reduce?
As the point of the flexitarian diet is to eat healthily by consuming more plant-based food and limiting how much meat and other animal products you eat, it stands to reason that highly processed foods, refined grains and added sugar need to be limited.
Foods to limit are:
- Added sugar and sweets – biscuits, cakes, doughnuts, fizzy drinks and sweets
- Fast food – burgers, chicken nuggets, chips, milkshakes
- Processed meats – bacon and all types of sausages
- Refined carbs – bagels, croissants, white bread, white rice
The flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diet is recognised as a healthy eating lifestyle plan. It means eating food that has involved minimal processing and eating meat and animal products in moderation, while eating a lot more plant proteins and whole foods.
Other benefits of eating a flexitarian diet include weight loss, a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. There is speculation about how good it could be for the planet in the long run.
What is important when becoming a flexitarian and to fully reap the benefits is to plan your food choices to avoid any of the potential pitfalls that have been highlighted above.