If trying to cut back on meat intake is a goal, you are not alone. According to a Gallup poll, about one in four Americans reported they ate less meat in the past year. The reasons for cutting back on meat can vary from health, environmental, and animal welfare concerns or just trying to save a little money.
If wanting to eat more plant-based foods without cutting out all meat, consider the flexitarian diet. Find out what it means to be a semi-vegetarian and simple ways to adopt the diet.
What Is a Flexitarian?
A flex-a-who? A flexitarian is short for a flexible vegetarian. A flexitarian can also be called a semi-vegetarian.
A flexitarian is someone who eats primarily a plant-based diet but also includes meat or fish occasionally. They are their own "in between" category between meat-eaters and meat avoiders. They still eat meat but choose to reduce their intake by eating meat with some meals, not every day.
Flexitarians may enjoy eating meat and recognize meat is an important source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. However, they also recognize there are some ethical or environmental concerns with the way animals are raised for consumption. They may also be aware of research suggesting long-term consumption of higher amounts of red meat, particularly processed meat, may increase the risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.
What is the solution for these pros and cons of meat consumption? For a semi-vegetarian, it is to reduce meat intake but not completely avoid it. Want more insight on this eating pattern? The book "The Flexitarian Diet" by Registered Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner that further dives into semi-vegetarian eating principles.
Health Benefits of the Flexitarian Diet
Many studies have found the health benefits of a semi-vegetarian, vegetarian or vegan diet compared to a diet with meat. One caveat when looking at research with a flexitarian approach is the lack of a concrete definition of flexitarian eating between studies.
For example, one semi-vegetarian may eat meat 3 days a week, another may only eat meat 1 day a week. So far, flexitarians are all lumped together as those who consciously reduce meat intake even though it can vary what that looks like.
Despite this wide range of variances of what a flexitarian diet can look like day-to-day, there are studies suggesting the health benefits of reducing meat intake, no matter how it is defined.
For example, a 2015 study compared health markers between women who maintained either a meat-eating diet or a semi-vegetarian diet for 20 years. Researchers found the semi-vegetarian group had the following significant difference from the women who ate meat regularly:
• Lower body weight
• Lower percent body fat
• Lower blood glucose and insulin levels
A 2013 study looked at the diets of more than 71,000 people for five years from 2002-2007. This group of people contained non-vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, pesco vegetarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and vegans. Researchers found body mass index (BMI) was highest in non-vegetarians, slightly lower in semi-vegetarians, and lowest in strict vegetarians.
Overall, the research suggests reducing meat, even if not completely cut out, can help with weight regulation. Interestingly, the semi-vegetarians had the lowest reported calorie intake even compared to strict vegetarians.
U.S. News ranked 39 diets based on input from a panel of health experts. The Flexitarian diet had the below rankings:
• Tie for #2 best diet overall
• Tie for #1 for best weight loss diets
• Tie for #1 best diabetes diet
• Ranked #3 for the best diet for healthy eating and easiest diet to follow
Downsides of Being a Semi-Vegetarian
There are arguably very few downsides to being a semi-vegetarian. One potential downside of the flexitarian diet plan in some instances is that it is so flexible. There are no certain hard, fast rules when subscribing to this eating plan. The main goal is to increase plant foods and decrease meats as feeling led.
Therefore, if looking for a more structured plan to maintain/lose weight or recommendations for any medical conditions, consult with a dietitian and medical team.
True, being any form of vegetarian is usually associated with health benefits. However, being a vegetarian, whether a vegan or semi-vegetarian, does not always equate to a healthy diet. Many unhealthy foods fit into a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Therefore, it is still important with a flexitarian diet plan to focus on diet quality. Eat more whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and legumes.
Flexitarian Diet Plan
"The Flexitarian Diet" book offers five weeks of meal plans and suggests increasing "the flex five":
1. Meet the new meat. Increase intake of plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts/seeds, and whole grains.
2. Veg out and satisfy a fruit tooth. Increase intake of vegetables and turn to fruit more often than processed, sugary snacks for satisfying sweet cravings.
3. Go with the grain. Choose whole-grain options over refined grains such as white bread, white rice, sugary cereal, etc.
4. Dairy discovery. The flexitarian guide does not cut out dairy, and one is free to choose dairy alternatives if desired. Focus on probiotic-rich sources like yogurt and kefir.
5. Sugar and spice (and everything in between). Explore ingredients that just use a pinch to add a pop of flavor like fresh or dried herbs, spices, vinegars, etc.
Given these flex five suggestions, a flexitarian diet plan can be varied and diverse. Remember, one can have meat and the goal is to reduce intake and increase plant foods.
Sample flexitarian diet for a day:
• Breakfast: Overnight oats with Greek yogurt and a banana
• Lunch: Quick vegetarian cauliflower tacos with whole-grain chips and guacamole
• Dinner: Chana masala with brown rice
• Snacks: a hard-boiled egg, handful of nuts, and a cup of grapes
The flexitarian diet offers a lot of the same health benefits associated with vegetarian eating, but it is flexible to still include meat occasionally. Studies have shown semi-vegetarian diets may help with weight regulation and blood sugar control.
The main goal of this eating style is to increase the intake of plant foods and adding concepts of the flex five. Cut back on meats where it makes sense. This leaves a lot of flexibility and individuality in creating a practical meal plan that works for you.
Derbyshire EJ. Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature. Frontiers. Published December 7, 2016. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2016.00055/full.
The Flexitarian Diet. U.S. News & World Report. https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/flexitarian-diet.