The flexitarian diet is a plant-strong diet that allows an occasional meaty dish.
Studies show vegetarians run thinner and lighter than meat-eaters, and have a lower incidence of many chronic illnesses; they also spend less money on medical expenses. (1)
Easing into this way of eating is encouraged by its creator, Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian who came up with the term “Flexitarian” about a decade ago. She published a book about the plan in 2009 titled “The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life.”
How often do you find diets pushing a “try-it-before-you-buy-it” approach?
Seven reasons why you may want to give this a shot:
- You don’t have to give up meat completely to realize benefits. Cutting back on meat reduces fat content almost effortlessly. (2) Less dense protein means more fiber without making a point of it. Fiber can positively affect cholesterol levels and other vital health markers. (3)
- You may live longer. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) analyzed connections between what we eat and how long we live, concluding plant-based diets can boost the chance of lengthening life. (4)
- The Flexitarian diet is easily adaptable to low-carbohydrate plans proven to aid in weight control. (5, 6) For example, legumes and nuts are high in protein and fairly low in carbohydrates; the occasional meal including meat, fish or poultry will provide a moderate dose of foods more commonly used in the low-carb approach.
- It’s well-liked in the trenches. US News and World Report Health ranks the Flexitarian diet in the top ten for weight loss, heart health and diabetes control, as well as awarding top marks for being easy to follow and among the best plant-based diets out there today. (7)
- Nothing is off-limits.
- It’s a less expensive way to eat and decreases your carbon footprint.
The Flexitarian diet is not the best choice for people who are most comfortable depending on heavy protein for building meal plans. If you’re one of those who gets nervous without your daily serving of meat, it’s not for you.
Some people may experience cravings for meat and other heavy proteins initially, especially if they’re accustomed to eating such foods multiple times daily. This is usually temporary.
A bit of creativity may be required to bring meal plans and unfamiliar dishes into the sustainable interest range if you decide to follow the diet long term.
If you have moral, spiritual or ecological objections in regard to eating meat, the issue remains, despite cutting back on amounts.
Flexitarian diet basics
The guidelines provided by Dawn Jackson Blatner in her book are simple: start by swapping one meal containing meat each week with a vegetarian main dish. Work up to two vegetarian meals weekly over a comfortable space of time for you; then you decide how much meat, poultry or fish you want to eat ongoing.
Breaking the staple foods into general categories, the eating plan looks like this:
- Non-meat protein foods like beans and legumes, soy products, eggs, tofu and nuts
- Plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat bread
- Dairy products including yogurt, milk and cheese
- Condiments like salad dressing, natural sweeteners such as agave nectar, spices and herbs
- Limited amounts of meat, poultry, and seafood
On Blatner’s rating system, a beginner Flexitarian could still eat up to 26 ounces of meat a week. At a more advanced level, 18 ounces of meat each week might be the goal; experts, or those who have been practicing the diet for a while, would likely consume meat only 2 or 3 times a week, eating a total of maybe half a pound or so over the 7-day period. (8)
Even for beginners, the generous amount allowed is far below what the average American wolfs down. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in the year 2000, the combined meat, poultry, and seafood consumed by each citizen over a year’s time was nearly 200 pounds. This puts the weekly average at 3.8 pounds, a solid 50 pounds more annually than Americans ate in the 1950s. (9)
Despite its designation as a flexible diet plan, the Flexitarian diet is presented in Blatner’s book with a 3-4-5 approach to breakfast, lunch and dinner. With suggestions for 300-calorie breakfasts, 400-calorie lunches, and 500-calorie dinners, along with a couple of snacks at about 150 calories each, the day’s allotment adds up to 1500 calories, adjustable for size and activity levels. (10)
If you want to stick with the flexible theme, chances are you can enjoy some great benefits from adopting the Flexitarian diet, including melting off some unwanted pounds.
Modern humans enjoy more food choices than ever before in history, and with that privilege comes the responsibility for making nutritional decisions to support long-term health and wellness goals. It can be tough to sort out the different offerings from experts whose opinions fall across the board.
Many popular approaches emphasize plenty of lean protein, and some believe our ancestors ate lots of meat. But new studies analyzing the dental calculus of prehistoric man suggest the menu 30,000 years ago may well have been heavier on plant foods than animal protein. (11)
If that’s the case, high-protein plans like the paleo diet could be way off base. Instead of gnawing on bones morning, noon and night, our ancestors may have traveled the Flexitarian diet route, eating mostly plant foods and building a roaring bonfire to roast the occasional animal kill.
Whatever they did back then, it’s up to you to decide what to do now. For all you know, you’re a Flexitarian at heart. Seize the moment.