In January, U.S. News released its report on the best diet for 2023, and once again, the flexitarian diet was near the top of the list for best diets overall. It tied with the popular DASH diet and was surpassed only by the Mediterranean diet. In addition, it earned the top billing in both the easiest-to-follow and the family-friendly categories. Not only is this a simple daily diet, but it is also exceptionally easy to adjust to consider other dietary needs. As there are no specific specialty ingredients needed, it also tends to be less expensive than more restrictive dietary plans might be.
What Is the Flexitarian Diet?
The word flexitarian is a mash-up of the words flexible and vegetarian. It’s used to describe the diet of an individual who eats mostly plant-based foods but allows themselves the flexibility to eat meat occasionally. It’s also sometimes called a semi-vegetarian or a casual vegetarian diet. It is a relatively new category of diet recently popularized by registered dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner in her 2009 book The Flexitarian Diet.
While the term flexitarian has been bandied about since the late 1990s, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it started to become popular. Blatner’s book on the subject was the first to give readers clear instructions on getting the maximum benefits from the diet. As described by Blatner, the flexitarian diet emphasizes the health benefits of eating a diet higher in vegetables, legumes, and whole grains but isn’t as restrictive as a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Recommendations over Rules
One of the greatest advantages of the flexitarian diet is its flexibility. It doesn’t have any precise rules. No specific food or categories are off limits, there are no times that are off limits for eating, and calorie counting only applies if you are trying to lose or gain weight. However, many suggestions and recommendations are available on how to use the principles of a flexitarian diet to improve your health through the food you consume.
A flexitarian diet is more of a lifestyle choice than a weight-loss diet. However, adopting the semi-vegetarian principles it follows can lead to shedding excess fat over time, especially when chosen over a non-vegetarian diet. This is due to several factors. A flexitarian diet tends to be lower in saturated fats and processed foods than a non-vegetarian diet. It also has a higher fiber content due to the inclusion of more beans, nuts, and seeds as protein sources.
DJ Blatner considers there to be three levels of the flexitarian diet. The beginner level starts at just two meatless days per week, while the advanced level flexitarian limits their meat intake to three or four days a week. Flexitarians at the expert level spend at least five out of seven days without meat. This makes it easier to ease into the diet without feeling deprived.
When selecting and cooking meats to add to your flexitarian diet, nutritionists have several suggestions for making healthy choices. These include:
- Choose leaner cuts
- Consider grass-fed, free-range, and organic meats
- Eat less red meat
- Eat more seafood
- Limit or avoid processed meats
- Remove the skin
- Watch your portions
The Complex Carbs Conundrum
Replacing meat with sugars and complex carbohydrates places a high metabolic load on the body, leading to chronically elevated blood sugar levels. Eating excess carbohydrates, especially complex carbohydrates, can lead to a host of physical maladies, including:
- Decreased mental acuity
- Dental cavities
- Energy crashes
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Weight gain
Proponents of this diet are quick to state that new adopters should be cautious about replacing meat with too many sugars or complex carbohydrates. The intent is to increase the proportion of the diet comprising healthy nutrient-rich vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. This helps to increase dietary fiber, improve gut health, and reduce inflammation.
Due to its flexibility, the flexitarian diet has very few drawbacks, but no nutritional plan is perfect for everyone. The primary consideration with a flexitarian diet is ensuring you get all the vitamins and minerals you need, even at the expert stages. Nutrition deficiencies can be countered by adding slightly more meat into the diet, adding more plant-based foods rich in the deficient nutrient, or utilizing supplements.
Other Limited Meat Diets
Although the flexitarian diet has received a lot of press lately, it isn’t the only plant-based diet that includes meat. The reasons for choosing one of these diets are many and can include animal welfare, environmental impact, allergies or sensitivities to meats, or general health benefits.
Reducetarian and demitarian diets are similar in nature to the flexitarian diet in that they are mostly plant-based, with the inclusion of meat on an occasional basis. Both diets focus more on environmental impact and animal welfare than on the dieter’s health.
People who adhere to a pescetarian diet add fish and seafood to an otherwise vegetarian diet but consume no other meat products.
A vegetarian diet with the addition of poultry meat, but no other meats, is called pollotarianism.
A flexitarian diet encourages people to eat primarily plant-based foods while allowing them to incorporate meat into their meals occasionally. This dietary choice promotes personal health and well-being, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. Overall, it offers a healthy and practical alternative for individuals who would like to adopt a plant-based lifestyle but struggle with the restrictions of a vegetarian or vegan diet.