What is the
Flexitarian Diet?

We often hear about the plant-based diet where only food from plants is eaten, or even the occasional pescatarian diet, which is that but also includes fish. What you may not have heard about is the
lesser-known “flexitarian diet.”

Flexitarianism is also sometimes referred to as “semi-vegetarianism.” This is because much like vegetarians, flexitarians also put an emphasis on trying to avoid animal products. However, flexitarians are much less strict.

The main diet of a flexitarian is also fruits and vegetables, but those on the diet are also allowed to have some select animal products. There are a few different reasons someone may be considering this diet and it is designed flexibly to fit where you are at in your dieting journey.

Why the Flexitarian Diet?

With the diet not fully committing to one side – either completely removing animal products from the diet or proceeding as normal – you may be wondering why people chose the flexitarian diet. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One reason someone may be taking the flexitarian diet approach is because they do want to fully remove animal products from their diet but they are not yet able to. Some people use the flexitarian diet as more of a transitional diet from their normal diet to vegetarianism or veganism. This way, they don’t have to fully jump into the new diet the right way and can take more time to make a final decision of whether or not to proceed with it. It enables you to make a change without the full commitment.

Another reason people choose the flexitarian diet is for overall health. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the flexitarian diet is listed in the U.S. News Best Diet Rankings as the “#2 Best Diet Overall,” following only the Mediterranean diet. Healthline suggests some of the benefits of this diet may be preventing cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. The diet may also help support weight
management with medications such as Mounjaro and Victoza.

How Does it Work?

Since the flexitarian diet is designed to be easier to adapt to than full vegetarian and vegan options, it also comes with different stages. Each stage becomes increasingly advanced, but never fully hits the strictness of full vegetarianism.
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Stage One

Stage one is for beginners. As a first step into the diet, those at this stage are supposed to refrain from eating meat two days out of the week.

For the remaining five days, you are allowed to eat meat but should limit it to no more than 28 ounces total.

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Stage Two

The second stage is for after you have been on the diet for a little while and are ready to limit weekly meat consumption a little more. Instead of only practicing a full vegetarian diet two days a week, it should be increased to three or four days. In the remaining days, meat once again is allowed to be eaten.

This time, however, no more than 18 ounces of meat should be consumed each week instead of 28 ounces.

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Stage Three

Stage three is the final stage of the flexitarian diet. At this stage, you try to maintain a full vegetarian diet five days per week at minimum. If you do eat meat on a couple of days, you are supposed to limit yourself to no more than 9 ounces per week total.

Another part of the diet is to take a “three-four-five” approach, according to Korin Miller of Women’s Health. This has to do with how many calories a day you consume while on the diet. In this approach, the goal is to have around 300 calories for breakfast, around 400 calories for lunch, and around 500
calories for dinner. Snacks should each stay around 150 calories. If you snack twice within a day, this should bring your daily caloric intake to about 1500 calories.

Flex Food Groups

As the name suggests, there are “flex” food groups within the flexitarian diet. These are designed to remind you of what foods you should try to be eating. There are five in total.

The first flex food group includes beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, tofu, eggs, and vegetarian substitutes for meats. The second group includes your fruits and vegetables. Grains, such as barley, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rice, wheat, and pasta, make up the third group. The final two flex food groups include dairy and natural flavor enhancers. These natural flavor enhancers include spices, seasonings, dressings, spreads, etc.

Those on the flexitarian diet try to stay within these five groups, however unlike vegetarianism or veganism, if the person found themself in a scenario where a meat product was involved they could still have it. The idea is to limit animal product intake rather than completely get rid of it from the diet.

As mentioned above, the flexitarian diet comes with three stages. A good place to start is stage one and then either set goals or enter the stages at your own pace. If the environment was a reason you started the diet, remember that even the small steps work towards that goal.

Research done for a study for the National Library of Medicine on the sustainability of plant-based diets says that switching from the average Western diet to flexitarian eating, where only some meat is replaced by plant foods, could decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 7%.

Whenever starting a new diet it is also beneficial to plan ahead of time and try to grocery shop in advance. This could lead to less need for temptations later down the line. If you are just starting the flexitarian diet, maybe try looking up some recipes online for alternatives to foods with meat you already love. The diet is divided into stages for a reason. It is designed to grow with you, so you can experiment with it and have fun. This will make for a much smoother transition.

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Foods to Eat

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Vegetables

Vegetables are essential to the flexitarian diet. Not only are they healthy and have many to choose from, but there are many creative ways of substituting other common foods with plant variations. For example, you could substitute some common grain foods, like pasta noodles and white rice, with zoodles and cauliflower rice. You could also try plant-based meat substitutes for some other common foods like burgers and chicken tenders. Vegetables are also great for any diet on their own as a snack side dish.

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Fruits

Everyone has a sweet tooth sometimes. Adding fruits to your diet plan can help with this. Fruits are sweet and contain their own type of natural sugars. While helping curve your sweet tooth, fruits also are packed with nutrients, fiber, and water. It will help you remain hydrated and feel full.
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Whole and Ancient Grains

Whole grains are more beneficial to add to your diet than refined grains. These provide fiber and other
nutrients. Some examples include black, brown, or wild rice, oatmeal, popcorn, and whole wheat. Some of the best grains to choose from are “ancient grains.” These types of grains are much less processed and provide a lot of health benefits due to their high vitamin, mineral, and fiber content. Some examples include amaranth, quinoa, farro, rye, barley, and millet.

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Eggs and Dairy

Flexitarians are not vegans. Since flexitarians are still able to eat animal products besides meat, incorporating eggs and dairy into your diet can also prove to be beneficial. In addition to substituting certain protein foods with plant-based protein, you can also try adding eggs to the diet. This is a great way to get some extra protein without eating meat or having to look for a substitute option.

Adding dairy to the diet also has many benefits. Dairy helps make bones in the body stronger because it is packed with calcium and vitamin D. As long as you aren’t lactose intolerant, adding milk, cheese, yogurt, or other dairy products to your diet is a great way to get some extra nutrients.

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Add Flavor

Don’t forget about those herbs, oils, and spices. One of the parts that could be difficult about starting a new diet is adjusting to new – and sometimes more bland – flavors.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Experimenting with new foods and adding oils, herbs, and spices can make all the difference in taste. Try adding these things to cooked vegetables or plant-based meat alternatives.

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Meat

Remember, while it is good to find substitutes for common meat products, the flexitarian diet is about entirely cutting meat from your diet (in most cases).

Cut down on weekly meat consumption, but you can also plan ahead of time and incorporate it into your diet depending on what stage you are at and how much meat you are allowing yourself to have. To keep your diet extra healthy, also try to avoid having a lot of sugar and refined carbohydrates.

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Iron-Rich Foods

One more thing to remember is that lowering your meat intake may put you at greater risk for iron deficiency. This is where a lot of that first flex group comes in. To avoid later issues, like becoming anemic, make sure you are keeping enough iron in your diet. Some iron-rich foods to include are beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, eggs, and certain vegetables.

To maximize iron absorption, Healthline suggests consuming vegetables cooked with vitamin C-rich foods since their iron content is more difficult to absorb. Some of the vegetables with the most iron content include broccoli, oyster mushrooms, brussel sprouts,
potatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, sweet potatoes, swiss chard, and beet greens.

Conclusion

No foods are off-limits with the flexitarian diet, but there are some recommendations. Simply put you should eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, plant-based proteins, eggs, dairy, oils, herbs, spices, and some meat. What you should avoid are foods in excess. This includes excess meat, sugary foods, and refined carbs.

If you are looking to make a healthy change to your diet with reduced environmental impact and don’t want to make the full commitment to vegetarianism, the flexitarian diet may be for you. This diet allows you to make changes at your own pace and reduce your meat intake without ever having to fully cut it from your diet. Even if you are looking at making the full jump towards a vegetarian diet, the flexitarian diet can be a great stepping stone to transition over.

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