The Flexitarian Diet: How Dietary Flexibility Boasts Unrivaled Benefits For Your Health (And The World)

In a world of extremes, there’s a uniquely balanced nutritional approach that offers you a lengthy list of benefits. Allow us to introduce you to the flexitarian diet.

November 15, 2017
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Considering all of the compelling evidence on the benefits of reducing meat consumption, it comes as no surprise that the percentage of individuals swearing off animal products is increasing. These days, many popular media platforms are boasting tips and tricks that can make the switch easier.

Despite this trend, some of us may find making the leap from carnivorous consumer to plant enthusiast a bit too drastic—and quite honestly, overwhelming. Well, what if there was an approach carefully crafted for individuals like us that landed somewhere in the middle? The best of both worlds, so to speak?

As it turns out, there is. And it’s called the flexitarian diet.

Flexitarianism is a blending of the words “flexible” and “vegetarianism.” As such, according to a review by public health nutritionist Emma Derbyshire published in Frontiers in Nutrition, someone who follows this diet is “primarily but not strictly vegetarian,” meaning that they may occasionally eat meat or fish. Another name for this cohort is semi-vegetarian, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. The growing trend towards a flexitarian diet is indicative of the increasing number of consumers who have been dubbed “meat-reducers.”

More specifically, individuals following semi-vegetarian diets have been defined as those who limit their meat intake at least three days a week, as opposed to consuming a traditional American diet that includes meat in every meal.

How Does Flexitarianism Compare?

This approach is vastly different from standard vegetarianism and veganism because of the continued inclusion of meat in flexitarians’ diets. According to Derbyshire’s review, the majority of individuals following the flexitarian diet consider the health effects and ethical sides of meat consumption but also view meat an important source of vital micronutrients.

This differs distinctly from the aforementioned diets, in that those who adhere to strict vegetarianism remove all meat, poultry, and fish from their diets. In most cases, these food sources aren’t “allowed.” However, within the realm of vegetarianism, there are several common subcategories that still have room for an individual who chooses to continue consuming either fish (pesco), milk (lacto), eggs (ovo), or both milk and eggs (lacto–ovo).

A vegan, on the other hand, is someone who eliminates all animal and animal-derived products from both their diet and lifestyle. The Vegan Society defines veganism as a way of living that aims to eliminate all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty for any purpose. This approach focuses on purely plant-based nutrition, and its overarching goal is to avoid all animal foods, animal byproducts, and any products tested on animals.

It’s clear that flexitarianism offers an approach that is far less restrictive, and for many, significantly more feasible.

Meet the founder of Flexitarianism

Dawn Jackson Blatner was the powerhouse registered dietician nutritionist who first expanded on the concept of flexitarianism in her cookbook The Flexitarian Diet, which raised the public’s awareness about this approach. She had been vegetarian for over 10 years but occasionally ate meat. She established the diet to simultaneously take advantage of the wide-reaching benefits of a plant-based diet and reduce the shame sometimes associated with being anything less than perfect when it comes to eating habits.

Her philosophy is “Eat more plants, and do the best you can.” Through her cookbook and guided meal plans in The Flexitarian Diet, she celebrates this healthy approach as “an inclusive eating plan.” She’s found that the less restrictive diet allows individuals to introduce far more play into their meals.

At the end of the day, we can all use a little more flexibility in our lives, and one of the best perks of this diet is the stress-free reduction in meat consumption that will allow you to enjoy a full life while also harnessing the expansive health and environmental benefits of eating less meat.

The Health Risks of Eating Meat

No matter what type of consumer you may be (or want to be), the effects of heavy meat consumption are clear. Numerous studies have provided research on the increased risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancers associated with red meat. In fact, in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic” and processed meat as carcinogenic to humans. The literature review that led to these conclusions evidenced a definitive link between red meat consumption and colon and colorectal cancer specifically.

In regard to overall mortality, one study found a direct relationship between the hazard ratio of mortality and increasing ingestion of red meat. This means that consumption of larger quantities of red meat was correlated directly with significantly higher mortality risks.

When researchers examined mortality from cardiovascular disease in particular, they found an 18 to 21 percent increase in “cardiovascular mortality” associated with increased consumption of red meat.

And, ladies, take note: The risk was higher for the women in this study than for men! For coronary artery disease alone, the average risk jumped to a massive 42 percent when individuals consumed only 1.7 ounces of processed meat per day. Terrifying, right?

Well, there’s hope—and vegetarians are paving the way. According to the review, the risk of death as a result of coronary heart disease is 29 percent lower for vegetarians than it is for those who eat meat. In fact, even the risk of developing cancer is 18 percent lower for those who adhere to a vegetarian diet.

Eating Our Way to a Better World

The effects of meat consumption are far from limited to human health. In efforts to keep up with the typical American diet and growing population, animal agriculture has exponentially increased, and many of us are concerned by the fact that this is at the cost of animal rights and environmental sustainability.

Before diving into the impact meat consumption has on carbon footprints and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), let’s quickly cover what those are. According to a resource from University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, a carbon footprint is the total calculated gas emission caused by an individual, organization, event, or product. These gas emissions have the ability to trap heat in the atmosphere, thus increasing the potential for global warming. Logically, we want to reduce our carbon footprints as much as possible, right?

Well, the production of food accounts for 83 percent of GHG emissions. That’s compared to the lesser 11 percent caused by transportation, despite traffic and car exhaust often getting the worst rap. Meat products have larger carbon footprints than grain or vegetable products, and much of this is due to agricultural practices. To put it into perspective, cattle, sheep, and goats produce 164 million metric tons of emissions per year! Yes, you read that right—hundreds of millions of metric tons. Now, compare this to the estimated 81 million metric tons of emissions accounted for by transportation. Despite the millions of Americans who own cars and spend roughly 45 minutes driving per day, the carbon dioxide emission of our commutes is still only half of the estimated emissions caused by animal agriculture.

Not only are we putting ourselves at risk; we’re jeopardizing our world as well. Again, flexitarians and plant-based foodies are onto something. Of course, eliminating meat and embracing a vegetarian or vegan diet significantly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint, but even changing the type of meat you consume can have a notable impact. Switching from beef to chicken (and kicking those carcinogens goodbye) decreases an individual’s carbon footprint by 882 pounds, and doing so as a semi-vegetarian only furthers this reduction.

Let’s talk Flexitarian Benefits.

In addition to the reduction in serious health concerns, women maintaining a flexitarian diet have been shown to maintain a significantly lower body weight and percentage of body fat compared to their meat-eating counterparts, according to Derbyshire’s review. Research has demonstrated an incremental reduction in these measures as individuals implemented more animal-based dietary restrictions. Accordingly, vegans had the lowest measures of those examined. Much of this is due to the emphasis vegan diets put on on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which aren’t considered calorically dense. Many semi-vegetarians find themselves feeling fuller on fewer calories than they’re used to. By pairing this deficit with regular exercise, an individual can more easily kick the extra pounds.

The flexitarian approach also puts a great deal of emphasis on whole-person integration. Individuals following the diet are encouraged to take a look at both their diets and their activity levels, adjusting each as necessary for the best health outcomes. A nutritional perk of semi-vegetarianism is the previously noted concentration on plants and whole food sources, which is similar to the approaches of vegetarianism and veganism.

For flexitarians, consumption of many of the harmful substances in meat is drastically reduced and an influx of body-loving micronutrients can take their place. These micronutrients take the form of an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and fiber in the healthy plant-based foods you can opt for as a flexitarian. Keep in mind, however, that while plant-based foods offer top-tier nutrition, this is not always true for meat alternatives in general. For example, you’ll see a clear difference when looking at the ingredient label on a can of black beans versus a bag of meatless “chicken” strips.

Overall, being conscious when transitioning into a flexitarian diet means you can maintain a far more balanced and sustainable diet with a few simple meat tweaks. For continued health benefits, be sure you don’t neglect your exercise! In regards to proper training, 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week is advised, or an individual can sub this with intense exercise for 20 minutes, three times per week. Crossfit WODs, ladies?

Above all else, flexitarianism homes in on one key practice: flexibility. You won’t have to sit out during family get-togethers or worry about enjoying a meal on your weekly date night. You don’t have to give up meat entirely, which can afford you a much-needed sense of freedom in your health choices that you may not get with other approaches.

The goal of this diet is to minimize stress and maximize living, especially when it comes to health and wellness. One of the most alluring factors of flexitarianism is the opportunity it gives individuals to to embrace a new diet—and ultimately a new mode of living—without shutting the door on any possible areas of enjoyment.

What to Eat on the Flexitarian Diet

Blatner identifies three levels within flexitarianism, all of which give individuals structure and guidelines for thinking about their dietary choices, ultimately contributing to overall ease of going flexitarian.

As a beginner, an individual keeps two days completely meatless each week. During this time, estimated weekly meat or poultry consumption would be about 26 ounces.

Someone who identifies as advanced would have three or four  meatless days per week and consume a weekly total of about 18 ounces of meat or poultry.

The third level, expert, calls for five meatless days per week and a weekly total consumption of approximately 9 ounces of meat or poultry.

Naturally, meat consumption, negative health effects, and an individual’s carbon footprint all decrease as they progress into an increasingly flexitarian diet. The one thing that should be avoided altogether is processed red meat due to the serious risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mortality its consumption poses. Friends, that bacon isn’t worth your health and safety.

As Blatner mentions, this diet is all about what’s added! Specifically, there are five food groups whose incorporation is emphasized in a semi-vegetarian diet. These are non-meat protein sources, plants, whole grains, dairy, and spices. Because limited animal sources allowed, flexitarian protein sources consist mainly of tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, and eggs. With a huge emphasis on plant-based preparations, new fruits and veggies will also find their way into your kitchen. Take a look at these nutrient-dense powerhouses you can consider adding into your diet.

Tofu

Soy gets a bad rap. The truth is, anything in excess is harmful. The same is true of soy, and tofu is essentially a curd made of mashed soybeans. It’s a great plant-based protein alternative, especially when considering its extreme adaptability. When opting for soy, keep your daily consumption below 25 to 30g (which is about three 3-ounce servings) per day to prevent hormonal imbalances, and buy organic, sprouted forms whenever possible.. Tofu also contains antinutrients, which are compounds in plants that reduce the absorption of nutrients in the digestive system. Those specific to tofu are trypsin inhibitors, phytates, and lectins. Sprouting the soybeans, though, considerably reduces these antinutrients and increases soy’s protein content.

Tempeh

A second soy-based product that will likely find its way into your flexitarian diet is tempeh. As with tofu, look for organic brands to keep your soy consumption clean. Instead of being made of mashed soybeans, tempeh offers a less processed alternative and has a wildly different texture from tofu. The whole soybean remains intact, and fermenting the ingredients helps maintain its cake-like shape. As an added bonus, this fermentation also helps reduce the aforementioned antinutrients. Whereas tofu absorbs the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with, tempeh tends to maintain a noticeably nutty flavor.

Lentils

Lentils are another common staple of  vegetarian and vegan diets, with a nearly 1:2 protein-to-carbohydrate ratio. Similar to quinoa, lentils’ high levels of soluble fiber help regulate cholesterol and blood sugar levels. The soluble fiber in lentils has also been shown to help with irritable bowel syndrome. You can think of lentils’ slow breakdown as an increase in slow-burning energy, which is always a plus in our busy lives. They’re perfect mixed into curry and pasta dishes. Combining them with stewed tomatoes and herbs makes a tasty bolognese.

Quinoa

Quinoa is the holy grail of whole grains. It’s one of the most protein-rich plant-based foods. It has all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein as well. It has almost twice the amount of fiber as most other grains, which, like lentils, helps lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It’s also high in iron, lysine, magnesium, riboflavin, and manganese—all of which you can serve up in one of the tiniest grains! Quinoa is insanely versatile; it’s a great ingredient to mix into both sweet and savory bowls to satisfy your changing cravings.

Steps to Becoming a Flexitarian

So, you have the background, the details, and the drive. Now where do you begin?

  • Start with a kitchen overhaul!

Beginning your journey into flexitarianism will take some planning and prep work, but you’ll quickly experience the sense of ease Blatner boasts about. Take a look at your typical meal plan and start to strategize.

  • Reducing Meat Consumption

Breakfast is the most common meal to go meatless, so perhaps you can move onto lunch as well. Then, when looking at the week in a glance, choose two full days that will be entirely plant-based. Bring on the veggies! Making weekdays meatless may be a bit easier at first, so you’re not tempted to stray during girls’ night out for apps and karaoke.

  • Find some Fun, Flexitarian Recipes

Make a list of new items you have to pick up from the store, and limit the amount of meat you buy. One key to success for any dieter: Don’t keep anything tempting in the house! Why maintain a fridge that’s overstocked with animal protein? Instead, opt for calculating how many total ounces you’ll need for the week and only purchase that amount. When it comes to meaty items, look for grass-fed, organic, and (if possible) local options—all of which will continue to reduce your carbon footprint and amount of pesticides you could be ingesting. Choose mainly white meat, such as poultry or fish, over red meat for additional benefits.

  • Mixing it up with Meat-Free Substitutes

For all of your meat-free meals, mix up your subs to keep the variety alive. Tofu and tempeh are two of the most common alternatives, with seitan and jackfruit following close behind. Pair them with beans, lentils, and healthy fats for hearty, well-balanced meals. Need a few ideas? Look no further!

Check out these creative chefs and deliciously vegetarian recipes:

Coconut Curry Vegan Ramen

Pesto Green Eggs and Avocado Toast

Vegan Chili Bowls

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