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Flexitarian Diet: Benefits, What to Eat, What to Avoid

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What is The Flexitarian Diet?

The Flexitarian Diet is a method of eating which encourages consuming more plant-based foods. It differs from vegetarian and vegan methods in that it allows consumption of meat and other animal products in low amounts. People are often discouraged from pursuing a vegetarian or vegan diet as they are not sure whether they can follow a diet with such strong restrictions. However, the Flexitarian Diet is designed to help people enjoy the benefits provided by vegetarian meals while still allowing them to consume meat and other animal products from time to time (x).

Dawn Jackson Blatner is the originator of this diet (x). It works differently from what we know of our usual diets. Instead of looking at what we need to remove from our diet, this gives us the ability to search for foods we can healthily add to it. This inclusive nature of the Flexitarian Diet has contributed to its popularity and one of the reasons many people have started consuming less meat (x).

Environmental Impact of Consuming Animal Products

Research indicates that avoiding meat and dairy products can make a significant change to an individual’s environmental impact. Farming does a lot of damage to the earth. With over 26 percent of the ice-free land area of the planet being used for livestock grazing and 33 percent of croplands for livestock feed production, it is easy to see how meat farming has a greater impact (x). Deforestation for agriculture is one of the major reasons for many species facing extinction (x).

A study conducted in 2018 at Oxford university found that meat and dairy accounts for 37 percent protein consumed, but are responsible for 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, livestock accounts for 86 percent of all land animals (x). This means the tiniest impact on meat could cause the highest level of harm to our environment (x).

A diet that contains less meat and dairy products can help the planet greatly. It will help with reducing food-related greenhouse gas emissions and also deal with eutrophication, use of land and water and global acidification (x).

This does not mean that the entire global population needs to turn vegan. Consuming meat infrequently and in moderation can help a lot. Besides this, if the majority of the population starts consuming more fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods, more farming areas will need to be devoted to this instead of livestock. Cultivating does not require nearly as many resources as rearing animals does (x, x).

Benefits of a Flexitarian Diet

There are several possible health benefits of maintaining a Flexitarian Diet. Some studies show that those who follow a meatless diet have an improved immune system (x). However, it should also be kept in mind that consuming a lot of refined foods can have negative health effects overall. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of following a Flexitarian Diet.

Heart Health

Foods that contain healthy fat and those that are rich in fiber are good for the heart. Vegetarians are less likely to have heart disease when compared to meat eaters (x). Vegetarian and Flexitarian Diets are usually rich in fiber. They also contain antioxidants that help in reducing blood pressure and ensure that the cholesterol stays at an optimal level (x, x).

Weight Loss

A Flexitarian Diet is a good way to monitor your caloric intake. The diet tends to contain more plant-based foods, which are naturally low in calories. This means that you can eat more volume — and feel fuller — while maintaining a lower calorie load, which can help in reducing your weight. It is believed that people who follow a plant-based diet tend to lose more weight than those who do not follow such a diet. And since the Flexitarian Diet is closer to a vegetarian diet and minimizes processed foods, it should be helpful in losing weight (x, x).

Cancer Prevention

Cancer is one of the most dangerous diseases known to humankind. There are many types of cancer, some treatable and some of them terminal. It is important to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle in order to avoid this disease. Vegetables, fruits, seeds, whole grains and nuts all have antioxidants which help in preventing cancer. Hence, incorporating all of these in your diet may help reduce the risk of cancer (x, x).

Diabetes Prevention

Diabetes has been a global problem for a long time now. The best way to prevent it from happening is to ensure that you follow a nutritional and balanced diet with less sugar. The Flexitarian Diet is innately high in fiber and low in sugar, both of which help in managing and preventing the disease. Generally, it is believed that the rate of type 2 diabetes is lower in flexitarians or semi-vegetarians when compared to those who eat meat or non-vegetarians (x, x).

Longer Life

Those who follow a Flexitarian Diet generally tend to live a bit longer than those who are meat-eaters. This could be due to the fact that eating less processed foods and sugar decreases the chances of many diseases and disorders (x).

Benefits of Flexitarian Diet

What to Eat on a Flexitarian Diet

As a flexitarian, you will have to consume a lot more plant-based foods and meals which are minimally processed. Let’s have a look at what types of food a flexitarian can consume.

  • Fruits and Vegetables
  • Legumes and Grains
  • Meat substitutes
  • Limited red-meats and animal products (eggs and dairy)

If you are heavily reliant on meat in your diet, the first few months might be tough while you change diets, but it is not impossible. There are many types of food that you will be able to enjoy. One thing to keep in mind is that you are not completely stopping the consumption of meat — you are just limiting it.

Proteins

For a source of proteins, look to tofu, soybeans, lentils and legumes. All of these are full of proteins and will help you substitute the proteins which you gain from meat-based foods (x).

Vegetables and Fruits

Vegetables such as bell peppers, brussels sprouts, green beans, cauliflower and carrots can help when you want to have less starchy food. On the other hand, you will be able to find starch in vegetables, such as corn, sweet potato, peas and winter squash. Most fruits are good on the flexitarian diet, but specifically apples, berries, oranges, grapes and cherries (x).

Fat

In terms of fat, it is advisable to consume healthy fats such as almonds, flax seeds, chia seeds, cashews, avocados, olives, coconut, pistachios and peanut butter. Unsweetened hemp, oat and rice milk are options for plant-based dairy products (x).

Meat

Since the Flexitarian Diet also allows consumption of meat, it is advisable to consume products that are free-range or wild-caught. For example, when you want to have fish, choose wild-caught fish that are fresh and have not been processed. Opt for meat that has been grass-fed and eggs which are free-range. Meat substitutes are also a good idea (x).

What to Avoid on a Flexitarian Diet

Processed Foods

Besides limiting the consumption of meat, this diet also restricts processed foods and foods containing a high amount of sugar. Processed meats like sausage, bologna and bacon should be avoided as well. Red meats are discouraged (x).

Sugar and fast-foods

Foods containing a lot of sugar, such as cakes, soda, candy and cookies should be avoided as well. The food from fast-food restaurants is highly processed and should not be consumed under the Flexitarian Diet. This includes burgers, milkshakes and fries (x).

Refined Carbohydrates

Besides processed foods and sugar, there is one more thing to be careful about — foods containing refined carbs. This includes white rice, bagels and white bread (x).

Supplements to Support a Flexitarian Diet

Although there are millions out there practicing vegetarian, vegan and Flexitarian Diets and living a healthy lifestyle, nutrient deficiency is a possible concern for those who are used to consuming meat and dairy products. Cutting back on meat could lead to health issues for some people (x, x). For this reason, supplements can be helpful.

Zinc

Zinc is important for immunity, body repair and metabolism. Insufficient levels of zinc in the body can lead to developmental problems, hair loss, delayed wound healing and diarrhea. Taking a zinc supplement can help to support the body when diet is not sufficient.

Taking too much may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, metallic taste, kidney and stomach damage in some people. If any of these side effects surface, you should stop taking the supplement and speak to a doctor.

Iron

Iron is required to form new DNA and red blood cells. Taking an iron supplement can be beneficial to those who cannot access it easily in their diet, and as meat is a primary source of iron, flexitarians and other meat exclusionary dieters may need to supplement.

Side effects of iron supplementation can include constipation or diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, stomach pain, dark stool or headache.

Vitamin B12

Since vitamin B12 is only found in meat and other animal products, it is advised that those following a flexitarian or other diet that does not include these products should instead start using B12 supplements. B12 is important for many functions of the body, including the formation of red blood cells. A deficiency of B12 can also lead to infertility, bone disease and heart disease.

Too much B12 supplement can lead to headache, dizziness, nausea, anxiety and vomiting.

Calcium

The body cannot make calcium on its own, and therefore must take it in from an outside source. Calcium is necessary for bone density and health. Additionally, having the correct levels can assist in supporting nerves, heart and muscle health. Calcium is ingested through foods, but is readily available as a supplement.

Excessive calcium levels can cause constipation, nausea, confusion, muscle weakness, bone pain, tiredness, intense thirst or increased urination.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega 3 fatty acids help your brain and eyes function, as well as support joint and heart health. These can be found in fish, though on the Flexitarian Diet these opportunities are limited, therefore gaining them from a supplement may be preferable.

No official recommended daily dose exists, so you can take guidance from your doctor or follow instructions on the label.

When levels of omega 3 fatty acids are too high, it can cause diarrhea, stomach upset and bloating. If itchiness, swelling, or rash occur, this can indicate an allergic reaction and a doctor should be contacted immediately.

The Bottom Line

The Flexitarian Diet places an emphasis on consumption of plant-based foods and intake of plant proteins instead of meat and dairy products. Besides limiting the consumption of meat, the diet also discourages processed foods, carbs and sugar. Those following this diet are free to continue eating meat and other animal and dairy products but in moderation.

The Flexitarian Diet has a lot of benefits — both health and environmental. Health-wise, it helps regulate your blood sugar levels, ensures your heart is healthy, helps reduce the risk of cancer and aids with weight loss. Environmentally, it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and so much more. To ensure you reap the best benefits, plan your Flexitarian Diet properly and in a manner that ensures you receive all the nutrients your body needs. When diet is not able to provide enough of any one nutrient, supplementation is possible — commonly vitamin B12, zinc, iron, calcium, and omega 3 fatty acids are needed by those on restrictive diets.

About the author

Sukriti Taneja


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