The Health Benefits and Risks of the Flexitarian Diet

Flexitarian is a combination of the words vegetarian and flexible. Often referred to as casual vegetarianism, it is an increasingly popular diet that focuses on reducing your carbon footprint and improving your health. Unlike most vegetarian diets, the flexitarian diet does not avoid animal products entirely. This makes it more desirable and easier to follow. For example, you can go out and enjoy a dinner with friends or to an event without worrying about having a vegetarian alternative.

Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner created this diet in 2009 to help people get the benefits of vegetarian eating while still allowing them to eat animal products in moderation. This diet has no clear-cut rules and does not focus on calorie counting or monitoring macronutrients. The flexitarian diet involves eating mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. A majority of the protein in this diet comes from plants rather than animals. Additionally, this diet limits processed foods and added sugars or sweets. This diet is popular because of its flexible nature and focus on what to include rather than what to restrict. Overall, the goal of this diet is to eat mostly vegetables and fruits as many times per day as possible.

What You Can Eat

The growing popularity of this diet is due to its flexibility. Most people are not willing or able to cut meat out of their meals. The flexitarian diet is a great alternative and provides relatively the same benefits as a vegetarian diet without the restrictions. There are no foods that are off limits with this diet. However, the main goal is to add more plant-based foods to your meals while also reducing your meats. Dawn Blanter defined a beginner flexitarian as someone who has two meatless days and 26 ounces of meat per week. An advanced flexitarian is someone who has three to four meatless days 18 ounces of meat per week. An expert flexitarians has 5 or more meatless days and 9 ounces of meat per week. Flexitarians eat the following foods:

cashew nut lot on blue ceramic bowl. Flexitarian protein source. Flexitarian Diet.
  • Proteins: Soybeans, tofu, tempeh, legumes, lentils.
  • Non-starchy vegetables: Greens, bell peppers, brussel sprouts, green beans, carrots, cauliflower.
  • Starchy vegetables: Winter squash, peas, corn sweet potato.
  • Fruits: Apples, oranges, berries, grapes, cherries.
  • Whole grains: quinoa, teff, buckwheat, farro.
  • Nuts, seeds: Almonds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, cashews, peanut butter, coconut.
  • Plant-based milk alternatives: Almond, coconut, cashew, or soy milk.

The following are the foods to minamize:

  • Processed meats: Bacon, sausage, bologna.
  • Refined carbs: White bread, white rice, bagels, croissants.
  • Added sugar and sweets: Soda, donuts, cakes, cookies, candy.
  • Fast Food: Fries, burgers, chicken nuggets, milkshakes.

Possible Health Benefits

There are several health benefits of the flexitarian diet. However, since there is no defined criteria for this diet, it can be hard to assess its benefits. However, research shows that flexitarian diets have the same benefits of vegan or vegetarian diets but to a lesser extreme.

Heart Disease

Studies have confirmed that diets high in fibers and healthy fats help improve your heart health1. Fiber’s role in improving your heart health is stems from its ability to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol. The flexitarian diet is richer in fiber because it prioritizes fruits and vegetables.

Small amounts of fat in your diet is important for your heart health. Monounsaturated fats have improve your blood cholesterol levels and polyunsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol levels2. The flexitarian diet is rich in health fats because the majority of the protein comes from nuts and seeds which are higher in mono and polyunsaturated fats.

Weight Loss

The flexitarian diet limits high calorie and processed foods in order to prioritize plant foods that are lower in calories. Studies show that a semi vegetarian diet helps lower your body weight, BMI, and body fat percentage3. Additionally, a study showed that semi-vegetarians had lower rates of obesity compared to non-vegetarians4. The flexitarian diet can promote weight loss because it focuses on nutrient dense low calorie foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and soy.

Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes has become a global health epidemic, specifically in older adults. Diet and lifestyle changes are effective tools for managing and preventing type 2 diabetes. The flexitarian diet helps reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes because of its focus on legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and discouragement of animal products. This diet contains foods high in fiber and low in unhealthy fats and added sugars which helps prevent and manage diabetes. A study of over 60,000 participants confirm that the flexitarian diet lowers the prevalence of type 2 diabetes5. Additionally, research shows that those who follow flexitarian diets have lower blood sugar levels than those eating more animal products6.

Cancer

Eating too much red and processed meats can increase your risk of cancer. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes all have nutrients and antioxidants that help prevent cancer. Research has suggested that vegetarian diets are associated with a lower overall risk of all cancers, but specifically colorectal cancers. A 7 year study concluded that flexitarians were 8% less likely to get colorectal cancer compared to non-vegetarians7.

Digestive Health

The flexitarian diet contains foods that are higher in fiber than traditional meals. This helps you stay fuller for longer, helping you control your weight. Maintaining a healthy weight has many benefits from a digestive standpoint and can prevent digestive problems, such as acid reflux. Additionally, the extra fiber keeps foods and waste moving smoothly throughout your system. This helps prevent both constipation and diarrhea. The flexitarian diet aids in the treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease8.

Potential Side Effects of the Flexitarian Diet

The flexitarian diet requires a lot of planning to ensure you are getting all your micro and macronutrients. This diet can put you at risk of being nutrient deficient if you cut out meats and don’t replace it with plant alternatives. Reducing you meant intake can make you deficient in vitamin B12, zinc, Iron, and calcium. If your diet is well planned you will get enough of all the nutrients your body requires.

Flexitarian Meal Options

The following are some ideas you could use to start your own flexitarian meal plan.

Breakfast

  1. Steel-cut oats with apples flaxseed, and cinnamon.
  2. Whole-grain toast with avocado and eggs.
  3. Coconut yogurt with bananas and walnuts.
  4. Almond milk smoothie with spinach, peanut butter, and frozen berries.
  5. Greek yogurt with blueberries and pumpkin seeds.
  6. Eggs with sauteed veggies and fruit salad.
  7. Tofu scrambled with mixed veggies and spices.

Lunch

  1. Salad with greens, shrimp, corn, black beans, and avocado.
  2. Burrito bowl with brown rice, beans, and vegetables.
  3. Whole-grain wrap with hummus, vegetables, and chickpeas.
  4. Kale caesar salad with lentils and tomato soup
  5. Chard wraps with mixed veggies and peanut dipping sauce
  6. peanut butter sandwich with crushed berries on whole-grain bread.
  7. Quinoa salad with dried cranberries, pecans, and feta cheese.

Dinner

Flexitarian Dinner: Lentil Stew.
  • Lentil soup with whole grain bread and a side salad.
  • zucchini noodles with tomato sauce and white beans.
  • Grilled Salmon , baked sweet potato, and green beans.
  • Baked chicken, quinoa, and roasted cauliflower.
  • Lentil stew and a side salad.
  • Black bean burgers with avocado and sweet potato fries.
  • Stuffed bell peppers with ground turkey and a side salad.

The flexitarian diet is very simple and easy to follow. Additionally, it’s flexibility makes it easy to be committed to. The main purpose of this died it to limit your consumption of meat while focusing on nutrient dense plant-based foods. Some people eat more meat, others eat less. As long as you are eating more vegetables with every meal, and getting more of your protein from plant based sources you are on the right track.

Conclusion

The flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diet focuses on healthier sources of protein. Additionally, this diet limits the intake of sugars and processed foods. Eating flexitarian may help you reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer, help you lose weight, and even prevent or manage your diabetes. Finally, reducing your meat intake can reduce your overall carbon footprint.

If you think the flexitarian diet is right for you, ensure that you draft a meal plan. Reducing your meat intake can put you at risk of nutrient deficiencies. However, if properly planned the flexitarian diet can provide you with all the nutrients your body to be healthy.

References

  1. Hu FB. Plant-based foods and prevention of cardiovascular disease: an overview. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003;78(3):544S-551S. doi:10.1093/ajcn/78.3.544s
  2. Fats and oils. Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Published 2020. Accessed January 5, 2021. https://www.heartandstroke.ca/healthy-living/healthy-eating/fats-and-oils#:~:text=Eating%20too%20much%20and%20the,)%2C%20heart%20attack%20and%20stroke.
  3. Najjar, Feresin. Plant-Based Diets in the Reduction of Body Fat: Physiological Effects and Biochemical Insights. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2712. doi:10.3390/nu11112712
  4. Turner-McGrievy GM, Davidson CR, Wingard EE, Wilcox S, Frongillo EA. Comparative effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss: A randomized controlled trial of five different diets. Nutrition. 2015;31(2):350-358. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2014.09.002
  5. Yokoyama Y, Barnard ND, Levin SM, Watanabe M. Vegetarian diets and glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Cardiovascular diagnosis and therapy. 2014;4(5):373-382. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2223-3652.2014.10.04
  6. Yokoyama Y, Barnard ND, Levin SM, Watanabe M. Vegetarian diets and glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Cardiovascular diagnosis and therapy. 2014;4(5):373-382. doi:10.3978/j.issn.2223-3652.2014.10.04
  7. Tantamango-Bartley Y, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fan J, Fraser G. Vegetarian Diets and the Incidence of Cancer in a Low-risk Population. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention. 2012;22(2):286-294. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.epi-12-1060
  8. Derbyshire EJ. Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2017;3. doi:10.3389/fnut.2016.00055

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