What Does It Mean to Be a Flexitarian? 10 Reasons You Should Try the Diet
Diets often tell us what we can't eat: Cut sugar. Cut oil. Cut dairy. Cut carbs. Cut red meat. If you've tried this approach to "healthy" eating, you likely know that it's hard to keep it up — and for many, restrictive diets can complicate our relationships with food.
Omnivores eat everything, while flexitarians try to eat more plants than anything else.
About 10 years ago, the term "flexitarian" entered the nutritional dialogue. The idea: act like a vegetarian, but not all of the time. How is it different than an omnivore diet? Omnivores eat everything, while flexitarians try to eat more plants than anything else. "A flexitarian is someone who wants to eat vegetarian but also wants the flexibility to go off course without feeling guilty about it," says registered dietitian and nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, who wrote the book The Flexitarian Diet in 2010.
"When I wrote it, nobody knew what the term meant. Now, I regularly hear people describe themselves as a flexitarian," she told POPSUGAR. There are reasons to embrace this approach to food. Not only does flexibility make it easier to stick to a healthy eating plan and balanced lifestyle, but reducing red meat consumption is a powerful way to fight climate change. Research has shown that just incorporating regular Meatless Mondays does more to cut back on your carbon footprint than buying only local food for an entire year.
Unfortunately, since The Flexitarian Diet came out, touting the benefits of cutting back on meat while maintaining flexibility, diet trends have seemed to go the opposite direction, promoting more meat consumption or more extreme restrictions. For example, the Paleo diet, a meal plan based on the dietary habits of our cave-dwelling ancestors, emphasizes animal protein, vegetables, and nuts instead of processed carbs. Sure, the Paleo diet is not exclusively about red meat, but a juicy steak fits nicely within the requirements, and a recent study from delivery service Grubhub found that it is now the most popular healthy-eating choice across the country.
The keto diet is another low-carb, high-fat diet gaining steam on Pinterest and Instagram. It's even more restrictive than the Paleo diet and promises weight loss by mimicking starvation. Such extreme measures should throw up a red flag — women who want to eat healthy deserve better than this!
If you agree, here are 10 reasons you should try the flexitarian diet, which isn't much of a diet at all, actually. To inspire you, we sought out input from nutrition professionals as well as women who have adopted the lifestyle themselves. Get ready to eat your veggies.
You Eat More Nutrient-Rich Fruits and Vegetables
"A major benefit of flexitarianism has been an increase in the number of fruits and vegetables I consume, and therefore an overall healthier diet," said Emily Pious (33), who became a flexitarian in 2009 and now blogs about her experience.
If you embrace a flexitarian diet, you're more likely to pack your frittata with broccoli than bacon. And that's a good thing since vegetables are whole foods that are rich in nutrients and fiber. "Plant-based foods contain many disease-fighting nutrients and antioxidants that your body needs," explained Sara Siskind, a certified nutritional health counselor.
In a paper published in January 2017, researchers evaluated 25 studies to determine how a semivegetarian diet can impact bodyweight, diet quality, and overall health. The review concluded that a semivegetarian diet may result in bodyweight benefits, improved markers of metabolic health and blood pressure, and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. It also found that the diet may help treat inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease.
It Allows You to Be Flexible in Social Settings
Vacations or social functions are a time when many diet plans go out the window. But being a flexitarian lets you maintain the momentum. Anne Hagerty (51) has been practicing the diet since 2009, when she began working with Blatner to lose weight. Hagerty told POPSUGAR it offers her a way to be satisfied during "weddings, work travel, a European cruise, sporting events, a client dinner, in-law's BBQ, you name it." The wiggle room in social settings undoubtedly helps make it a realistic diet for many. You get more vegetables and less guilt.
It Can Promote Weight Loss
Focusing on plant-based food while incorporating some meat into your diet may be the secret to healthy weight management. Research demonstrates that the body mass indexes of vegetarians are lower than those of nonvegetarians and that the caloric intake of vegetarians is typically lower than that of nonvegetarians. But it also shows that vegetarians may be at risk of inadequate intakes of certain vitamins and minerals. By not cutting meat completely, you might get the best of both worlds: weight loss and health.
Hagerty says the approach has worked for her. "My first meeting with Dawn [Blatner] was to talk about weight loss," she said. "I hadn't realized I'd gained a fair amount of weight until my mom walked past me in a restaurant and didn't recognize me from the back." Hagerty says she had always resisted diets, but the "mom episode" made her mad at herself for being careless. "It was refreshing that Dawn never talked about restrictions. I learned quickly that we always have choices every day, at every meal, in every situation." Before becoming a flexitarian, Hagerty says she weighed 171 lbs. About eight years later, she fluctuates between 151 and 155 lbs. "Weight loss was steady, as I learned it should be," she says.
"The key to weight management and good health is a consistent and flexible lifestyle approach."
"The key to weight management and good health is a consistent and flexible lifestyle approach," confirmed Siskind. She notes that quick fad diets may work initially, but studies have shown that the long-term effects are not as successful. Instead, she recommends that "living a healthy lifestyle where 80 percent of your choices are foods that make your body feel good and thrive and 20 percent allow for treats is a realistic and healthy approach."
It's Better For the Environment
"My experience with flexitarianism began in 2009, after I learned about the environmental effects of meat-based diets," explained Pious. The facts validate her good intentions. "A study from Carnegie Mellon concluded that a dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household's food-related climate footprint than buying local produce. "Shifting less than one day per week's worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG (greenhouse gas) reduction than buying all locally sourced food." In other words, practicing Meatless Mondays has a greater impact than shopping exclusively at the farmers market.
There are various factors at play: grazing animals require a lot of pastureland, which in turn cannot be used as carbon-reducing forests. In addition, these animals have multichambered digestive systems, which produce a significant amount of methane. So if you want to do your part for climate change, the flexitarian diet might just be it. Especially since you'll likely have a Meatless Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday — with the occasional exception.
It Promotes a Healthy Relationship With Food
It's hard not to get caught up in labeling foods as good or bad. "It may feel right to put boundaries on your food choices, but ultimately it leads to judgment and too much mental focus on bad choices," explains Siskind. It's also counterproductive. "Sometimes, when foods are off limits, our mind and body crave it more." She tells her clients to focus on eating foods that make them feel good mentally and physically in the long term. "Healthy foods taste good, too. And if you eat a food that isn’t necessarily good for you, accept it and move on."
It's also possible for restrictive dieting to turn into an unhealthy obsession, as Jordan Younger, formerly "The Blonde Vegan," explained on her popular website a few years ago. In a post announcing she was transitioning away from veganism, Younger shared that she had developed orthorexia: "I started living in a bubble of restriction. Entirely vegan, entirely plant-based, entirely gluten-free, oil-free, refined sugar-free, flour-free, dressing-/sauce-free, etc. and lived my life based off of when I could and could not eat and what I could and could not combine."
To improve her physical and mental health, she shared plans to both seek therapy and move away from restrictive labels: "My original passion for health stemmed from learning about real foods and how they affect our bodies vs. chemically produced and factory farmed disgustingness that is not food," she wrote. "But that doesn't mean that living life in moderation is a sin. It's a beautiful thing. To accept moderation, to accept balance, to allow for happiness and growth and change and fluctuation." Younger now writes as "The Balanced Blonde."
Flexibility also makes it easier to limit negative self-talk. With a flexitarian diet, you can focus on what you should eat more of: fruits and vegetables. Since meat is not completely off limits, the temptation to focus on what you're missing is reduced.
It's Hard to Mess Up
Since becoming a flexitarian, Pious says she has taken advantage of incorporating animal-based foods into her diet, including when she was pregnant last year. "Over the past eight years, I've had periods of being completely vegetarian and periods when I've eaten meat regularly." Both approaches fit within a flexitarian mindset.
Blatner believes the lack of superstrict rules makes the diet more successful. And she says there are ways to have fun with the diet, which makes it easier to stick with. She suggests reinventing new favorites. "Take meaty recipes you love, such as burgers, tacos, and stir-fries, and start swapping in beans and lentils for some or all of the meat." (She recommends adding about one-fourth cup beans or lentils for each ounce of meat you take out.)
It Helps You Cut Out Processed Foods
"Eating more plant-based foods means you are reducing or even eliminating processed foods, which may contain preservatives and artificial ingredients," explains Siskind. Think about it: flexitarianism pushes you toward a slice of veggie pizza, rather than pepperoni. Considering processed meats have been linked to cancer, this easy swap could be adding years to your life.
You Still Have Access to Animal Protein
Protein is an important part of any diet. It is the key to repairing and renewing muscles, can help you burn fat, and promotes bone health. While meat is not the only source of protein, it's one that is easily accessible and enjoyable to many. As a flexitarian, you still have access to healthy meat options that will help you maintain a protein-rich diet. You'll also get the benefits of occasionally eating fish, which has protein as well as omega-3s.
"It's most important to listen to your body and eat foods that your body can digest well," says Siskind. She says a well-balanced diet focuses on more plant-based foods than animal-based foods, and she recommends a mix of organic, grass-fed animal protein, fish, dairy, eggs, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and protein. "Organic animal protein in moderation is very good for you," she says. "There are proteins we get from them that our body needs to stay balanced. When we take supplements instead of eating animal protein, our body doesn't digest it the same."
It's Easy on the Wallet
"Beans are much cheaper per pound than meat," Pious points out. Since switching to flexitarianism, she's noticed her food bill go down. This is true at the grocery store and at restaurants, where the veggie risotto on the menu is undoubtedly less expensive than the filet mignon. One study found that vegetarians save an average of $750 per year, and as a flexitarian, you can get in on that action.
You Don't Have to Cut Your Favorite Foods Completely
If you've ever tried to maintain a vegetarian diet, you may have been foiled by your "gateway meat." For me, that's charcuterie, which I associate with gatherings of friends and family. By allowing yourself to enjoy animal-based favorites on occasion, the flexitarian diet lets you keep a connection to comfort foods. Maybe that's a piece of your grandmother's famous lasagna or a piece of turkey on Thanksgiving. Taking part doesn't mean you are breaking any "rules" or being "bad." You're simply a flexitarian.