The Flexitarian Diet is a style of eating that encourages eating mostly plant-based foods while allowing meat and other animal products in moderation.
It’s more flexible than fully vegetarian or vegan diets.
If you’re looking to add more plant foods to your diet but don’t want to completely cut out meat, going flexitarian may be for you.
This article provides an overview of the Flexitarian Diet, its benefits, foods to eat, and a 1-week meal plan.
The Flexitarian Diet was created by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner to help people reap the benefits of vegetarian eating while still enjoying animal products in moderation.
That’s why the name of this diet is a combination of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian.”
Vegetarians eliminate meat and sometimes other animal foods, while vegans avoid meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and all other animal-derived food products.
Because flexitarians eat animal products, they’re not considered vegetarians or vegans.
The Flexitarian Diet has no clear-cut rules or recommended numbers of calories and macronutrients. In fact, it’s more of a lifestyle than a diet.
It’s based on the following principles:
- Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
- Focus on protein from plants instead of animals.
- Be flexible and incorporate meat and animal products from time to time.
- Eat the least processed, most natural forms of foods.
- Limit added sugar and sweets.
As a result of its flexible nature and focus on what to include rather than what to restrict, the Flexitarian Diet is a popular choice for people looking to eat healthier.
In her book, Jackson Blatner spells out how to start eating flexitarian by incorporating certain amounts of meat per week.
However, following her specific recommendations is not required to start eating in a flexitarian way. Some people following the diet may eat more animal products than others.
Overall, the goal is to eat more nutritious plant foods and less meat.
The Flexitarian Diet is a semi-vegetarian style of eating that encourages eating less meat and more plant-based foods. Because there are no specific rules or suggestions, it is an appealing option for people who are looking to cut back on animal products.
Eating flexitarian may provide several health benefits (
However, since there is no clear definition of this diet, it’s difficult to assess whether and how the researched benefits of other plant-based diets apply to the Flexitarian Diet.
Nevertheless, research on vegan and vegetarian diets is still helpful in highlighting how semi-vegetarian diets may promote health.
It appears to be important to eat mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and other minimally processed whole foods in order to reap the health benefits of plant-based eating.
Decreasing meat consumption while continuing to eat many refined foods with lots of added sugar and salt will not lead to the same benefits (
Diets rich in fiber and healthy fats are good for heart health (
A study including more than 48,188 participants found that fish eaters and vegetarians had lower rates of ischemic heart disease than meat eaters, although vegetarians had higher rates of hemorrhagic and total stroke (
Fish eaters and vegetarians had 13% and 22% lower rates of ischemic heart disease than meat eaters, respectively (
This is likely because vegetarian diets are often rich in fiber and antioxidants that may reduce blood pressure and increase good cholesterol.
A 2020 review of 15 studies found that a vegetarian diet significantly lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure as compared to an omnivorous diet (
Furthermore, a 2020 study on vegetarian, pescatarian, and flexitarian diets that included 10,797 participants found that those who adhered to any diet excluding/reducing meat intake had lower body mass index, total cholesterol, and blood pressure than those who ate meat (
However, flexitarian eating is meant to be primarily plant-based and will most likely have benefits similar to fully vegetarian diets.
Flexitarian eating may also help you manage your weight.
This is partially because flexitarians often limit high calorie, highly processed foods and eat more plant foods that are naturally lower in calories.
Several studies have shown that people who follow a plant-based diet may lose more weight than those who do not (
A review of studies in more than 1,100 people total found that those who ate a vegetarian diet for 18 weeks lost 4.5 pounds (2 kg) more than those who did not (
This and other studies also show that those who follow vegan diets tend to lose more weight than vegetarians and omnivores (
Because the Flexitarian Diet is closer to a vegetarian diet than a vegan one, it may help with weight loss, but possibly not as much as a vegan diet would.
However, weight loss is not the primary goal of the Flexitarian Diet. It’s more focused on adding more nutrient-dense foods to your diet, such as fruits, legumes, and vegetables.
Type 2 diabetes is a global health epidemic. Eating a healthy diet, especially a predominantly plant-based one, may help prevent and manage this disease.
This is most likely because plant-based diets aid weight loss and include many foods that are high in fiber and low in unhealthy fats and added sugar (
A study with more than 200,000 participants found that a diet that emphasized plant foods and was low in animal foods was associated with about a 20% reduced risk of diabetes (8).
Additionally, a plant-based diet that emphasized healthy plant foods was linked with a larger decrease (34%) in diabetes risk, while a plant-based diet high in less healthy plant foods was associated with a 16% increased diabetes risk (8).
The healthy plant food diet included foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and vegetable oils, and the less healthy plant food diet included foods like fruit juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, and sweets (8).
Additional research found that in people with type 2 diabetes, the reduction in HbA1c (3-month average of blood sugar readings) was greater in people with plant-based diets than in those with conventional diets (
Dietary patterns high in nutritious plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes and low in ultra-processed foods are associated with a lower risk of certain cancers.
Research suggests that vegetarian diets are associated with a lower overall incidence of all cancers, but especially colorectal cancers (
A 7-year study on cases of colorectal cancers in 78,000 people found that semi-vegetarians were 8% less likely than non-vegetarians to get this type of cancer (
Therefore, incorporating more vegetarian foods by eating the flexitarian way may reduce your cancer risk.
The Flexitarian Diet may help manage weight and reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. However, because most research analyzes vegetarian and vegan diets, it’s difficult to know whether flexitarian eating has similar benefits.
The Flexitarian Diet may benefit your health and the environment.
Reducing meat consumption can help preserve natural resources by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and land and water use.
A review of the research on the sustainability of plant-based diets found that switching from the average Western diet to flexitarian eating, in which meat is partially replaced by plant foods, could decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 7% (
Eating more plant foods will also drive the demand to devote more land to growing fruits and vegetables for humans instead of feed for livestock.
Cultivating plants requires far fewer resources than raising animals to eat.
In fact, greenhouse gas emissions resulting from vegan and ovo-lacto-vegetarian diets are about 50% and about 35% lower, respectively, than those from most current omnivore diets, with corresponding reductions in the use of natural resources (
Eating flexitarian and swapping meat for plant protein is good for the planet. Plant-based diets use fewer fossil fuels and less land and water.
When flexitarian and other plant-based diets are planned well, they can be very healthy.
However, some people may be at risk of nutrient deficiencies when they cut back on meat and other animal products, depending on the nutritional content of their other food choices.
Possible nutrient deficiencies to be aware of on the Flexitarian Diet include (
- vitamin B12
- omega-3 fatty acids
A review of the research on vitamin B12 deficiency found that vegetarians may be at risk for deficiency, with 62% of pregnant vegetarians and up to 90% of older adult vegetarians having a deficiency (
Vitamin B12 occurs naturally only in animal products. Still, B12-fortified foods can also be part of a healthy diet. You can also speak with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian, who can help you to decide whether a B12 supplement is necessary.
Flexitarians may also have lower stores of zinc and iron because these minerals are best absorbed from animal foods. While it’s possible to get enough of these nutrients from plant foods alone, flexitarians need to plan their diets carefully to accomplish this (
Most nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes contain both iron and zinc. Adding a source of vitamin C is a good way to increase iron absorption from plant-based foods (
Some flexitarians may limit dairy and need to eat plant-based sources of calcium to get adequate amounts of this nutrient. Plant foods rich in calcium include bok choy, kale, chard, and sesame seeds.
Finally, flexitarians, vegetarians, and vegans should be mindful of getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, which are usually found in fatty fish. Individuals following those diets should consider supplementing with algal oil or fish oil to ensure they maintain optimal EPA/DHA levels (
Keep in mind that eating flexitarian gives you flexibility to consume varying amounts of meat and animal products. If the diet is planned well and includes a variety of whole foods, nutritional deficiencies may not be a concern.
Limited consumption of meat and other animal products may lead to some nutritional deficiencies, particularly B12, iron, zinc and calcium. Flexitarians may be at risk, depending on their food choices.
Flexitarians emphasize plant proteins and other whole, minimally processed plant foods while limiting animal products.
Foods to eat regularly include:
- Proteins: soybeans, tofu, tempeh, legumes, lentils
- Non-starchy vegetables: greens, bell peppers, Brussels 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, and other healthy fats: almonds, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, peanut butter, avocados, olives, coconut
- Plant-based milk alternatives: unsweetened almond, coconut, hemp, and soy milk
- Herbs, spices and seasonings: basil, oregano, mint, thyme, cumin, turmeric, ginger
- Condiments: reduced-sodium soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, salsa, mustard, nutritional yeast, ketchup without added sugar
- Beverages: still and sparkling water, tea, coffee
When incorporating animal products, choose the following when possible:
- Eggs: free-range or pasture-raised
- Poultry: organic, free-range, or pasture-raised
- Fish: wild-caught
- Meat: grass-fed or pasture-raised
- Dairy: organic from grass-fed or pastured animals
The Flexitarian Diet includes a variety of whole, plant-based foods with an emphasis on plant over animal proteins. When including animal products, consider choosing free-range eggs, wild-caught fish, and grass-fed meat and dairy when possible.
The Flexitarian Diet encourages limiting not only meat and animal products but also highly processed foods, refined grains, and added sugar.
Foods to minimize include:
- Processed meats: bacon, sausage, bologna
- Refined carbs: white bread, white rice, bagels, croissants
- Added sugar and sweets: soda, doughnuts, cakes, cookies, candy
- Fast food: fries, burgers, chicken nuggets, milkshakes
Eating flexitarian does not just mean decreasing your meat consumption. Limiting processed meats, refined carbs, and added sugars are other important aspects of the Flexitarian Diet.
This 1-week meal plan provides some ideas to help you start eating flexitarian.
- Breakfast: steel-cut oats with apples, milled flaxseed, and cinnamon
- Lunch: salad with greens, shrimp, corn, black beans, and avocado
- Dinner: lentil soup with whole grain bread and a side salad
- Breakfast: whole grain toast with avocado and poached eggs
- Lunch: burrito bowl with brown rice, beans, and vegetables
- Dinner: zucchini noodles with tomato sauce and white beans
- Breakfast: coconut yogurt with bananas and walnuts
- Lunch: whole grain wrap with hummus, vegetables, and chickpeas
- Dinner: grilled salmon, baked sweet potato, and green beans
- Breakfast: smoothie made with unsweetened almond milk, spinach, peanut butter, and frozen berries
- Lunch: kale Caesar salad with lentils and tomato soup
- Dinner: baked chicken, quinoa, and roasted cauliflower
- Breakfast: Greek yogurt with blueberries and pumpkin seeds
- Lunch: chard wraps with mixed veggies and peanut dipping sauce
- Dinner: lentil stew and a side salad
- Breakfast: over-easy eggs with sauteed veggies and fruit salad
- Lunch: peanut butter sandwich with crushed berries on whole grain bread
- Dinner: black bean burgers with avocado and sweet potato fries
- Breakfast: tofu scramble with mixed veggies and spices
- Lunch: quinoa salad with dried cranberries, pecans, and feta cheese
- Dinner: stuffed bell peppers with ground turkey and a side salad
Eating the flexitarian way is about limiting your consumption of meat and other animal products while focusing on nutritious plant-based foods. Some people may choose to eat more or fewer animal products than shown in the above meal plan.
This 1-week meal plan provides meal ideas to get you started with flexitarian eating. Depending on your preferences, you may choose to eat more or fewer animal products.
The semi-vegetarian Flexitarian Diet focuses on healthy plant proteins and other whole, minimally processed plant-based foods but encourages eating meat and animal products in moderation.
Eating flexitarian may aid weight loss and reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. It may even be good for the planet.
However, planning your flexitarian food choices well is important to prevent nutritional deficiencies and reap the most health benefits.