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Flexitarian Diet: Ultimate guide

Written by John Davis

Last updated: September 25, 2022

If you are looking for a way to reduce animal protein from your diet without cutting it out entirely, a flexitarian diet is your best fit. This diet helps you overcome costly and unhealthy animal protein sources by substituting them with plant-based proteins. 

Reduce the risks of contracting protein-related illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke by adopting a flexitarian dietary plan today. 

This guide lets you know what to expect when adopting a flexitarian diet. It answers common questions such as what it is, what foods to eat, which to avoid, and how to get started.

What is a Flexitarian Diet?

A flexitarian diet (1) is a plant-based diet that focuses on eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains more than animal products. It reduces consumption of meat and animal products by replacing them with plant proteins. Removing processed proteins and refined grains limits added sugars and salt.

Unlike the vegan, Mediterranean, wholefoods, plant-based, and vegetarian diets, a flexitarian diet seeks to reduce its consumption rate. The term flexitarian translates as a flexible vegetarian. It is also known as a semi-vegetarian diet. 

The introduction of the term flexitarian was in the 1990s. Dawn Jackson Blatner (2), a nutritionist, extensively studied the field. She defined it as consuming 25% or fewer proteins, 25% whole grains, and 50% fruits and vegetables. She also came up with three groups:

  • Beginner: according to Dr. Dawn, you fall into this group if you take 1 to 7 meatless meals every week.
  • Advanced: you need to eat 8 to 14 meatless dishes weekly to qualify for this group. 
  • Expert: flexitarian diet experts eat 15-21 meatless foods per week. 

Benefits of a Flexitarian Diet

Discussing the health benefits before starting a flexitarian eating habit is essential. These benefits act as your motivation to consistently maintain the diet (3).

They include:

  • Weight Management: A flexitarian diet reduces the number of calories you take daily, which means no excesses and storing of fat. Therefore, there is no weight gain.
  • Reduced cancer risks: A flexitarian diet reduces the number of additives and harmful chemicals entering the body through processed foods. Taking natural foods means no risk of chronic diseases such as cancer.
  • Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases: The risk of heart attack and stroke may be decreased by dietary fiber in several ways. They include enhancing blood lipid levels, reducing heart rates, enhancing insulin sensitivity, and enhancing protease activity. 
  • Reduces Type-2 Diabetes Risk: A flexitarian diet majors in consuming low sugar and fatty foods. Low fat and sugar levels in the body reduce your glucose metabolic rate, minimizing lousy cholesterol and diabetic conditions. 
  • Reduced Mortality Rate: The death rate has been increasing due to the emergence of multiple lifestyle diseases. Removing these processed foods from your meals ensures you eat healthily and maintain your health. Studies show that people who practice the flexitarian diet live longer.
  • Environmental Conservation: Eating the plant rather than the animal ensures that we don’t move higher in the food chain. That is good for the environment as it decreases the carbon print/greenhouse gas emissions and preserves lives, land, and water use.
  • It’s Budget-Friendly: Unlike buying meat, fish, and poultry products, plant products are cheaper. Rather than buy a kilo of meat, buy two glasses of black beans and save your money. Choose fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, and grains that are cheaper and healthier than animal products. 
  • Improves Skin Health: Plant-based foods are rich in zinc, selenium, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and vitamins A, E, and C, which are responsible for smooth, shiny, and healthy skin. Increased intake of these minerals causes a long-term health effect on your skin.
  • Easy To Follow: This diet has no clear-cut rules and recommendations on calories and macronutrients. That means it is less burdensome to follow since you create your limitations depending on your level. A Flexitarian diet doesn’t demand exercise but would be more beneficial in weight loss if you worked out for 30 minutes every day, five days a week.

Does a Flexitarian Diet work?

To answer this frequently asked question, we discuss five worldwide surveys on flexitarian diet:

  • Blue Zone Study- this study (4) began with understanding healthy lifestyles that cause longevity and vitality. The areas of study were Albert Lea, Ikaria, Nicoya, Loma Linda, Okinawa, and Sardinia. The study concluded that it is ten times easy to reach 100 years on plant-based diets than for people on animal products. One of the nine reasons for longevity and vitality was the Leaning plant. The study concluded that beans, especially fava, black, soy, and lentils, constitute an essential component of the diets of the majority of flexitarians. Only five times a month on average are spent eating meat. Serving sizes typically range between 3 and 4 ounces.
  • The Journal of Nutrition Study (5) In 1995, the national institute of health joined the Americans Association of retired persons to study how diet affects lifestyle and cancer risks. The study included 424,600 people and used four diet scoring techniques; for foods high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. The same foods practiced in the flexitarian diet were responsible for reducing the overall mortality rate, rates of heart disease, and cancer.
  • The PREDIMED Study- This study (6) involved 7,216 people and gave yearly food frequency questionnaires. They used one scoring technique where they gave a positive mark for every plant-based food like legumes, cereals, oils, and vegetables and a negative for animal fats, eggs, fish, dairy, and meat products. The overall result was that plant-based foods were responsible for reduced mortality rates.
  • The Permanente Journal- In 2013-2014, Permanente (7) sent a nutritional update to its clients stating that poor diets are the leading cause of diabetes and obesity worldwide. They declared that preventing and treating these illnesses wasn’t dependent on pills and procedures but on eating more fruits and vegetables. Additionally, they recommended a plant-based dietary plan for treating chronic diseases, lowering body weight, decreasing cancer risks, and death from ischemic heart disease.
  • Us News and World Report (8) They publish a yearly list of the best diets. In 2020 flexitarian diet ranked as second best overall, best to follow, and best for diabetes diet. It came second after the Mediterranean diet, which is a plant. The diets are best for diabetic people to reduce cancer risks.

How Do You Get Started On a Flexitarian Diet?

Here are 3 R’s to help you get started:

  • Ratios on  your plate: Change the ratio of your animal proteins to plant proteins. Replace meat with legumes, such as black beans or soybeans, poultry with chickpeas, and dairy products with plant-based milk substitutes like unsweetened almonds, hemp, coconut, or soy milk (9).
  • Replace your favorite dishes: Consider replacing your favorites with plant dishes for those whose favorite foods are meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs. It will be easier to keep a flexitarian diet if your passion is in plant foods rather than animal proteins.
  • Reinvent your recipe: You might not know how to prepare most flexitarian foods if you’re new to the diet. Youtube is an innovative tool for learning different recipes to give you a renewed, sweet experience with the plan. Doing away with the boredom of the same meals ensures you don’t fall out.

Foods to eat on a flexitarian diet

Proteins:

Tofu

Tofu is a fantastic complement to an anti-inflammatory diet since it includes numerous anti-inflammatory and antioxidant phytochemicals. In addition to being an excellent source of fiber, potassium, magnesium, iron, copper, and manganese, tofu is also a good source of “complete” protein, which means it has a well-balanced amino acid profile (10).

Legumes

Protein, fiber, numerous vitamins and minerals like iron, zinc, phosphorus, folate, and other B vitamins, and beneficial plant components called phytochemicals, are all abundant in legumes. They have incredibly minimal levels of sodium, cholesterol, and fat. 

Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, peanuts, black beans, green peas, lima beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, navy beans, great northern beans, pinto beans, and soybeans are some of the common types of beans found throughout the world.

Soybeans are a good supply of carbs, a good source of fat, and high in protein. They are a plentiful source of numerous vitamins, minerals, and healthy plant substances, including isoflavones. Therefore, eating soybeans may lessen menopausal symptoms and lower your breast and prostate cancer.

Lentils

Because they are high in fiber, folate, and potassium, lentils are excellent for the heart and controlling cholesterol and blood pressure. Additionally, they contain energizing iron and vitamin B1, which support a stable heartbeat.

Non-Starchy Vegetables:

Bell Pepper

They are great sources of vitamin C, particularly the reddest, most ripe peppers. Additionally, peppers are a significant source of fiber and vitamin A. Bell peppers also possess antioxidant qualities that may aid in preventing conditions including cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer (11).

Brussels Sprouts

A diet high in cruciferous vegetables, including Brussels sprouts, may lower your risk of developing stomach, lungs, kidney, breast, bladder, and prostate cancers. Brussels sprouts and other crunchy vegetables may help avoid health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes.

Green Beans

Green beans provide a good amount of calcium and are rich in vitamin K. These vitamins and minerals play a crucial role in keeping strong, healthy bones and lowering fracture risk. It’s vital to have adequate folate, not just during pregnancy. The B vitamin is crucial for reducing depression as well.

Carrots

Carrots’ fiber content can aid in regulating blood sugar levels. Additionally, they are abundant in beta-carotene and vitamin A, which decrease the incidence of diabetes. They can make your bones stronger. Both calcium and vitamin K in carrots are crucial for healthy bones.

Cauliflower

A cruciferous vegetable with naturally high fiber and B-vitamin content is cauliflower. It offers phytonutrients and antioxidants that can fight cancer. Along with choline, which is crucial for memory and learning, it also contains fiber to aid in weight loss and smooth digestion.

Starchy Vegetables:

Winter Squash

A cruciferous vegetable with naturally high fiber and B-vitamin content is cauliflower. It offers phytonutrients and antioxidants that can fight cancer. Along with choline, which is crucial for memory and learning, it also contains fiber to aid weight loss and digestion (12).

Peas

Peas are an excellent source of zinc, antioxidants like vitamins C and E, and other nutrients that support a healthy immune system. A and B vitamins, cholesterol, and other nutrients also help to prevent inflammation and lessen your chance of developing chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis.

Corn

Vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps shield your cells from harm and fends off diseases like cancer and heart disease, is abundant in corn. The carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are beneficial for eye health and aid in preventing cataract development, are much in yellow corn.

Sweet Potato

They include lots of fiber and antioxidants, which guard your body against the harm caused by free radicals and support a healthy gut and brain. Beta-carotene, which is turned into vitamin A to support healthy vision and your immune system, is abundant in them.

Mushroom

The nutrients, fiber, protein, and antioxidants in mushrooms are abundant and low in calories. They might also lower the chance of severe illnesses like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. Selenium is also present in abundance as well.

Fruits:

Apples

Apples are nutrient-dense fruits with numerous health advantages. They include lots of antioxidants and fiber. Eating them frequently reduces the risk of multiple chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes (13).

Additionally, apples may aid in weight loss and enhance gut and brain health.

Oranges

Oranges include additional nutrients that maintain your body’s health in addition to vitamin C. Orange fiber can help control blood sugar levels and lower high cholesterol to fend off cardiovascular disease. 

Approximately 55 milligrams of calcium, or 6% of your daily needs, are present in oranges.

Berries

Berries are a great source of fiber, prebiotics, vitamins C and K, potassium, magnesium, and other nutrients that support a healthy gut. Harvard Chan School researchers co-authored studies show that eating a diet rich in anthocyanins, primarily blueberries and strawberries, can aid weight loss and prevent heart attacks. They have also revealed that eating berries can improve memory and learning.

Grapes

Potassium, a nutrient that helps your body manage fluids, is abundant in grapes. Potassium also helps control excessive blood pressure. The majority of individuals don’t get enough of this nutrient. Grapes can make up the difference.

Cherries

Cherries are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and other healthy components while low in calories. The vitamins C, A, and K, are also available. Each fruit with a long stem also provides calcium, magnesium, and potassium. 

They also provide choline, an essential vitamin, and antioxidants such as beta-carotene.

Whole Grains:

Quinoa

You can reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease by consuming quinoa, known for lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Antioxidants included in quinoa can protect your heart and other vessels from deterioration (14).

Antioxidant-rich diets are responsible for a lower risk of heart disease.

Teff

Teff has a natural blood pressure-lowering effect that lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. Teff contains a lot of vitamin B6, which helps to keep the circulatory system healthy and reduces the risk of heart disease. 

By controlling blood levels of a substance called homocysteine, vitamin B6 helps the body.

Buckwheat

Buckwheat is a whole grain that many people regard as a superfood because of its high level of nutrition. Buckwheat may aid weight loss, increase insulin sensitivity, and enhance heart health, among other health advantages. A good source of protein, fiber, and energy is buckwheat.

Farro

The fiber in Farro is first-rate. Fiber aids in regulating the digestive system. Farro enhances human digestion. Farro may be enormously beneficial if you suffer from constipation, digestive problems, or other digestive ailments.

Sorghum

Numerous phenolic chemicals, which serve as antioxidants, are abundant in sorghum. Its antioxidant effects also reduce various forms of inflammation—numerous sorghum phenolic chemicals connect to anti-cancer properties.

Barley

Barley is high in fiber, especially beta-glucan, which may reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It may also aid weight loss and improve digestion. Whole-grain, hulled barley is more nutritious than refined, pearled barley. It can be substituted for any whole grain and easily added to your diet.

Oats

One of the world’s healthiest grains is oats. In addition to being a fantastic source of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, they are a gluten-free whole grain. Oats and oatmeal have numerous health advantages, according to studies. These consist of decreased blood sugar levels, weight loss, and a lower risk of heart disease.

Nuts:

Almonds

Almonds are a great source of magnesium, vitamin E, and dietary fiber, all essential minerals for your health. Almonds are a wholesome and satisfying snack in one serving. Calcium and phosphorus in almonds strengthen bones and help prevent fractures (15).

Walnuts

Walnuts are abundant in antioxidants and cardio lipids. Additionally, frequent consumption of walnuts may enhance brain function and lower your risk of cardiovascular disorders. These nuts are simple to include in your diet because they may be consumed on their own or combined with various dishes.

Pistachio

Pistachios are overflowing with the monounsaturated fat, fiber, and minerals that can keep your insulin, blood pressure, and sugar levels under control. You may feel full for longer thanks to their protein and fiber. This fiber can also positively impact by supporting “healthy” bacteria.

Cashew Nuts

Fiber, protein, and healthful fats are all abundant in cashews. They also contain a range of vitamins, minerals, and other plant chemicals that are good for your health. Like nuts, cashews may help blood sugar regulation, cardiovascular health, and weight loss.

Peanuts

Peanuts reduce cholesterol levels, which helps to prevent cardiovascular disease. Additionally, they can avoid the formation of tiny blood clots, lowering your risk of a heart attack or stroke. You might feel full on fewer calories by eating foods high in protein.

Seeds:

Chia Seeds

Quercetin, an antioxidant found in chia seeds, can lower your chances of acquiring several illnesses, including cardiovascular diseases. The sources contain a lot of fiber, lowering high blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart illness. Fiber levels in chia seeds are significant (16).

Flax Seeds

Flaxseed contains lignans, antioxidants, fiber, protein, and polyunsaturated fats like alpha-linolenic acid, and omega-3, among other nutrients. These nutrients can help reduce the risk of several illnesses.

Oils:

Avocado

Avocados contain riboflavin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, magnesium, and potassium, in addition to vitamins C, E, K, and B6. They additionally offer beta carotene, lutein, and omega-3 fatty acids. High quantities of healthful, beneficial fats found in avocados can increase satiety between meals (17).

Olives

Olive oil is a beneficial lipid that has anti-inflammatory properties. Regular consumption could improve the health of your bones, gastrointestinal system, heart, and blood sugar.

Coconuts

You may boost your metabolism by consuming a tablespoon of coconut oil daily, making it more straightforward for the body to burn calories and lose weight, especially belly fat.

Animal Proteins:

  • Eggs and poultry Products: These should be from free-range farming.
  • Fish: These should be wild caught (from oceans and seas) and not reared in a pond.
  • Meat and Dairy Products: These should be from grass-fed animals.

Spices:

  • Basil
  • Mint
  • Thyme
  • Cumin
  • Turmeric
  • Ginger
  • Oregano

Beverages

  • Water
  • Tea
  • Coffee

Condiments

  • Soy sauce
  • Apple Cider Vinegar
  • Salsa
  • Mustard
  • Nutritional Yeast
  • Ketchup

1 Week Flexitarian diet sample

Here is a sample diet model to start the flexitarian diet plan. It might be difficult to transition as a beginner; therefore, consider adding a little more animal protein to this sample to ease the process (18).

Monday

Breakfast: Carried tofu scramble with spinach and roasted potatoes.

Snack: Roasted chickpeas.

Lunch: Thai spiced fish, stuffed pepper soup, and Brazilian chicken salad.

Snack: Apple chips.

Dinner: Take whole roasted cauliflower with roasted butter source.

Tuesday

Breakfast: Warm bacon honey vinaigrette with frisee salad and shaved asparagus.

Snack: Nut butter with fruit.

Lunch: Spinach raisins and pine nuts.

Snack: Popcorn

Dinner: Bacon with roasted cheesy brussels sprouts 

Wednesday

Breakfast: Individual frittatas with green salad and cucumber.

Snack: Stuffed dates with walnuts.

Lunch: Blueberry pancakes and scrambled eggs.

Snack: Green smoothies.

Dinner: Take Greek roasted vegetables and quinoa salad.

Thursday

Breakfast: Poached egg with smashed avocado toast 

Snack: Edamame

Lunch: Butternut squash, onion, spinach quesadillas, and mushroom.

Snack: Waffle maker hash browns

Dinner: Eat Cheesy zucchini breadsticks with mashed cauliflower and spinach.

Friday

Breakfast: Carrot halwa oatmeal with nuts and cardamom.

Snack: Guacamole and spicy tomato gravy.

Lunch: Sausage, brown rice, and veggie bowl.

Snack: Spanish-style chicken wings.

Dinner: Eat roasted beets and carrots salad with burrata.

Saturday

Breakfast: Maple orange bread pudding French toast.

Snack: Frozen grapes, pumpkin seeds. 

Lunch: Easy and delicious vegan soup with stuffed Spanish omelet (Tortilla rellena).

Snack: Ranch Chex mix

Dinner: Cheesy root vegetable gratin with apricot glazed bacon wrapped cajun pork tenderloin.

Sunday

Breakfast: Waffle maker hash browns with melted American cheese.

Snack: String cheese with mixed berries.

Lunch: Salvadoran pupusas with curtido and salsa.

Snack: Eggplant dip with carrot sticks.

Dinner: Mix roasted baby potatoes in a homemade mushroom sauce.

Foods to avoid in a Flexitarian Diet

The following are foods that will easily kick you out of the flexitarian diet. Therefore, avoid these foods at all costs (19):

Added sugars:

  • Soda
  • Doughnuts
  • Cakes
  • Cookies
  • Pastries
  • Candy

Processed Meat:

  • Bacon
  • Sausage
  • Bologna
  • Salami

Refined Carbohydrates:

  • White Bread
  • White Rice
  • Pasta
  • Croissants

Fast Foods:

  • Fries
  • Burgers
  • Chicken Nuggets

Animal Fats:

  • Milkshakes
  • Butter, Ghee, Cream, and Cheese
  • Whole Milk
  • Pastries

Deficiencies associated with a Flexitarian Diet

Limiting the intake of animal products comes with a limited supply of the following nutrients (20):

  • Vitamin B12- Lack of folate or vitamin B12 causes Anaemia which manifests as headaches, pale skin, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, tiredness, fatigue, and inflammation.
  • Zinc deficiency causes skin changes (cracks and a glazed appearance) that manifest like eczema. 
  • Iron- Lack of iron causes inefficiency in Haemoglobin production. This effect may result in Anemia and shortness of breath.
  • Calcium- Hypocalcemia leads to dental changes and osteoporosis and alters brain function.
  • Omega-3 acids- Symptoms of omega-three deficiency include fatigue, dry skin, poor circulation, depression, heart problems, and mood swings.

An individual interested in adopting the flexitarian diet must be sure to eat a range of nutrient-dense plant-based foods and think about taking supplements to prevent a deficiency of sorts. Unless one carefully prepares their vegan diet, they might need to take extra iron and vitamin B12 supplements (21).

Parting Shot

The Flexitarian diet emphasizes nutritious plant proteins and other unprocessed organic foods. It also promotes the moderation of meat and dairy products. Eating flexitarian meals may help you lose weight and lower your chances of developing type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. It might even benefit the environment.

The flexitarian dietary plan should promote general well-being, including increased energy and decreased weariness. However, to avoid nutritional shortages and maximize your health benefits, careful thought should go into your flexitarian meal selections.

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John Davis

John Davis is a Minneapolis-based health and fitness writer with over 7 years of experience researching the science of high performance athletics, long-term health, nutrition, and wellness. As a trained scientist, he digs deep into the medical, nutritional, and epidemiological literature to uncover the keys to healthy living through better nutrition.
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