What Is the Flexitarian Diet?

Flexitarian

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your health care provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

If you’ve ever considered a vegetarian diet but backed out because you love a good burger, the flexitarian diet may be a good option for you. Combining the words “flexible” and “vegetarian,” this diet suggests that you can reap the benefits of a vegetarian diet while still enjoying meat when the craving strikes.

Though the concept of eating more plant-based foods is nothing novel, the specific “flexitarian” designation entered the mainstream around 2008. Registered Dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner published her book that year, aptly titled, "The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life." In the introduction to the book, Blatner describes her personal connection to this style of eating.

Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD

I want to be a vegetarian because of the countless health benefits. I also want to enjoy backyard barbecue hamburgers in the summertime, hot dogs at a Cubs baseball game, Grandma’s pork roast made with love… The answer is to become a flexible vegetarian—a flexitarian.

— Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD

Many people have embraced the flexitarian diet philosophy, particularly because there are no rigid rules or guidelines. The diet is intended for anyone who wants to eat a more nutritious diet but doesn’t want to give up their favorite meat indulgences.

The focus of the diet is less about restriction and removal, and more about adding in an abundance of plant foods. Nutritionists point out that plants offer protection against cancer, diabetes, and other health conditions thanks to essential micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

The 2020 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the flexitarian diet number 2 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 4.1/5. Read on to learn more about the flexitarian diet to find out if this is the right lifestyle for you.

What Experts Say

The flexitarian diet is grounded in plant-based eating with flexibility for animal products in moderation. Nutrition experts can stand behind this type of meal plan, which is rich in nutrient-dense foods and sustainable to follow long-term.

Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

What Can You Eat?

When following the flexitarian diet, you’ll focus on eating more vegetarian meals. The diet still allows for meat-based meals throughout the week. The key is to focus on vegetarian meals most of the time while allowing for meat in moderation.

Studies show that naturally increasing your consumption of satisfying plant-based foods, which are rich in nutrients for overall health promotion, will lead to greater consumption of vegetarian dishes.

Since you don’t have to eliminate any foods completely, you’re more likely to stick with this balanced meal plan. Try these vegetarian recipes to inspire your meatless meals:

There are no required recipes to embark on a flexitarian diet. Simply look for vegetarian recipes that are rich in plant-based foods to fit your meatless days.

What You Need to Know

There's no specific timing of meals required on a flexitarian diet. For those with weight loss goals, Blatner's book does outline a 300-calorie breakfast, 400-calorie lunch, and 500-calorie dinner—along with two 150-calorie snacks in-between your meals. You’ll find slight modifications to this plan if you need a greater or fewer amount of calories. However, you can work on becoming more of a flexitarian without following any particular schedule or calorie requirements.

Dietary Restrictions

If you have dietary restrictions or food allergies, it’s fairly easy to find suitable modifications to the flexitarian diet. Here are a few helpful suggestions.

Other Modifications

The nature of the flexitarian diet is flexibility, and some populations may need to make certain adjustments and exceptions to ensure the flexitarian diet meets their individual nutrition needs:

  • Individuals with diabetes: Studies show that a vegetarian diet offers significant physical and psychological benefits for those with type 2 diabetes. However, people with diabetes need to pay attention to their total carbohydrate intake at each meal. Vegetarian meals sometimes have a higher proportion of carbohydrates, and this could affect blood sugar levels.
  • Pregnant women: Low iron levels are common during pregnancy, and semi-vegetarian diets have been associated with lower iron levels on their own. Pregnant women who follow a flexitarian diet may wish to include meat more regularly, increase plant-based iron sources, and/or take an iron supplement if their doctor recommends one. 

Since the flexitarian diet includes all the food groups and promotes variety and balance, it is generally a safe and healthy choice for most people.

What to Eat
  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Whole grains

  • Plant-based proteins

  • Eggs

  • Dairy

  • Oils, Herbs, and Spices

  • Meat (in moderation)

What Not to Eat
  • Meat (in excess)

  • Added sugar (in excess)

  • Refined carbs (in excess)

Vegetables

These are the backbone of the flexitarian diet. Increase your vegetable intake by experimenting with new cooking techniques or using vegetables in creative ways such as zoodles and cauliflower rice.

Fruits

Rather than reaching for a pint of ice cream to satisfy your innate sweet tooth, the flexitarian diet recommends turning to fruit. It offers the sweetness we crave along with many nutrients and is also filling thanks to its fiber and water content. Try creating new desserts with your favorite fruits like frozen bananas dipped in dark chocolate or baked apples with cinnamon.

Whole Grains

Grains have garnered an unfavorable reputation they don’t necessarily deserve. Whole grains provide fiber and nutrients. Weave in your standard favorites like oatmeal and brown rice, but also try adding in ancient grains like amaranth, quinoa, or millet.

Plant-Based Protein

While you don’t have to eliminate meat, you’ll want to include more vegetarian meals in your diet. Mix in plant-based proteins like tofu, beans, lentils, and nuts and seeds.

Eggs

In addition to plant-based proteins, flexitarians can also eat eggs. Eggs are a great way to add protein to the diet (when you're not eating meat).

Dairy

The flexitarian diet allows dairy, thanks to its bone-strengthening combo of calcium and vitamin D. You can include milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir, or dairy-alternatives on this plan.

Oils, Herbs, and Spices

Get creative in the kitchen through the use of different oils, flavorful herbs, and aromatic spices. These will help to add flavor in nutritious ways.

Meat (In Moderation)

Meat is allowed on the flexitarian diet, but you’ll want to cut down total consumption. The weekly amount of meat will vary based on your personal preferences, but at a minimum, the diet generally recommends two meatless days per week. Others have proposed alternatives to full meatless days, such as eating plant-based breakfasts and lunches but enjoying dinners with small portions of meat.

Meat (In Excess)

The purpose of the flexitarian diet is to encourage more vegetarian meals, so it makes sense that excess meat would not be compliant. Every person will have a different definition of “excess.”

Added Sugar (In Excess)

Like most healthy diets, you'll want to minimize added sugar intake if you embark on a flexitarian diet.

Refined Carbohydrates (In Excess)

While refined carbohydrates are fine occasionally, this plan recommends sticking with whole grains.

The best way to determine whether you’re adhering to a flexitarian diet is to make sure you’re actively including more vegetarian meals in your diet each week.

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Emphasizes nutritious foods

  • Easy to accommodate personal preferences

  • Budget-friendly

  • Supports weight loss

  • May reduce risk of diabetes

  • Sustainable

Cons
  • May be difficult for daily meat-eaters to follow

  • Potentially low iron intake

  • Additional guidance may be necessary for those with diabetes

There are many benefits to a flexitarian diet since you can tailor it to suit your own nutritional needs and health goals. However, like all diets, there are still a few drawbacks to this one.

Pros

General Nutrition

The flexitarian diet embraces all food groups, so it’s likely you'll meet all of your nutrient needs on this diet. For comparison, stricter vegetarian and vegan diets may fall short in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, found in fish. A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found more than 50% of vegetarians in one group reported a DHA intake of zero. A flexitarian diet allows for the flexibility for individuals to still consume fish regularly and can provide better overall nutrient balance.

Flexibility

Nothing is eliminated from the flexitarian diet. Rather, the focus is on increasing plant-based foods while reducing the total consumption of animal-based foods. Since all foods fit into this diet, it’s easy to build meals around foods that you enjoy. You can also confidently go to a friend’s dinner party or visit a restaurant while still focusing on the core principles of this diet.

Cost

This plan does not require costly meal replacements or special recipes. Instead, you can choose meals that fit your food budget. Though you may spend more each week on produce, it tends to balance out as you may be spending less each week on meat. 

Weight Loss

Several studies have suggested that semi-vegetarian diets are associated with lower body weight. A 2015 study in Clinical Nutrition Research found that post-menopausal women who followed a semi-vegetarian diet had lower body weight, BMI, and body fat percentage compared to non-vegetarian women. Another 2014 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that semi-vegetarians had lower rates of obesity compared to non-vegetarians.

Reduced Risk of Diabetes

Eating a flexitarian diet may help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. Three different studies—one from 2009 in Diabetes Care, one from 2011 in Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases, and one from 2014 in Nutrition Journal – found that a semi-vegetarian diet was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes compared to non-vegetarians. Similarly, a study in Clinical Nutrition Research found that semi-vegetarian women had lower serum levels of glucose and insulin.

Cons

May Be Difficult for Daily Meat-Eaters

If you grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household, it may be difficult to transition to eating more vegetarian meals. However, the flexitarian diet is about adopting a lifestyle that works for you—this might mean going meatless two days per week and enjoying your beef, chicken, or pork on the other days.

In addition, recent research suggests that modifying mixed dishes to be more vegetable-centric than meat-centric can result in similar flavor profiles and enjoyment. Try mixing chopped mushrooms into your burger, going half and half on meat and lentils in your burrito bowl, or adding more veggies and less pork to your homemade ramen.

Potentially Low Iron Intake

Research among Australian women found that semi-vegetarian women had increased rates of low iron levels, iron deficiency, and anemia compared to non-vegetarian women. Depending on how frequently you’re including meat on the flexitarian diet, you may need to pay extra attention to adding more plant-based iron sources. These include soy, lentils, beans, seeds, leafy greens, and whole grains.

Additional Guidance for Those With Diabetes

Research has shown a flexitarian diet is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes. However, those with diabetes may need a little extra guidance when following this diet. Many plant-based protein sources, like beans and lentils, are also rich in carbohydrates. You may find the total carb count on your meals is a bit higher, which could affect blood sugar levels.

If you have diabetes and want to follow a flexitarian diet, it would be wise to consult with a dietitian who can help you plan meals that fit the correct carb counts for your nutritional needs.

Is the Flexitarian Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

Whether you call it a flexitarian diet or a semi-vegetarian diet, this eating style is typically balanced and supported by most nutrition experts. It's comparable to current recommendations for a healthy, balanced diet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and offers a number of health benefits.

The USDA's ChooseMyPlate tool recommends daily servings of fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein, and whole grains. The USDA notes that protein can come from either plant or animal sources—and the flexitarian diet simply shifts the balance to emphasize more plant sources.

The flexitarian diet and current USDA guidelines support finding an appropriate calorie level for your body. While there is no "official" calorie requirement for the flexitarian diet, Blatner's book does include meal plans based on a 1500-calorie diet to support weight loss. However, an individual's daily calorie needs may vary based on activity level, sex, height, weight, age, and other factors.

If you’re curious about estimating your own calorie needs for weight loss, try using this calorie calculator to meet your goals. This will help you determine whether 1500-calorie meal plans are right for you, or if you should reduce calories further or add calories back in.

The USDA dietary guidelines state that you should: "Choose a healthy eating pattern at an appropriate calorie level to help achieve and maintain healthy body weight, support nutrient adequacy, and reduce the risk of chronic disease," which is in alignment with the philosophy of the flexitarian diet.

Health Benefits

The benefits of a balanced diet rich in nutrients are well documented. Studies show that eating more real, unprocessed foods including fruits and vegetables, plant-based fats and proteins, fish, legumes, whole grains, and nuts can improve health and well-being, promote weight loss, improve heart health, and reduce the risk for chronic diseases like cancer and type 2 diabetes. Research also supports moderate consumption of meat as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

Health Risks

Though there are no known health risks associated with a flexitarian diet, some research has found a link between a semi-vegetarian diet and depression. It’s important to remember that correlation does not always equal causation, which means a semi-vegetarian diet does not necessarily cause depression—there are other factors that may be at play.

However, it’s plausible that some individuals may turn to flexitarian diets as a way to control and restrict their food intake in a “socially acceptable” manner. Some experts believe that restrained eating could be related to such depressive symptoms.

If you find yourself having persistent thoughts about restricting food intake or feel like you may have any type of disordered eating, seek help from a qualified professional.

Similar Diets

The flexitarian diet shares some commonalities with other, similar diets. Here's how they compare:

Flexitarian Diet

  • General nutrition: It includes all food groups and makes it relatively easy to meet nutrient needs (perhaps with a little planning to ensure adequate iron intake).
  • Flexibility: It's very flexible, allowing individuals to make changes to suit their lifestyle. This diet may be difficult for heavy meat eaters, though.
  • Sustainability: Most people should be able to follow it safely for life.
  • Long-term weight loss: Research suggests that flexitarians have a lower body mass index (BMI) and reduced rates of obesity.

Vegetarian Diet

  • General nutrition: It includes all food groups except animal protein (with the exception of eggs and in some cases, fish), although it may be more difficult to meet certain nutrient needs (like vitamin B-12 and iron) depending on overall diet quality.
  • Flexibility: There's more wiggle room on a vegetarian diet than many popular diets; however, there is not as much flexibility here as with the flexitarian diet. Individuals have a wide range of food choices but do not eat any meat.
  • Sustainability: Most people should be able to follow it safely for life, but may need additional planning to meet nutrient needs.
  • Long-term weight loss: Similar to the flexitarian diet, research suggests lower BMIs and lower rates of obesity among vegetarians.

Whole30 Diet

  • General nutrition: The Whole30 eliminates several food categories including grains, legumes, and dairy, putting individuals at risk for nutrient imbalances. Unlike the flexitarian diet, there are no reductions in meat intake, but the diet does push for organic and grass-fed meat.
  • Flexibility: It can be challenging to follow, particularly for social events and eating out.
  • Sustainability: Whole30 is focused on short-term change, as opposed to the flexitarian diet which is focused on lifelong habits. Whole30 is overly restrictive for most people to follow long-term.
  • Long-term weight loss: There are no current peer-reviewed studies indicating Whole30 supports sustainable weight loss.

Mediterranean Diet

  • General nutrition: Similar to the flexitarian lifestyle, the core of the diet is plant-based fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish. It also includes all food groups, though it differentiates that fish can be eaten regularly while red meat should be consumed more sparingly.
  • Flexibility: Fairly flexible—but those who enjoy red meat regularly may have a hard time sticking to it for the long term.
  • Sustainability: Most people should be able to follow it safely for life.
  • Long-term weight loss: Research suggests the Mediterranean diet can support weight loss. This is probably the most comparable option to the flexitarian diet, and either option could be good for achieving weight loss and overall health promotion.

Of course, there is no one diet that is right for everyone. The best diet is the one that you can stick to for life, and that helps address your personal health goals.

A Word From Verywell

The flexitarian diet can help guide you toward a well-balanced, nutrient-dense eating plan. You’ll focus on adding more plant-based foods while slowly reducing your intake of animal foods. You’ll never need to eliminate meat on this diet though; you can incorporate it into your lifestyle in a way that works for you.

While heavy meat eaters may find it difficult to adjust to this lifestyle, it does offer flexibility—whether that means just a few meatless meals each week or working toward predominately vegetarian dishes. Following the flexitarian diet can improve your overall health and may promote weight loss. If you plan to use this diet to lose weight, keep in mind other factors—like sleep and regular exercise—play a role in weight loss and weight management as well.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, and budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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Article Sources
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