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 healthcare 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 proposes that you can reap many of the benefits of a vegetarian diet while still enjoying meat when the craving strikes.

The "flexitarian" designation entered the mainstream around 2008 when registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner published her book, "The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life."

Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD

I want to be a vegetarian because of the countless health benefits. I also want to enjoy backyard barbecue hamburgers, 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 eating pattern is intended for anyone who wants to eat a more nutritious diet but doesn’t want to completely give up their favorite meat indulgences.

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

The U.S. News and World Report ranks the flexitarian diet number two 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 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, it can be easier to stick with than more restrictive eating plans.

There are no specific recipes to follow 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 for 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 meal plan—along with two 150-calorie snacks in between meals.

You’ll find slight modifications to this plan if you need a greater or fewer number 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 people may need to make certain adjustments and exceptions to ensure the flexitarian diet meets their individual nutrition needs.

Studies show that a vegetarian diet offers significant physical and even 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.

Low iron levels are common during pregnancy and semi-vegetarian diets have been associated with lower iron levels. People who are pregnant or breastfeeding and 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

Vegetables 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 sweet tooth, the flexitarian diet recommends turning to fruit. It offers sweetness along with many nutrients, fiber, and water, which keep you feeling full and hydrated.

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 (as opposed to refined 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 and animal proteins, 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 get protein when you're enjoying a meatless meal.

Dairy

The flexitarian diet allows dairy and, thanks to its bone-strengthening combo of calcium and vitamin D, it's a nutritious choice. 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 your total consumption. The weekly amount of meat will vary based on your personal preferences.

At a minimum, the diet generally recommends at least 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. That said, with no formal rules guiding meat consumption for flexitarians, 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.

Sample Shopping List

With no restrictions on a flexitarian diet other than avoiding or limiting processed foods, there are many foods you can consume if you choose to follow this lifestyle. The following shopping list offers suggestions for getting started on a flexitarian diet.

Note that this is not a definitive shopping list and you may find other foods that work better for you.

  • Dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, collard greens)
  • Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, mushrooms, carrots)
  • Fresh and frozen fruits (grapefruit, oranges, berries, bananas, apples)
  • Healthy fats (avocados, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, olive oil)
  • Grains (quinoa, white or brown rice, barley, couscous)
  • Bread (whole-grain, sourdough, pumpernickel)
  • Legumes (black beans, pinto beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Meat and poultry (lean cuts of beef, chicken breast, turkey breast)
  • Fresh or frozen fish (halibut, salmon, cod, snapper, shrimp)
  • Dairy products (yogurt, feta, parmesan, Manchego, cottage cheese)
  • Eggs

Sample Meal Plan

Although you don't have to avoid any food groups, you will want to incorporate more plant-based meals into regular rotation on this plan. The following five-day meal plan should give you a general sense of what a well-balanced flexitarian diet could look like.

Note that this meal plan is not all-inclusive. If you do choose to adopt this lifestyle, there may be other meals that are more appropriate for your tastes, preferences, and budget.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Emphasizes nutritious foods

  • Easy to accommodate personal preferences

  • Budget-friendly

  • Can support healthy weight loss

  • May reduce risk of diabetes

  • Sustainable

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

  • Potential for 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, health goals, and taste preferences. However, like all diets, there are still a few drawbacks to consider.

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 (perhaps with a little planning to ensure adequate iron intake).

For comparison, stricter vegetarian and vegan diets may fall short in vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, which is 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 a better overall nutrient balance.

Flexibility

No food groups are 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 make changes to suit your lifestyle and 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 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, body mass index (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-vegetarian diets.

Similarly, a study in Clinical Nutrition Research found that semi-vegetarian women had lower serum levels of glucose and insulin.

Research suggests that flexitarians have a lower body mass index (BMI) and reduced rates of obesity. For weight loss, weight management, and improved health, most people should be able to follow a flexitarian diet safely for life.

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. That might mean going meatless just two days per week at first. You can always add more meat-free days as you become accustomed to them.

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 sources of iron. These include soy, lentils, beans, seeds, leafy greens, and whole grains.

Additional Guidance

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, consult with a registered dietitian who can help you plan meals that fit the appropriate carb counts for your nutritional needs.

Is the Flexitarian Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The flexitarian diet shares some commonalities with other, similar diets, including:

  • A vegetarian diet includes all food groups except animal protein (with the exception of eggs and in some cases fish), but there is not as much flexibility.
  • The Whole30 diet eliminates several food categories—including grains, legumes, and dairy—with no restrictions on meat intake other than to eat organic and unprocessed animal products.
  • The Mediterranean diet is mostly plant-based with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish. Like the flexitarian diet, research suggests the Mediterranean diet can also support weight loss.

Whether you call it a flexitarian diet or a semi-vegetarian diet, the flexitarian lifestyle 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 1,500-calorie diet to support weight loss.

Daily calorie needs may vary based on activity level, sex, height, weight, age, and other factors. If you want to estimate your own calorie needs for weight loss, try using this calorie calculator to meet your goals. This will help you determine whether 1,500-calorie meal plans are right for you.

The USDA dietary guidelines state that following a healthy eating pattern can help "promote health, reduce risk of chronic disease, and meet nutrient needs," 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 whole, 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
  • Reduce the risk of 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, however, that correlation does not always equal causation, which means a semi-vegetarian diet does not necessarily cause depression—there may be other factors 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 restricted 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.

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.

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, 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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18 Sources
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