Even though a plant-based lifestyle is a rising trend today, going completely vegan isn't an option for everyone, for various reasons.

But this doesn't mean you need to forgo a plant-based diet altogether. For the sake of your waistline, conscience, and heart, you can turn to other dietary options, one of which is flexitarianism. And it's exactly as the name suggests — a flexible vegetarian lifestyle.

But, how exactly does flexitarianism work and how can you adopt a sustainable flexitarian lifestyle? That’s what we cover in this complete beginner’s guide.

What is flexitarianism?

Simply put, flexitarianism is a marriage of two words —  flexible + vegetarian. Its meaning stands quite obvious; a flexitarian is anyone who primarily, but not strictly, follows a plant-based diet with occasional servings of meat or fish.

Various dieticians, such as Dawn Jackson devised a flexible approach to accommodate people interested in cutting down their use of animal-based products and still enjoy the benefits a plant-based lifestyle provides. And that is how the flexitarian flare established its roots in the modern green drive.

In 1998, John Kessler described a flexitarian as a meat-eating semi-vegetarian who determines their food pick based on mood rather than a fixed ideology. Since it is not rigid, it won't be wrong to say that flexitarianism involves an open-ended approach towards vegetarianism.

You won't be confined to a rigid meal plan full of 'eat this and not that.' Rather you will be able to enjoy a lot of food choices. Best of all, flexitarianism encourages people to increase their plant intake. Similarly, meat-based foods are gradually removed from the diet.

In scientific terms, we categorize 'meat-eaters' into three groups:

  • Meat consumers
  • Meat avoiders
  • Meat reducers

The flexitarian diet reflects the meat-eating habits of meat reducers. Such an approach is along the lines of semi or part-time vegetarianism.

The best thing about a flexitarian lifestyle is that it doesn't measure calories in each and every morsel of your food. Quite the contrary, you set all measuring instruments aside for a healthier approach. So instead of making a plan riddled with cutting, reducing, and omitting certain foods, you simply add healthier options to the list.

But, none of these benefits are exclusive to the flexitarian diet. So what exactly are people's motivations to follow such a dietary pattern?

Basically, the approach to flexitarianism is multi-pronged, i.e., there is no one reason. Different people follow it for different reasons. Therefore, to make it easy, we categorize flexitarians into three subgroups, namely:

  1. 1
    One Step For Animals (OSFA) Flexitarians
  2. 2
    Climatarian
  3. 3
    Reducetarian

One Step For Animals Flexitarians

This group entertains an ethical approach to reducing animal consumption. OSFA is based on animal welfare and directed:

  • To decrease the number of animal lives lost every day.
  • To entertain people who cannot cut out meat completely.

One Step For Animals believes in ending chickens' brutal and traumatic treatment in factory farms. And that is why they endorse the complete removal of chicken from dietary plans.

Their argument stems from the fact that chickens are raised in factory farms as opposed to cows and sheep — who are allowed to graze in farmlands –  and aren't protected under the animal cruelty laws. Additionally, OSFA argues that 200 chickens provide the same amount of food as one cow.

Climatarian

Contrary to One Step For Animals, the Climatarian diet is driven by environmental concerns. Climatarians advocate for one standard serving of beef per week to reduce its impact on the climate.

Adopting a Climatarian approach can reduce your impact on the climate, as in you cut your carbon footprint by approximately 1000 kg of CO2 every year. In mundane terms, that's like driving from Perth to Brisbane!

Reducetarian

This is the third and final type of flexitarian advocacy group. Reducetarians consider the following three motives to promote a flexitarian diet:

Unlike the first two options, this approach is appealing as it does not follow the all-or-nothing approach. You don’t have to cut out chicken or beef completely. Quite the opposite, you are simply encouraged to reduce your meat intake. The Reducetarian diet does not target any specific meat type. Rather, it gives you the freedom to choose whatever is easy for you to reduce or give up — Be it red meat, white meat, or fish.

What does a flexitarian eat?

Since flexitarianism is a flexible approach to being vegetarian, our primary focus still lies in adding plant-based foods to the menu. So, if you are thinking of adhering to a semi-vegetarian diet plan, amp up on fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains, and nuts.

Of course, you can still enjoy a few helpings of meat every once in a while.

But Dr. Dawn Jackson Blatner, in her book The Flexitarian Diet, limits it to three ounces of meat thrice a week. Staying true to its name, the flexitarian diet allows you to enjoy anywhere between 9 to 28 ounces of meat per week.

Unlike other diets that employ a 'start and stop' approach towards vegetarianism, this diet only calls for a gradual decrease in your daily or weekly meat consumption. For instance, beginners are recommended to set weekly goals, like not eating meat for two days and keeping the net amount below 28 ounces.

Eventually, more plant-based foods can replace meat in your diet until you reach a minimal point. Again there's no such fixed point, and it depends entirely on your discretion.

Many people, especially men, struggle with giving up meat and fish. In fact, the addiction to all animal-based products is a major reason why most people are reluctant to go vegan. Thus, this is where flexitarianism comes in.

Even though not many people entertain the idea that you can benefit yourself and the earth while still enjoying meat. Yet here we are, with a completely functional and reasonable ideology of flexitarianism.

Is flexitarianism better than veganism?

Both veganism and flexitarianism have their set of benefits. But, no diet is one-size-fits-all. So, it isn't easy to give an absolute answer. However, if you take into account the different aspects of both diets, it becomes obvious that flexitarianism is easier to follow.

An online survey found that 36% of participants identified as flexitarians. It is easier to follow and relatively cheaper too. Moreover, there's a higher chance of flexitarians staying true to their commitment since it leaves much room for creativity and choice.

On the other hand, veganism cuts all animal-based products from your diet. Vegans do not eat animal-based products such as poultry, meat, dairy products, and even honey. And the truth is, it's quite hard to follow this dietary lifestyle consistently.

However, as a flexitarian, you only reduce your meat intake. So you may still enjoy animal-based products like milk, cream, yogurt, cheese, honey, etc., as normal people do.

Moreover, it is not easy to shift to a 100% plant-based lifestyle suddenly, as there are a lot of problems with price and availability. Thus, a less radical and more practical approach, aka flexitarianism, seems the better option.

Also, the flexitarian diet recognizes the importance of protein, the primary source of which is meat, while also considering ethics. Thus, it attempts to reduce meat consumption to improve animal welfare. Moreover, it also recognizes the carcinogenic effect of long-term processed and unprocessed red meat consumption.

However, veganism takes the first slot if your reasons are anything other than health concerns. Many people are also going vegan or vegetarian to protect the environment or end animal cruelty.

Since animal slaughter releases considerable methane into the air — a greenhouse gas that enables global warming — adopting a completely green lifestyle can do loads for our environment. In fact, according to researchers at The University of Oxford; going vegan can decrease your carbon footprint  by a whopping 73%.

Similarly, ethical concerns also favor veganism over flexitarianism since you can't end animal cruelty without boycotting all animal-based products from your life.

Is it healthy to be flexitarian? Science-backed evidence

Did you know that nearly 29% of Britain's population pledged to decrease their meat consumption in 2019? Yes, it's true. And this growing trend led researchers to commit a series of studies on the effects of a flexitarian diet. So what did they find?

Effect On Weight Loss

Obesity — the retention of an adverse amount of fat in the body — is basically the mother of all diseases due to its detrimental effects on the human body. But the good news is that a plant-based diet can do wonders for reducing weight and preventing obesity in the first place.

But how does that all happen?

Since plant-based foods are incredibly rich in dietary fibers, you eat less but feel fuller, your digestive system has to work less, and no extra fat is stored. Moreover, reducing meat intake in flexitarians also decreases their net intake of saturated fats. This again translates to less weight gain.

In fact, a Korean study showed that consistent followers of a flexitarian diet have lower body mass index (BMI), body weight, and body fat percentage as regular meat-eaters.

Effect On Cancer

A defender in our body's cells, cancer causes interruption with our cell's genetic instructions. This disturbance further leads the cells to behave and reproduce abnormally. Amongst the various factors that increase the likelihood of cancer, poor diet stands at the top of the food chain.

Unhealthy dietary habits interfere with our body's hormone levels or cause inflammation, resulting in cancer. So, do flexitarians stand a similar cancer risk as the non-vegetarians?

Fortunately, no. You’ll be glad to know that flexible vegetarians have a lower risk of developing cancers, particularly breast cancer, than non-vegetarians.

But it's worth mentioning that this risk is still lower in vegans. Also, the flexitarian diet doesn't seem to have any particular effects on prostate cancer.

Effect On Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic disease of two types:

  • Diabetes type-1(results due to malfunction of insulin production in the pancreas)
  • Diabetes type-2(occurs due to a malfunction in utilization, and not production, of insulin produced by the pancreas)

Following a flexitarian diet is linked with significantly lower levels of glucose and insulin. Moreover, flexitarians also had a lower homeostatic model assessment of insulin resistance. What’s more, an Indian National Family Health Survey showed that followers of a flexitarian diet were associated with a lower risk of diabetes.

Likewise, a similar study conducted by Adventist Health Study-2 showed that flexitarians were among the least at-risk group for diabetes, standing second only after vegans.

What are the pros & cons of a flexitarian diet?

Like all diets, flexitarianism isn't without its pros and cons. You may be wondering if this diet is worth it. So let's find out if its advantages outweigh its disadvantages!

Pros Of Flexitarian Diet

Disease Prevention

Vegetarian diets are linked with a reduced risk of diabetes type-2, cardiovascular disorders, and certain cancers. Moreover, since it is rich in dietary fiber, it positively impacts gut health.

In addition, there's increasing evidence of a flexitarian diet being beneficial for people with Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, such as Crohn's disease. There's yet more to come; the strongest evidence of this diet's positive impact comes concerning weight loss, metabolic health benefits, and blood pressure.

Improves General Health and Life

Because the flexitarian diet benefits from every kind of food in optimum amounts, you can use it to improve your health generally. In addition to being super cost-effective , it's a medication-free method to remove numerous minor health concerns.

Moreover, another study showed that you could use a flexitarian lifestyle to increase your lifespan. Yes, you read that right! Following a plant-based diet aligned with standard dietary guidelines can reduce the global mortality rate by 6% to 10%. Still, think life is too short to experience all the magic that this world offers?

Better For The Environment

Beef and lamb are always in high demand. Unfortunately their farming releases the most amount of methane gas in the environment. Therefore, decreasing the amount of meat consumption, particularly these two, can do a lot of good for the environment.

Less Meat Less Heat is the organization leading this drive. They aim to decrease, if not entirely abolish, beef and lamb farming.

Cons of Flexitarian Diet

There are a few negatives involved with the flexitarian diet. But are they enough to outweigh its benefits? A poorly managed flexitarian diet can induce a couple of harmful effects, they are:

More Junk Food Consumption

Most people never plan their diet properly. They simply go with the flow and eat whatever is available in the fridge. What ends up happening is they start disliking the taste or repetition of fruits and veggies. And eventually go back to unhealthy eating habits.

Moreover, even though plant-based makes us feel fuller, they don't give the same satisfaction as protein-rich foods. So, not creating a well-balanced diet and, more importantly, proper meal prepping, can easily lead you to consume processed or junk food.

May Cause B12 or Iron Deficiency

Meat and fish are packed with B12 and Iron. So, if you are a full-time flexitarian who consumes minimal amounts of meat, better watch out for B12 and iron deficiency!

So what can you do about it? For starters, increase your intake of plant-based iron sources such as garbanzo beans, spinach or lentils. Secondly, use B12 and iron supplements to meet your daily needs.

What is a flexitarian meal plan?

Here's a delicious one-day flexitarian meal plan to get you started on your plant-based journey:

Breakfast

Kick off your day with a nutrient-dense and delicious meal. Prepare a bowl of oatmeal with all-natural peanut butter and a serving of chopped apples.

Lunch

For lunch, you can have chicken or chickpeas with chopped kale. Furthermore, you can add diversity to your meal by preparing a side of roasted sweet potato cubes seasoned with a ranch sauce.

Dinner

End your day with a delicious beef or bean burger and a serving of sweet potato fries with ranch.

Note: Eat meat only once a day, i.e., go with a bean burger if you had chicken during lunch and vice versa.

Snack

You can enjoy carrots, almond butter or dark chocolate, and berries for snacks.

The Takeaway

By the looks of it, the trend of flexitarianism doesn't seem to be subsiding anytime soon. Mostly since it comes with a ton of health benefits — weight loss, metabolic health, heart health, and diabetes prevention.


Although currently, most of its followers are educated women since men have a greater tendency to over-consume meat. However, this can change with proper direction and guidance. And undoubtedly, the number of male flexitarians will increase in due time.


Remember that the key to a successful flexitarian lifestyle — really all diets — lies in proper planning. Here's to hoping that this guide has provided you with a brief insight into the world of flexitarian diet, its mechanism, advantages, disadvantages, and if it is worth it or not (And yes, it totally is).

About the Author Lillian

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