Flexitarian diets are semi-vegetarian diets (SVDs) that allow the occasional inclusion of animal meat (poultry or fish preferred to red meat) within a plant-based meal plan. The term flexitarian, a shortened form of “flexible vegetarian,” was coined by Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian (RD) who published the first flexitarian diet book in 2010 with a publisher well-known in the field of medical education. Other terms that have been used for flexitarian diets are “reducitarianism” and “lessetarianism,” which refer to the goal of reducing meat consumption, and “vegetable-forward,” which refers to the fact that these diets are still essentially plant-centered.
Several different types of vegetarians call themselves flexitarians in that they allow some form of animal protein in their diets:
Various types of semi-vegetarian diets have existed for many years but were not labeled as flexitarian until the appearance of Blatner's book in 2010. Since that time, a number of other diet books and cookbooks with flexitarian in their titles have been published. Blatner states on her website that her own experience studying dietetics and nutrition at the college and graduate level led her to emphasize the importance of compassion for one's body, less judgmentalism toward the self and others, and individualism—taking charge of one's own dietary choices. “Ultimately only you will know what makes your body feel healthy and your mind feel satisfied.”
The exact number of people in the developed countries who would call themselves flexitarians is difficult to determine because so many different eating patterns qualify. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), however, reported that within a year of the publication of Blatner's book, the number of people who identified themselves as either semi-vegetarians or “meat reducers” was on the rise, while the number of strict vegans and vegetarians remained small (about 3% of the U.S. population).
Strict vegetarians and vegans are divided in their opinions of flexitarian diets. Some regard flexitarianism as cheating or as a violation of the moral reasons usually given for avoiding meat consumption (animal rights, objection to factory farming, objection to killing animals for food, and environmental concerns being the most common). Other vegetarians and vegans, however, regard any reduction of animal meat consumption and a corresponding increase in plant-based eating patterns as beneficial and also as a way to bring vegetarian and vegan arguments for plant-based diets to the attention of a wider cross-section of the general public.
A number of flexitarian diet plans have been developed. Two of the best-known are:
Blatner's 2010 book is intended as a guide to weight loss as well as an introduction to plant-based eating and reduction of meat consumption. She recommends a calorie intake of about 1,500 calories per day, divided into a 3–4–5 plan: a 300 calorie breakfast, 400 calorie lunch, and 500 calorie dinner, with two 150 calorie snacks. The timing of the meals can be adjusted to fit the dieter's schedule. In addition to specific recipes, all of which require no more than five ingredients, Blatner offers what she calls Flex Swaps, which allow the dieter to add small amounts of fish, chicken, or meat to vegetarian recipes.
The flexibility of Blatner's approach to food selection extends to the pacing of adopting her regimen. Dieters can use her sample recipes while adding more plant-based foods to their meals at their own pace, or they can adopt Blatner's three-stage approach to eating less meat. Blatner defines beginning flexitarians as having two meatless days per week with no more than 26 ounces (737 g) of meat or poultry during the rest of the week; advanced flexitarians go without meat on three or four days with no more than 18 ounces (510 g) of meat or poultry on the other days; and expert flexitarians go meatless on five or more days a week and consume no more than 9 ounces (255g) of meat or poultry on the other day(s).
Blatner states that her flexitarian diet is based on five food groups:
The three-week flexitarian diet plan is more limited than Blatner's, but may be easier for some dieters to follow:
This plan does not specify the calorie content of meals or make any recommendations about physical exercise.
Flexitarian diets are better described as approaches to plant-based eating and meal planning rather than diets in the strict sense. As the word itself implies, they are intended to offer consumers a wide range of options in specific foods, flavorings, and meal preparation while cutting back on meat consumption. Although Blatner's book was written as a guide to weight loss as well as meat reduction, people who do not need to lose weight can choose to follow a flexitarian diet for ethical reasons.
Flexitarian diets offer a number of benefits. First, they are easier to follow for people who need to lose weight and want to enjoy the health benefits of a vegetarian diet without having to give up meat, poultry, or fish entirely. Blatner acknowledges that many people abandon strict vegetarianism or veganism because they cannot follow precisely the restrictions in these diets. She summarizes her food philosophy as follows: “Eat more plants, and do the best you can.” In addition, flexitarian diets allow dieters to obtain some of the protein they need from dairy products, poultry, or fish, and thereby avoid the risk of protein deficiency associated with some vegan diets, making them more balanced nutritionally than extreme plant-based diets.
An additional benefit of flexitarian diets is their high-fiber content. Like other plant-based diets, flexitarian diets ensure an adequate intake of dietary fiber, which helps to maintain digestive health.
Flexitarian diets also help those following them to have fewer conflicts with roommates or family members who are still meat eaters. In addition, flexitarian meal plans make it easier to enjoy an occasional restaurant meal or alcoholic beverage. Some people who have used flexitarian diets also note that these diets can cut food costs because most plant-based foods are less expensive than meat, fish, or poultry.
Vegetarians or vegans can easily use most flexitarian meal plans and recipes. And although Blatner's diet is not specifically labeled gluten-free, it is not difficult to choose gluten-free foods that will fit into a flexitarian meal plan. In addition, flexitarian diets can easily be adjusted to fit kosher dietary regulations. Last, flexitarian diets appeal to people concerned about sustainability because plant-based diets are better suited than meat-based diets to feed growing populations.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics generally recommends flexitarian meals for children as well as adults, but advises parents to make sure that children get enough iron if the whole family is following a flexitarian diet. Iron-fortified cereals or iron-rich plant foods can help ensure that children get enough iron.
Some researchers note that not all foods derived from plants are equally healthful. Present findings indicate that whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes, oils, tea, and coffee are more healthful than sweetened fruit juices, potatoes, refined grains, and sweets. Thus, individuals following a flexitarian diet should still be selective about their food choices.
Little formal research has been done on flexitarian diets as of 2018, most likely because there are a number of different dietary patterns that can be called flexitarian and also because these diets are not extreme in terms of food selection or calorie reduction. There are no clinical trials of flexitarian diets registered with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as of early 2018.
The fact that the original flexitarian diet was designed and published by a registered dietitian is reassuring to many people. The nutrition experts consulted by U.S. News and World Report Health described Blatner's flexitarian diet as “nutritionally sound” and stated that “dieters can expect to stay in line with the government's nutrient recommendations.” Two articles, published in medical journals in 2015 and 2018 respectively, reported that dieters found flexitarian diets more satisfying than strict vegetarian or vegan alternatives, and individuals were better able to maintain their weight loss.
See also Lacto-vegetarianism ; Ovolactovegetarianism ; Plant-based eating ; Raw food diet ; Vegetarianism .
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD