Nowadays it is pretty common to hear the word "flexitarian" when there are conversations revolving around a healthy diet, vegetarianism, and being cautious about what you eat. But what does the word flexitarian actually implies and how can a minor shift in your diet help the environment in tackling global food insecurity and decrease the risk of you getting cancer or heart-related diseases?
What does flexitarian mean?
In the simplest definition, the flexitarian diet is a combination of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian.” It’s a cross between full vegan and vegetarian with the ability to enjoy animal products every so often. Flexitarianism could also be described as abstaining from eating meat on a part-time basis. A flexitarian, then, curtails his or her meat intake by abstaining from eating meat occasionally without fully abandoning meat. A flexitarian diet includes meat, in contrast to those of vegetarians who follow a meat-free diet and vegans who follow a strict plant-based diet from which all animal-based foods are excluded.
All in all, you’re still focusing on fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, but you occasionally still enjoy meat.
In the 2022 Best Diet Rankings by U.S. News & World Report, the flexitarian diet was ranked No. 2 in the Best Diets Overall category, in terms of long-term health and disease prevention, and No. 2 in Best Diets for Diabetes. It was also ranked No. 2 in the Best Plant-Based Diets (second to the Mediterranean diet). And unsurprisingly, the diet also took home second in the Easiest Diets to Follow category in 2022, suggesting that its less-than-rigid nature helps people maintain it.
How does a flexitarian diet exactly work?
“You can think of this diet as a ‘vegetarian-ish’ way of eating, since the plan touts the basic principles and benefits of a plant-based diet, along with the inclusion of some animal proteins to a lesser extent,” says Dawn Jackson (DJ) Blatner, RDN, the Chicago-based author of The Flexitarian Diet, the book that inspired the diet trend.
As its name promises, the diet is flexible, but it has guidelines about how much meat you should eat. In her book, Blatner suggests that eaters who are new to the flexitarian diet should first try "Beginner Flexitarian" and forgo meat two days a week, eating no more than 26 ounces (737 grams) of meat in total during the remaining five days. For reference, a card-deck-size portion of chicken or steak is about 3 oz (85 grams), while a piece the size and thickness of your palm (including fingers) clocks in at 4 to 6 oz(113-170 grams).
If thinking about grams of meat per week confuses you, use the following guidelines instead.
- Beginner 6–8 meatless meals of 21 total meals each week
- Advanced 9–14 meatless meals of 21 total meals each week
- Expert 15+ meatless meals of 21 total meals each week
The benefits of sticking to a flexitarian diet
The benefits of being vegetarian carry over to this diet, which is why the flexitarian diet is recommended for people who are curious about vegetarianism, and occasionally for former vegans or vegetarians who may have experienced nutritional deficiencies as a result of going completely meat-free. But it’s also a great option for anyone who wants to adopt a healthier lifestyle because it foregrounds plants without being anti-meat, says Liz Weiss, RDN, of Liz’s Healthy Table in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Here’s a closer look at some of the possible benefits of the eating approach.
- Decreased risk of heart disease.
- Weight loss.
- Decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes or management of pre-diabetes.
- It may help prevent cancer.
- It’s good for the environment since you are decreasing your meat consumption and reducing your carbon footprint.
All in all, “focusing on plant-based foods and not eating as much meat can be really hard for some people,” says Patton. “But nowadays you can find great bean-based burgers, canned bean, and lentil soup, and bean-based pasta to start off, but eventually it’s even better to make your own homemade versions by buying plant-based products from the retail stores. Don’t be afraid to get adventurous with this diet!".
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