The major benefits of a flexitarian diet

Not heard of going flexitarian? It simply means ‘flexible vegetarian’ and could be the way that we should all be eating

If the thought of going vegan or totally vegetarian is too much, you could try one of the latest food trends instead – flexitarianism.

Flexitarians are, as the name suggests, flexible vegetarians. They mainly eat a plant-based diet, but occasionally have meat dishes or other animal products.

Intrigued by the idea? Discover the major benefits of a flexitarian diet below.

What is flexitarianism?

Flexitarians are ‘casual’ vegetarians – they mostly eat plants but don’t completely cut out eating meat.1 They are different to reducetarians who are meat-eaters, but work towards reducing the amount of meat and animal products they consume. The flexitarian diet was first designed by nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner in 2010. She describes it as a healthy way of eating that minimises meat without excluding it altogether.2

The rise in flexitarianism follows the recent boom in veganism, with 34% of Brits now limiting the amount of meat they eat.3 Flexitarians are largely motivated by the desire to eat a healthier diet, concerns about the environment and ethical issues such as animal welfare.4

What can I eat on a flexitarian diet?

The flexitarian diet actually encourages you to add new foods to your plate – more vegetables, legumes and plant-based proteins – rather than taking anything away.

A typical flexitarian diet5 includes:
  • at least five portions of fruits and veg every day
  • plant-based protein, like tofu, chickpeas and lentils, instead of meat
  • fewer processed and junk foods, like crisps, bacon and sugary drinks
  • occasional unprocessed meat and other animal products, like eggs or milk

A typical day’s meals may be:

  • peanut butter porridge with an apple
  • Mexican tofu wrap with peppers, black beans and guacamole
  • lentil, chickpea and cauliflower curry with spiced quinoa
  • cashew nuts, dried fruits and vegan chocolate mousse as snacks

What are the benefits of a flexitarian diet?

There are several major benefits to going flexitarian – for you and the environment.

Better health and wellbeing

While there aren’t many studies that just focus on flexitarians, there is a lot of research into the health benefits of going vegetarian or vegan.

Studies have found eating this way can help reduce your risk of:

  • heart disease – a 1999 review of studies involving more than 75,000 people found the mortality rate from heart disease was 24% lower in vegetarians and 20% lower in people only occasionally eating meat6
  • colorectal cancer – the NHS says that eating less red and processed meats may reduce your risk of developing this condition7
  • diabetes ­– cases of diabetes are around 5% lower in vegans compared to non-vegetarians, according to a 2009 study published in Diabetes Care8
Going flexitarian could help with weight loss, too. A major review of 87 studies revealed that vegetarians are very rarely overweight or obese.9 This is most likely because replacing fatty, high-calorie foods ­– like meat, dairy and junk foods – with high-fibre, low-carb plant alternatives has been found to help with weight loss.10

A boost for the environment

Food production is a major cause of climate change, water depletion and pollution – rearing animals for food is said to be as damaging for the planet as burning fossil fuels.11 But if more people ate a flexitarian diet, this could help the environment. According to a major 2018 study, if the world adopted a flexitarian diet, the greenhouse gas emissions produced by farming would reduce by half.12 This would be a major boost in the bid to tackle climate change.

Animal welfare

Although people tend to choose a flexitarian diet to improve their health, some are also motivated by animal welfare issues.13 Many sheep, pigs, chickens and cows will have spent their lives in cramped and dirty conditions.

But being careful about the meat you buy – either organic, free-range or from a local butchers or farm shop where you can find out about the animal’s life – is an important step towards better animal welfare.

Are there any downsides to going flexitarian?

A well-balanced flexitarian diet is a very healthy way to eat, but you need to plan your meals properly to avoid missing out on any essential vitamins or minerals.

According to the NHS,14 people following a mostly plant-based diet can lack key nutrients that are mainly found in meat or animal products.

These include:

  • vitamin B12 ­– boost your intake with fortified cereals or plant milks, and consider a supplement of vitamin B12
  • iron – plant sources include lentils and dark-green vegetables, like spinach and broccoli
  • calcium – find it in fortified plant milks, almonds and wholemeal bread
  • protein – up your intake with beans, pulses and soya products like tofu

If you think you may still be lacking, taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement can help plug any gaps in your diet.

How to go flexitarian

If you’ve ever tried to ditch meat or dairy and failed, you’re not alone. Research shows 84% of vegans and vegetarians eventually give up – 53% of those quit after just one year.15 Which is why going flexitarian is a good place to begin. Blatner says that new flexitarians should start simple – try two meat-free days a week and around eight small portions of meat spread between the rest of your meals. Work up to five meat-free days and three small portions.16 If this still feels like too much, smaller commitments like Meat-Free Mondays are a great idea you want to improve the impact your diet has on animals, the environment and your health.

Try this Vegan Mexican-style breakfast recipe to kick off your flexitarian diet

Shop Vegan Food Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies. Written by Rosalind Ryan on November 15, 2018 Reviewed by Vegan GP Dr Rebecca Jones on November 25, 2018

Sources
1. BBC Good Food. What is a flexitarian diet? Available from: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/what-flexitarian-diet
2. Dawn Jackson Blatner. The Flexitarian Diet. Available from: http://dawnjacksonblatner.com/books/the-flexitarian-diet/
3. Mintel. UK meat-free food markets report 2018. Available from: https://store.mintel.com/uk-meat-free-foods-market-report
4. As above
5. As Source 2
6. Key TJ, et al. Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/70/3/516s/4714974
7. NHS. Red meat and the risk of bowel cancer. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/red-meat-and-the-risk-of-bowel-cancer/
8. Tonstad S, et al. Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2671114/
9. Berkow SE, Barnard N. Vegetarian diets and weight status. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16673753
10. Science Daily. To shed weight, go vegan. Available from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150630121807.htm
11. Felicity Carus. The Guardian. UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/jun/02/un-report-meat-free-diet
12. Marco Springmann. Nature Research. Options for keeping the food system within planetary limits. Available from: https://sustainabilitycommunity.nature.com/users/181504-marco-springmann/posts/39688-options-for-keeping-the-food-system-within-planetary-limits
13. De Backer X, Hudders L. Meat morals: relationship between meat consumption consumer attitudes towards human and animal welfare and moral behaviour. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0309174014002769
14. NHS. Vegetarian and vegan diets Q&A. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/vegetarian-and-vegan-diets-q-and-a/#do-vegetarians-and-vegans-need-vitamin-supplements
15. Alison Lenton. Faunalytics. Just How Hard Is It To Become Vegan? Available from: https://faunalytics.org/just-how-hard-is-it-to-become-vegn/

16. As Source 2

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