Flexitarian: The Not-Quite-Meatless Path to Better Health
A flexitarian (flexible + vegetarian) style of eating consists predominantly of plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds), but includes animal products (meat, dairy and eggs) in moderation. Despite the inclusion of meat products, protein comes primarily from plant sources like tofu, legumes and nut butters. In this way, flexitarian falls between a vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Some flexitarians eat predominantly vegetarian or vegan, but occasionally include animal products. Others include animal products more frequently, but in small amounts. An emphasis on reduced consumption of processed foods and refined sugars is also common.
The word "flexitarian" is thought to have been created in the early 2000s. This diet has since become a popular way to improve health, reduce chronic disease risk and support the planet, without adopting a strict, solely plant-based diet. A 2020 survey by Packaged Facts found 3 percent of Americans identify as vegan and 5 percent as vegetarian, compared to a whopping 36 percent as flexitarian.
Research has linked consumption of animal products, particularly red and processed meats, to a higher total death rate, as well as increased rates of death by cancer and heart disease. Conversely, a diet higher in plant proteins and lower in animal products offers a plethora of health benefits, such as reduced risk of hypertension, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
A flexitarian diet can help with increased satiation and improve nourishment. It assists with maintaining a healthy body weight and might even help treat inflammatory bowel diseases. In 2003, research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also indicated a flexitarian diet increases life span by 3.6 years, likely due to reduced disease risk.
Positive impact on the planet
Animal agriculture, particularly of cows and other ruminants (such as sheep and deer), creates significant greenhouse gas emissions because of the methane given off by the animals. Additionally, the deforestation to make space for large-scale farms also contributes negatively to the environment. Johns Hopkins researchers found that flexitarian diets in which two-thirds or more of meals are plant-based are more beneficial for the planet than vegetarian diets that incorporate eggs and dairy. The flexitarian diet is cited as the most sustainable diet after veganism. Respectively, these diets are predicted to reduce food-related emissions by 41 percent and 70 percent.
Research even suggests if the global population went flexitarian, the change could keep rising global temperatures below the 2 degrees Celsius marker needed to control climate change.
One great aspect of being flexitarian is there aren't many rules. How often you include animal products, or which you include, is up to you. There's no right or wrong way to do it, so there's no feeling guilty you've "cheated." Because of this, your social life, family time and traditions don't have to change. Flexitarianism is also a cheaper way to eat—one study found that vegetarians save as much as $750 a year.
If you're considering a dietary change
There are important things you should know if you're considering a diet with fewer animal products, since cutting out certain foods can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Anyone reducing animal product intake should incorporate a B-12 supplement and possibly zinc, iron, calcium, vitamin D and/or an omega-3. Pregnant women should consult a doctor because reducing animal product intake can place you at risk for decreased choline and iodine, which are important for a growing baby.
It may be smart to start slowly. Plant-based diets tend to be higher in fiber, which (though great for your health) can be hard on your gastrointestinal system if you're not used to it. You may experience bloating, flatulence or looser stools. Add foods before you take others away. If you're not used to cooking with plant foods and proteins (tofu, seitan, quinoa, lentils), there are loads of recipes online. Research the endless options of store-bought alternatives. Finally, ask questions. You may be surprised at how many friends, coworkers or even family members have cut back on their meat consumption.
Giving up animal-based products entirely may not be for everyone, but reducing consumption can be a great way to boost your health, support the planet and still enjoy your favorite foods.