A flexitarian, or semi-vegetarian, diet is a style of eating that encourages a diet similar to vegetarianism. The difference, however, is that a flexitarian diet allows moderate consumption of meat and other animal products.
The flexibility that characterizes this style of eating is where the diet gets its name from.
In this article, we provide an overview of the flexitarian diet, its benefits and risks, foods to eat and avoid, and a sample meal plan.
American dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner created the flexitarian diet in 2008. The term “flexitarian” is a fusion of “flexible” and “vegetarian.”
By doing so, the diet is less restrictive, which may allow for more variation and make it easier to adhere to the diet. It may be a suitable option for people wishing to add more plant-based foods to their diet without giving up meat.
The flexitarian diet primarily involves a vegetarian-style diet, with the inclusion of occasional meat or fish.
A 2017 review suggests that a flexitarian diet may:
- reduce blood pressure
- reduce body weight
- improve metabolic health
- reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
- help with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease
The International Food Information Council also identify several potential health benefits, such as:
- helping with adequate fiber intake, which can help with digestion and absorption of nutrients
- reducing a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease
- helping a person get enough vitamins and minerals through their diet
- aligning with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020, which recommends emphasizing fruits, vegetables, dairy, whole grains, and a range of protein
The EAT–Lancet Commission, a group of scientists from 16 different countries, note that a flexitarian diet may be more sustainable than diets high in meat and other animal products.
A 2018 study also suggests that adopting a flexitarian diet can help individuals reduce their impact on the environment. It also notes that eating meat in moderation can overcome nutritional deficits people may experience with vegetarianism, such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 deficiencies.
It is unlikely a person will experience negative health impacts from following a flexitarian diet with adequate planning and understanding.
However, a primarily vegetarian diet can place people at risk of nutrient deficits. According to an older study, a restrictive or monotonous vegetarian diet may result in nutritional deficiencies.
A 2019 study also notes that plant-based meat substitutes may not always be a healthful alternative and may fall short of key nutrients.
According to a 2018 study, people following a flexitarian diet may be vulnerable to maladaptive eating. It indicates that people may struggle with the eating style and may be more susceptible to depression.
A person should contact their doctor or dietician if they are not sure how best to incorporate a flexitarian diet. Healthcare professionals can help guide a person on the appropriate amount of meat or fish to include to help avoid potential nutritional deficiencies, such as iron, zinc, or vitamin B12.
A flexitarian diet could be a major overhaul for some people’s diets.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only one in 10 adults in the United States eat the amount of recommended fruits and vegetables per day. A 2017 study also found that only 5% of adults and children in the U.S. eat enough fiber in their diets.
People whose food choices are more in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 may not find it too difficult to follow a flexitarian diet. Those eating higher amounts of fats, carbohydrates, and animal protein may benefit from making small shifts.
Western Oregon University have a simple breakdown for people interested in starting a flexitarian diet. Based on 21 meals per week, they recommend the following:
- Beginner flexitarian: between six and eight meals per week without meat
- Intermediate flexitarian: between nine and 14 meals per week without meat
- Advanced flexitarian: 15 or more meals per week without meat
A person can seek support from online communities, friends, and family. They may also consider talking with a dietician about ways to make a successful transition to a flexitarian diet.
This type of diet may not appeal to everyone. However, if followed appropriately, it may help with reaching or maintaining a moderate weight and preventing certain conditions.
The flexitarian diet focuses on whole, minimally processed foods. It emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based protein sources.
Following a flexitarian diet plan, a person can regularly include foods such as:
- whole grains
- vegetables, including starchy, non-starchy, and leafy greens
- protein sources, such as beans and legumes
- nuts and seeds, except overly processed nuts that contain salt or sugar
- seasonings such as dried spices
- water and unsweetened drinks
The flexitarian plan suggests that a person reduce the amount of animal protein they intake. In other words, a person can include protein and fat from animals, but it should not be a regular part of their diet.
Other foods whose intake one should minimize when following a flexitarian diet may include:
- trans fats
- overly processed foods containing excess sugars or sodium
- refined carbohydrates, such as white breads, pastas, or rice
A person can include a lot of foods on the flexitarian diet. A person should contact a registered dietician about potential plans that are suitable for their needs.
According to Western Oregon University, a sample 1-day meal plan for someone on a flexitarian diet may consist of the following:
- Breakfast: eggs, cooked spinach, and whole-wheat toast with avocado
- Lunch: quinoa salad with tomatoes, bell peppers, black beans, and corn
- Dinner: tacos with grilled fish, bell peppers, and onions
- Snacks: grapes, almonds, or other minimally processed nuts
The flexitarian diet is an eating style similar to vegetarianism, but it allows a person to occasionally eat animal products, such as meat. The diet emphasizes an intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains while limiting the amount of meat products a person consumes.
Research generally suggests that the flexitarian diet may have health and environmental benefits but that people should ensure they maintain a healthful and balanced diet and avoid any nutritional deficiencies.
If a person chooses to try the flexitarian diet, it may be advisable to ease into it and make small changes. They should also speak with a dietician and discuss any concerns they may have.