The Flexitarian Diet

Cover for the Flexitarian Diet

The Promise

Go meatless most of the time, and you’ll lose weight and get healthy with ease. That’s the mission of the Flexitarian Diet, rated No. 3 by U.S. News and World Reports in its 2018 annual rating of 40 diets by a panel of experts. Ratings are based on the diet’s ease of compliance, likelihood of losing significant weight in the short- and long-term, and effectiveness against cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Emma J. Derbyshire, in her article published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, concluded that the Flexitarian Diet offers these health benefits: weight loss, metabolic health, and diabetes prevention.

And, I must say that this is my favorite diet for the reasons I’ve cited.

So, what is a flexitarian diet?

“Flexitarian” is used to describe a diet or a person who eats a “mostly” vegetarian diet but still eats meat occasionally.

But what exactly does this mean? Once a month? Once a week? Once a day? It’s really up to you! It’s a flexible way of eating less meat and transitioning to a healthier all-vegetarian diet.

Author and dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner says that eating mainly plant-based foods is a smart way to cut calories. But she knows not everyone is willing to become 100% vegetarian. Flexitarians (“flexible vegetarians”) eat a lot less meat than they used to but don’t give it up entirely.

Flexitarianism allows you to get the health benefits of a vegetarian diet without giving up meat. Studies show that flexitarians weight on average 15% less, have a lower rate of heart disease, diabetes and cancer and live nearly four years longer than their carnivorous counterparts.

The Flexitarian Diet encourages people to try alternative meat options, like tofu, but leaves room for flexibility if you can’t quite give up all your meat. The diet was promoted by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner in a 2009 book that says you can reap the benefits of a plant-heavy diet even if you eat meat occasionally, according to U.S. News and World Report.

This plant-heavy diet focuses on adding five food groups – “new meat,” fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy and sugar and spices – to your diet, instead of taking foods away. The “new meat” food group includes tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds and eggs, according to U.S. News and World Report.

What are the Health Benefits?

Typically, you will lose weight when you cut or reduce the amount of meat (beef, chicken, pork, fish) you eat. At your next doctor’s checkup, you will be pleasantly surprised by the improvements in your cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, and cardiovascular profile. The less meat you choose to eat, the greater the improvements.

The Flexitarian Diet will do your body good in these ways:

  • Weight Loss. Studies show that on a vegan or vegetarian diet, you will lose more weight than those who consume meat – even you may be eating the same number of calories.
  • Heart Improvement. Ditching meat automatically lowers the amount of saturated fat in your diet, in turn reducing your cardiovascular disease risk. Dr. Dean Ornish conducted the most extensive study ever done on this favorable effect.
  • Lower Blood Pressure. Not eating meat and the higher intake of fruits and vegetables result in less hypertension, according to the journal Public Health Nutrition.
  • Reduced Diabetes Risk. According to the American Diabetes Association, vegetarians have a decreased risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors linked to type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. An all plant-based diet lowers blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides. And a bonus: you will have a smaller waist than those who regularly consume meat and meat products.
  • Cancer Risk. Loma Linda University did a 10-year study of nearly 70,000 Seventh Day Adventists, many of whom avoid eating meat. Their researchers found a decreased risk for all cancer types among non-meat eaters.
  • Less Belly Bloat. Eating more veggies and legumes ups your fiber intake. More fiber: less constipation, improved digestion; less bloat. Blatner, the author of The Flexitarian Diet, says “When you have regular digestion and are not bloated, you’ll feel thinner, energized, and possibly even sexier. And you won’t over-the-counter products to regulate your bowel movements.
  • Glowing Skin. Meatless eating does wonders for your skin. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are loaded with antioxidants, which neutralize the free radicals that can bring on wrinkles, brown spots, and other signs of aging. Eating more of these foods is a great anti-aging tool.
  • Smell and Look Better. According to a research article in the journal Chemical Senses, a meatless diet not only makes you smell more pleasant, but it also makes you “significantly more attractive, more pleasant, and less intense.”
  • Be Happier. Fruits and veggies are natural mood boosters, according to researchers at the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College. Among the 80,000 people studied in Great Britain, their mental well-being increased with the number of daily portions of fruit and vegetables they ate and peaked at seven servings.
  • Increased Energy. Eating more spinach, kale, beans, and other foods high in dietary nitrates energizes you over time. This is because nitrates have vascular benefits, reduce blood pressure, and may even enhance exercise performance in healthy people.

What You Can Eat?

Nothing is off-limits, but the goal is to add more plant-based foods to your diet while cutting back on meat.

The book has a short assessment of eating habits that will determine how you begin. Blatner considers you a beginner flexitarian if you have two meatless days per week (26 ounces of meat or poultry per week).

Advanced flexitarians skip meat 3 to 4 days a week (18 ounces of meat or poultry a week).

Experts go meatless 5 or more days a week (9 ounces of meat or poultry).

Level of Effort: Moderate

The Flexitarian Diet does urge you to make more meatless changes, but baby steps are okay, too. Blatner suggests doing at least one shift per day, so you won’t feel overwhelmed. The recipes also focus on simplicity; each one includes just five main ingredients.

Limitations: If you’re reluctant to eat extra veggies and experiment with unfamiliar sources of protein, this plan may not work for you.

Cooking and shopping: Meal prep is kept relatively easy, but you will need to stock up on fresh produce regularly and get comfortable in the kitchen.

Packaged food or meals: No.

In-person meetings: No.

Exercise: It’s a must. You’ll need to be active for 30 minutes most days just for good health. Shift to 90 minutes most days if you want to slim down.

Does It Allow for Dietary Restrictions or Preferences?

Yes. The “flex” in flexitarian means that it’s all about options.

Vegetarians and vegans: This diet would definitely work for you.

Gluten-free: Though this diet isn’t specifically about gluten, you should be able to choose gluten-free foods.

What Else You Should Know

Cost: Just your food. Though fresh produce can be expensive, you may actually save money because vegetarian proteins (tofu, beans, etc.) are generally cheaper than meat and poultry.

Support: You can do this plan on your own. Blatner encourages people to buddy up (especially when it comes to exercise), but there are no official groups.

What Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, Says

Does It Work?

It can help you lose weight, but how much you eat still counts.

Research shows that vegetarians tend to weigh less than people who eat meat. Plus, plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables are generally high in nutrition and low in calories and are essential parts of a heart-healthy diet.

Becoming a vegetarian doesn’t guarantee weight loss, but adding more plant-based foods to your diet can help your health in many ways.

Is It Good for Certain Conditions?

Eating more plant-based foods, which tend to be low in saturated fat and cholesterol-free, can help prevent and treat various health conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

The Final Word

The diet’s strengths are that it can help anyone eat a more healthful, plant-based diet. This, in turn, may help you manage your weight and improve your health.

Where the diet falls short is that it may not provide enough structure or guidance for people who need to lose weight quickly due to health condition complications.

It also doesn’t show you how to sensibly include higher-fat meat products in your diet.

If you’re looking to add more plant-based foods to your diet gradually without the commitment of becoming a full-fledged vegetarian, this is the ideal plan for you. The recipes are simple and geared toward beginner cooks.

This book may not be for you if you are happy with your meat-eating ways or if you’re already a vegetarian with more advanced cooking skills.

Source: Based on a review by WebMD

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