A Flexitarian Diet
What Is A Flexitarian Diet?
Flexitarian is a relatively recent term used to describe a diet that emphasizes vegetarian foods but is flexible enough to permit occasionally eating meat, poultry or fish. It can serve as a gradual transition from a meat-based diet to one that is mostly vegetarian, ideally with only two meals per week including animal-based foods. The diet was popularized by a 2008 book, The Flexitarian Diet, by dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner.
How Healthy Is A Flexitarian Diet?
Consuming plant-based foods and limiting those from animals can yield many of the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, including a lower risk of heart disease and hypertension. While the health benefits of the flexitarian diet itself haven’t been researched, a study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in 2016 found that even moderate changes in the direction of a plant-based diet can help prevent type 2 diabetes. The researchers reported that a healthy version of a plant-based diet was linked with a 34 percent lower risk of diabetes, while a less healthy version, which included such foods as refined grains, potatoes and sugar-sweetened beverages, was associated with a 16 percent increased risk of the disease.
In addition, results from a study that tracked and analyzed the eating habits of 451,256 Europeans from 10 countries for 13 years demonstrated that those whose diet contained about 70 percent plant-based foods had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to those whose diet consisted of less than 45 percent of plant-based foods.
How Popular Is It?
According to findings from a 2018 Gallup poll, an increasing percentage of U.S. consumers seem to be eating more plant-based foods, although they’re not prepared to completely stop eating meat, chicken and fish. Reportedly, sales of plant-based food totaled $3.1 billion in 2017, an increase of 8.1 percent over 2016. These changes appear to reflect growing interest in the flexitarian way of eating. The Flexitarian diet is one of several popular diets reviewed on DrWeil.com.
General Principles Of A Flexitarian Diet
Apart from the health benefits of a predominantly vegetarian diet, reducing consumption of protein foods from animals by 18 percent could lead to a tenfold reduction in household greenhouse gas emissions. In this way, the flexitarian diet dovetails with efforts to slow climate change. A study from the UK’s University of Oxford found that while meat and dairy provide only 18 percent of calories and 37 percent of protein, raising the animals that serve these industries produces 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. To study the environmental impact of food production the investigators surveyed nearly 40,000 farms in 119 countries, and researched 40 different foods that represent 90 percent of what we eat. They looked at the impact of these foods “from farm to fork” on land use, climate change emissions, fresh water use, and both water and air pollution.
What Can You Eat?
The flexitarian diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Sources of protein include soybeans and whole soy foods like tofu and tempeh, and other legumes, as well as some meat, poultry or fish. The diet excludes processed foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugar and sweets.
How Many Calories On A Flexitarian Diet?
Since this is not a weight-loss diet (although you’ll probably drop a few pounds if you follow it), but an eating plan, calories aren’t limited. However, if you follow the five-week meal plan that introduces you to the diet, you will likely consume about 300 calories at breakfast, 400 at lunch and 500 at dinner, plus about 150 for each snack. You can increase or decrease those counts depending on your height, weight, and the amount of physical activity you are accustomed to getting.
What Do Doctor’s Say?
A study published in 2016 summarized the medical evidence supporting the health benefits associated with flexitarian diets, including weight loss, improved metabolic health and lowered risk of diabetes. The lead British researcher noted that most flexitarians seem to be women and saw “a clear need to communicate the potential health benefits of these diets to males.” In general, doctors are aware that a plant-based diet is healthier than the typical Western diet and that vegetarians and vegans have significantly lower body mass index (BMI) and lower levels of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and blood glucose. Studies have also shown that people eating plant-based diets have a 25 percent reduced risk of incidence of ischemic heart disease and death due to this condition as well as a 15 percent lower risk of cancer.
Dr. Weil’s Take On The Flexitarian Diet:
Dr. Weil has said that in some respects, the flexitarian approach is not very different from his Anti-Inflammatory Diet, which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and other legumes, and healthy fats. The Anti-Inflammatory Diet also encourages you to eat fish and seafood two to six times a week but restricts other sources of animal protein, except for high-quality cheeses and yogurt and some eggs.
Dr. Weil has said that even with the occasional indulgence of a steak, becoming a flexitarian or a part-time vegetarian is better for your health than following the mainstream American diet. If you decide on the flexitarian approach, he suggests limiting your servings to three ounces when you do eat meat. He also recommends eating grass-finished beef free of antibiotics and hormones. When eating fish, choose wild Alaska salmon (especially sockeye) herring, sardines and black cod (sablefish), all of which are rich in omega 3 fats.
E.J. Derbyshire, “Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence Based Literature,” Frontiers in Nutrition, January 6, 2017, doi: 10.3389/fnut.2016.00055.eCollection 2016
Ambika Satija et al, “Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies,” PLoS, June 14, 2016, doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039