The Flexitarian Diet

Why You Don’t Have to go All-In on Vegan or Vegetarian

Every day we read about another celebrity opting for a vegan or vegetarian diet. At our local coffee shops, we see the ever-growing list of plant-based milks – soy, oat, almond, coconut – available as substitutes for the whole milk in our afternoon lattes. Our grocery store aisles are full of new, plant-based products: “chicken” fingers made from chick peas and rolled oats, “tuna fish” made from pea protein, “hamburgers” made from soy and potato. And, of course, with farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture boxes available all over the country, fresh, local and seasonal fruits and vegetables are more accessible than ever. However, while vegetarian and vegan diets are extreme, and a big commitment, a “Flexitarian” diet allows you to dip your toes into the waters of the plant-based world. You can reap all the nutritional benefits of consuming more fruits, vegetables and whole grains while still enjoying the juicy taste of an occasional cheeseburger and the broken-in comfort of your favorite leather shoes.

What is a Vegetarian diet?

Vegetarians choose not to eat meat, poultry, fish or seafood. Some also elect to cut out dairy products like milk, cheese and eggs.

What is a Vegan diet?

Veganism is a more extreme version of vegetarianism which prohibits the consumption or use of any products that come from animals, including milk, eggs, yogurt, cheese, butter, honey, gelatin, leather goods, wool and silk.

What is the Flexitarian diet?

The term “Flexitarian Diet” was coined by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner in her 2008 book “The Flexitarian Diet,” to help those who wanted to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet, but who were not ready to give up animal products altogether. The diet’s name is a mash-up of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian.” The Flexitarian Diet has no hard-and-fast rules and is more a lifestyle change than an actual diet.

Why go Flexitarian?

While many who choose to give up meat, dairy and other animal products do so for ethical or environmental reasons, eating more plant-based foods in place of meats and processed or packaged foods is simply a great way to take in more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients, whether you do this all the time or not. Research has shown that plant-based diets can help reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce inflammation, improve gut health, help you lose weight and help you feel more energetic.

How to eat Flexitarian

Flexitarians aim to eat mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, with a focus on getting their protein from plant sources instead of animal ones: nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, quinoa, tofu and tempeh. However, adding in meat and other animal products from time to time is encouraged. In her book, Blatner suggests taking on the Flexitarian diet in stages. Of the 21 meals in one week, beginners might aim for seven that are fully plant-based. Advanced Flexitarians might eat 14 plant-based meals, and experts might eat animal products six times or fewer each week, even going meatless for weeks at a time.

When meat is consumed, it is also helpful to consider it as a side dish as opposed to the featured item. Keep the meat to just one-quarter of the plate and fill the rest with vegetables and whole grains.

It’s also encouraged to limit added sugar and sweets and eat the least processed, most natural forms of food; so instead of eating those “chicken” fingers made from chickpeas and oats, choose to instead eat the chickpeas and oats.

Rethink Old Favorites

Many traditionally meat-based dishes can be easily turned into delicious, plant-based reinventions. Consider using black beans, cubed and roasted sweet potatoes, roasted Brussel sprouts or roasted mushrooms as the filler for tacos. Sub tempeh or tofu for meat in your favorite stir-fry. Grill up burgers made with a mix of beans, lentils and quinoa, or kabobs stacked with zucchini, squash, mushrooms, peppers and onions.

Use Common Sense

Remember, it is possible to subsist solely on potato chips and soy lattes and call yourself a Vegan, Vegetarian or Flexitarian. Many foods that come in a box or from the frozen section that are labeled “vegan” include a lot of preservatives and artificial ingredients that won’t do your health any favors. Aim for as many whole foods as possible; that is, food that has not been processed or refined and looks very much like it did when it was plucked from the tree or vine or out of the ground. Think fresh fruits and vegetables, and if you buy foods in a can or a box, pick those that have only one or two ingredients. For example, a box of whole wheat pasta should contain only “whole wheat” and a can of black beans should contain just “black beans” and “water.” Steer clear of anything frozen or packaged that contains preservatives, high amounts of sodium or any ingredients you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce.