“Flexi-whatism?” I hear you say!! What on earth is a flexitarian and why would you want to be one? Let’s take a look:
What is Flexitarianism?
A flexitarian is someone who chooses to eat mostly plants (like a vegetarian) but is flexible enough to have meat, fish and dairy in moderate amounts on occasion. By choosing plants most of the time and making them the focus of the majority of your meals, you will be getting more plant foods into your diet and enjoying the benefits these foods give you, without having to completely restrict yourself by cutting out meat and fish 100% of the time.
A Flexitarian is basically, a flexible vegetarian.
So what does a flexitarian eat?
Flexitarianism is actually not really a diet, but more of a lifestyle, as it doesn’t have strict rules to follow like most diets do. The aim is to eat predominantly plant-based foods with occasional meat/fish/dairy. Try to have at least 2-3 meat-free days and make plants the star of the meal, so that means:
- Eating mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
- Focusing on protein from plants instead of animals (such as tofu, lentils, beans, peas, nuts, seeds and pulses). Flexitarians also eat eggs.
- Being flexible and incorporating meat and animal products from time to time such as BBQs, or eating out, or social occasions).
- Mostly eating foods in their most natural form, with little processing.
- Limiting added sugar and sweets.
- Having dairy if you like it, including milk, yoghurt, cheese, kefir etc.
For many, meat is hard to give up, but for most of us reducing the amount of meat we consume will be good for our health (and the health of the planet) so flexitarianism allows you to enjoy that steak when you go out for date night, or those juicy ribs at game night, or even those shrimp or chops on the barbie!
What are the benefits?
Generally having more plant-based foods in our diets means we are more likely to be having more fruit and vegetables in our diets, more whole grains and more nuts and seeds, and therefore more of the following nutrients as well: fibre, plant-based protein, plant-based fats, as well as things like antioxidants and polyphenols. Plant-based diets are linked to health benefits including improved gut health and heart health as well as reduced risk of conditions like cancer and diabetes. As Flexitarianism is not a ‘diet’ as such, there are no rules and restrictions to stick to which not only makes it an easier lifestyle to sustain, it also avoids negative effects on our relationship with food and/or mental health around food.
In addition to these health benefits, Flexitarianism is often more economical and more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Reducing red meat consumption may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preserve land and water use.
But what are the risks?
If you reduce your meat and fish intake and are not careful about the foods you replace them with, then these are the nutrients you may not be getting enough of:
- Omega-3 (oily fish is the best source of omega-3s, but other sources include walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and pecans)
- Iron (sources include nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains, as well as fortified cereals)
- Zinc (sources include nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains, as well as fortified cereals)
- Vitamin B12 (as B12 is only found in animal products depending on how much and how often you are having meat products, you may need a supplement)
- Calcium (some flexitarians also limit dairy and may need to focus on plant-based calcium sources like dark-green-leafy veg such as kale and bok choy as well as sesame seeds, or calcium enriched tofu).
But if you are consuming meat and fish on occasion and choosing the right plant-based foods, then it is possible for most people to get all the nutrients their body needs.
Overall, the goal of flexitarianism is to eat more nutritious plant foods and less meat without imposing restrictions and food fear.
This blog was adapted from Claire Pettitt, a UK Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist who is passionate about health and food. Claire believes food, and our relationship with it, is the backbone to our health and wellbeing and a healthy relationship with food, and with our bodies, starts with being able to listen to and trust in our bodies. Claire has spent recent years in research looking at appetite and body composition changes and has previously worked in the UK National Health Service helping people with health issues such as IBS, supporting women with PCOS and fertility challenges from conception, through pregnancy and postpartum and her main love it supporting people with developing long-lasting health behaviours which will improve both physical and mental health through intuitive eating.