Is the Flexitarian Diet another fad or the secret to good health? A registered nutritionist gives her verdict on the benefits of following a semi-vegetarian diet.
By Anna Bonet
Considering switching to a vegetarian diet but can’t quite make the leap to a fully plant-based lifestyle? Forget keto and Paleo, the all-new Flexitarian Diet might be for you. Unlike more restrictive diets, Flexitarians get to eat lots of veggies, but the diet still encourages you to consume small amounts of meat, dairy and seafood in moderation.
If that’s not enough to convince you, thanks to minimising meat consumption, the Flexitarian Diet is also said to be good for the environment. But what are the health implications of cutting back major food groups? We speak to Paula Werrett, Registered Nutritional Therapist and head of courses at The Institute For Optimum Nutrition:
What is the Flexitarian Diet?
The Flexitarian Diet was created by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner to encourage the consumption of predominantly plant-based foods, while still allowing meat and other animal based products in moderation.
The Flexitarian Diet encourages the consumption of predominantly plant-based foods.
‘The diet recommends a focus on eating natural foods (and minimising processed foods), obtaining protein from mostly plant-based sources,’ says Werrett, ‘and limiting added sugar and sweets.’
Unlike some diets which require you to follow specific eating plans, the Flexitarian Diet takes more of a relaxed approach to dining.
‘There are no guidelines on quantities or proportions of plant and animal based foods, nor recommendations on macro or micronutrients to be consumed,’ say Werrett. The idea is simply that you eat as little meat and dairy as you are comfortable with, and as many vegetables, fruit and natural foods as possible.
What are the health benefits?
Thanks to the extra veggies, the Flexitarian Diet comes with obvious health benefits associated with eating your five-a-day. ‘Studies on vegetarian diets have shown benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and a reduction in some types of cancers for example,’ says Werrett.
Studies on vegetarian diets have shown benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease.
‘It is important to say however that, as this diet is not prescriptive regarding the quantity of plant foods versus animal based foods, it is difficult to be certain about the specific health benefits. These may differ according to how the diet is implemented in practice by different individuals’
The diet claims to come with multiple health benefits including weight loss, improved heart health, improved taste, fewer cravings and the aforementioned healthy planet. As this is a new diet, studies are not yet available so we can’t guarantee the health benefits. Having said that, a diet rich in vegetables, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and grains has been proven to be kinder to the body.
How to follow the Flexitarian Diet
Unlike other diets that often come with a long list of foods to avoid, the Flexitarian Diet is focused on what you can eat, with an emphasis on wholefoods. Although there aren’t any food restrictions on the Flexitarian Diet, you are encouraged to limit alcohol, processed meats, fast food and added sugars.
🍏 When incorporating animal products into the Flexitarian Diet, you’re encouraged to make more sustainable choices, including free-range eggs, wild seafood and organic meat, dairy and poultry.
The diet features five Flex food groups, which include:
✔️ The New Meat: plant-proteins such as beans, legumes, tofu, and tempeh.
✔️ Fruits and veggies: including a variety of non-starchy and starchy vegetables.
✔️ Whole grains: such as quinoa, brown rice, oats, barley, millet and corn.
✔️ Dairy: this includes animal and plant-based yogurt, milk, kefir and cheese.
✔️ Sugar and spice: these are ingredients that boost flavour, such as herbs and spices, sweeteners, and vinegars. This section also includes healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, seeds, and oils.
Potential diet drawbacks
Generally the diet represents a healthy eating approach but allowing some flexibility, which makes it easier to stick to, but it might not be for everyone.
Dietary approaches need to be considered in the context of what suits an individual.
‘Dietary approaches need to be considered in the context of what suits an individual based on genetic inheritance, lifestyle, health conditions and so on,’ says Werrett. ‘Some individuals may be at risk of nutrient deficiencies if animal products are too severely limited.’
‘Conversely the increased consumption of some micronutrients from plant based foods may cause nutrient imbalances and exacerbate some underlying health conditions,’ adds Werrett.
Who should avoid the Flexitarian Diet?
While following a plant-based diet has proven health benefits, if you are already low on nutrients found predominantly in an omnivorous diet such as B12 and retinol, you would need to be careful about following this diet to ensure that your nutrient status is not unduly affected.
‘Pregnant women and growing children would need to be careful to optimise iron sources if following this diet,’ warns Werrett. ‘Iron can be obtained from vegetarian and fully plant-based diets, but can be more difficult to absorb than haem iron from animal sources.’