What is the Flexitarian diet? The health benefits of eating less meat

Food suitable for a flexitarian diet
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A flexitarian diet is a great option for people looking to eat a little healthier and reduce their impact on the environment, without giving up meat altogether.

Making changes to your diet to become a ‘flexible vegetarian’ is quite straightforward and can have positive health benefits. A recent study by Oxford University (opens in new tab), for example, found that a low meat diet can reduce your cancer risk. Other benefits include weight loss (opens in new tab), improvements to your blood pressure and cholesterol levels and diabetes prevention. A flexitarian diet is also a good option for people who are considering adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet (opens in new tab) but want to test the waters first. Or, alternatively, for those who want to reduce their impact on the environment, while still allowing for the odd meat meal.

Registered dietitian Sophie Medlin (opens in new tab) says: “A flexitarian diet is actually how many people eat already. So some meat and fish, but some vegetarian or vegan meals and snacks. We have evolved to eat this way because humans are ‘omnivores’, meaning we can eat animal products and plants.”

What is the Flexitarian diet?

The flexitarian diet is where the majority of your meals are vegetarian, but the occasional meat dish is still allowed. It is a good option for people who want to eat more healthily or make changes to their diet for environmental reasons.

The key principles of a flexitarian diet:  

  • Predominantly vegetarian meals
  • A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and nuts
  • Allows some meat (recommends sustainably-sourced white meat or fish where possible)
  • Limited amounts of lean red meat
  • Limited amounts of processed meat

Sophie Medlin, who is director of City Dietitians, says many people have naturally adopted this way of eating. She explains: “The flexitarian diet has needed to be defined recently as more and more people adopt a dietary tribe such as ‘vegan’ or ‘carnivore’.”

One of the benefits of the flexitarian diet is that it is easy to adopt. It simply involves making a few changes to your current diet if you are a meat-eater. A review (opens in new tab) by the American Society for Nutrition found that it is easier to switch to a flexitarian way of eating without the need for dietary education. Whereas vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian diets, which require additional nutrients from other sources, often require more knowledge.

It also found that flexitarianism is associated with reduced volumes of food waste. (opens in new tab) Plus, it may be easier to maintain for people who previously followed western diets.

Sophie says it also helps that people are able to create their own guidelines of what being a flexitarian is. Some people like to be a flexitarian by only eating meat once per day,” she explains. “Others might be vegetarian during the week, but eat what they fancy at the weekend. Meanwhile, some may plan their meals to have two fish, two meat, and three vegetarian meals throughout the week. There isn’t a right answer or any strict rules, which is really beneficial for our relationship with food.”

The flexitarian diet can also be introduced and built up slowly. So if you usually have meat for dinner every day of the week, you could start by trying out Meat Free Monday (opens in new tab). This initiative encourages people to eat vegetarian food or vegan food every Monday. For someone looking to incorporate more plant-based meals into their diets, there are plenty of healthy vegetarian recipes (opens in new tab) and vegan recipes (opens in new tab) available. Plus there are lots of readymade foods for vegans (opens in new tab) available in supermarkets these days.

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Flexitarian diet health benefits

There are a number of flexitarian diet health benefits. These include weight loss, reduced risk of diabetes, a decrease in metabolic syndrome, and an increase in life expectancy. Registered dietitian Sophie Medlin told us: “There are loads of health benefits to including some meat and fish-based meals and some vegetarian meals in your diet. In fact, you’re really getting the best of both worlds. Eating more plants and fewer animal products is good for our health. But when we cut out animal products altogether we are at risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. However, this is something you don’t need to worry about so much if you’re a flexitarian.”

✅  Weight loss

A study (opens in new tab) published by the International Journal of Obesity found US adults who ate a lot of meat (more than 700 calories worth a day) were at a high risk of obesity. This is due to the high energy and fat content of meat.

A flexitarian diet limits a lot of meat and replaces it with energy sources such as vegetables, beans and legumes. As a result, this can lead to weight loss, especially for people who previously consumed a meat-heavy diet.

✅  Reduced risk of diabetes

Moving towards a semi-vegetarian diet can also reduce the risk of diabetes. A 2015 study (opens in new tab) compared a number of diabetes indicators between postmenopausal long-term semi-vegetarians and non-vegetarians. It found that the vegetarians showed significantly lower serum leptin levels, glucose and insulin than the non-vegetarians and therefore a lower risk of developing diabetes.

✅  Improved metabolic health (including blood pressure, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and waist circumference)

Research (opens in new tab) by American Diabetes Association has also shown that a vegetarian dietary pattern is associated with more favourable levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and blood pressure and a smaller waist circumference.

This will be particularly true for people who try to remove processed meat from their diet. This 2021review (opens in new tab) of 30 studies found that ultra-processed food consumption has a negative impact on metabolic health. As well as obesity, poor metabolic health can lead to other problems like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

✅  Increased life expectancy

This large Adventist Health Study (opens in new tab), of more than 73,308 people, looked at the association between vegetarian dietary patterns and mortality. Participants were divided into five groups: nonvegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and vegan. When the participants were followed up five years later it was found vegetarian diets are associated with lower all-cause mortality.

One of the benefits of a flexitarian diet is that it also encourages you to start making healthier life choices in general. Once you’re used to having one meat-free day a week, you may increase it to two and so on. In addition, once you start feeling a bit healthier, you might want to incorporate some exercise into your daily routine. The challenge or a HIIT workout are great places to start.

✅  Environmental benefits

As well as the health benefits, a flexitarian diet also has environmental benefits. In fact, one of the big reasons why many people choose to reduce their meat consumption is due to the impact it has on the planet. According to Meat Free Mondays (opens in new tab), a not-for-profit campaign that encourages people to opt for veggie meals at least one day a week, adopting a flexitarian diet can have a big effect on the environment.

It states that if everyone in the UK did Meat Free Monday for a year we would:

  • Save an area of the world’s forest the size of all the national parks in England and Wales combined (16,689 km2)
  • Save the same amount of greenhouse gases as emitted by driving 20 billion km – 134 times the distance to the Sun

It also has a meat-free impact calculator (opens in new tab) where you can work out the planetary impact of your meat-free days.

This 2021 study also found that encouraging a shift to a flexitarian diet could have a significant impact on European public policies which are aiming to reduce air pollution.

Flexitarian diet drawbacks

The great thing about a flexitarian diet is that it is far less limiting than other eating plans. Because it still allows you to eat meat there is always a wide range of choices available and you have plenty of options when you go out for dinner or to a friend’s. However, there are a couple of flexitarian diet drawbacks, especially if you’re used to eating a lot of meat. These include the possibility of an iron deficiency and the potential to adopt unhealthy eating habits for someone with issues around food.

❌  Iron deficiencies

Iron is important for the body as it makes red blood cells, which carry oxygen around it. If you do decide to drastically reduce your red meat intake as part of a flexitarian diet, you may find that your body needs alternative sources of iron. As you begin to cook more meat-free meals, you may find that you automatically start to include these alternative sources.

Good sources include:

  • Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as kale, spinach and broccoli
  • Tofu
  • Quinoa
  • Lentils
  • Beans, such as kidney beans, chickpeas and edamame
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Nuts and dried fruit
  • Pumpkin seeds

Registered dietitian Sophie Medlin says: “If you are just cutting down animal products (including dairy) but not cutting them out altogether, so still having some every day or week then you are at low risk of deficiency. The closer you get to being vegetarian or vegan, the higher your risk of deficiency.How well your body responds to a vegetarian or vegan diet is also genetically determined. So you’ll have to experiment with what works for you and listen to your body. If you get tired, anxious or moody or you’re experiencing brain fog, brittle nails or hair loss, you may need to dial up the animal products.”

The NHS (opens in new tab) recommends that men over 18 and women over 50 should have 8.7mg of iron a day. Women aged 19 to 50 should have 14.8mg. Increasing your vitamin C is also a great way to increase iron absorption, so add some sweet peppers to your salad and a small glass of fresh orange juice to your breakfasts.

Other possible nutrient deficiencies you should be aware of if adopting a diet that includes less meat and fish are:

  • Vitamin B12 – try fortified non-dairy milk and eggs
  • Zinc – try whole grains and legumes
  • Calcium – try tofu, nuts and dairy
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – try flax seeds and chia seeds

❌  Eating disorders

There have also been some warnings from researchers that using the term ‘flexitarian’ as a way to control weight could mask unhealthy eating disorders.

Although millions of people eat a healthy, well-balanced vegetarian diet, studies (opens in new tab) have found that having a history of an eating disorder is associated with a greater likelihood of being vegetarian primarily for weight-related reasons.

It is therefore important that you continue to eat a wide range of food and continue to find ways to incorporate protein, iron and other nutrients into your diet. If you do become worried about your eating habits or the way you are controlling your diet, you should seek help immediately from your GP or a medical professional.

Foods to eat on the flexitarian diet

  • Fruits – Apples, bananas, oranges, pears, peaches, plums, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, grapes, figs, pomegranates, passion fruit, kiwis, avocados
  • Vegetables – Potatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes, spinach, garlic, sweet potatoes, peas, sweetcorn, beans
  • Wholegrains – Wholegrain bread, brown rice, couscous, buckwheat, quinoa, bulgar wheat, whole oats
  • Legumes – Beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Tofu
  • Dairy - Milk, cheese, yoghurt, margarine/butter, cream, ice cream
  • Eggs
  • Nuts - Cashews, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, walnuts, pistachios
  • Seeds – Pumpkin, chia, sunflower, poppy, sesame

Foods to eat less of on the flexitarian diet

  • Poultry – Chicken, turkey, duck, quail
  • Fish – Salmon, tuna, cod, haddock, plaice, seabass, white fish
  • Shellfish – Prawns, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, scallops
  • Red meat – Beef, lamb, pork, veal, venison

(Choose poultry or fish over red meat where possible)

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Flexitarian diet: a dietician’s verdict

According to registered dietician Sophie Medlin, a flexitarian diet is a good way to adopt a healthy, varied diet, which isn’t too restrictive.

She says: “A flexitarian diet is a great way to think about incorporating more plants into your diet and reducing excess animal products. While this way of eating could actually be called 'the human diet', because it is omnivorous as we have evolved to be, it can be helpful for some people to use a term like 'flexitarian' to explain why they might choose the vegan or vegetarian option sometimes when they’re eating out with friends.

“The key to enjoying a flexitarian diet is to be flexible as the name suggests. Allow your body to guide you on what you think it might need on that day. For example, people who menstruate might find that they need some red meat after their period. Plus anyone doing a big gym workout will benefit from some animal protein after to improve muscle recovery.”

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