If you’re trying to eat more plant foods without cutting out meat and dairy, the semi-vegetarian flexitarian diet is sustainable for many and a good place to start for most. US News ranks the Flexitarian Diet as the #2 Best Diet Overall because it’s a healthy, easy-to-follow way of eating.1
What is the flexitarian diet?
The flexitarian diet is flexible and can involve anything from giving up meat one day per week to eating mostly plant foods with the occasional burger. Ideally, you’re eating mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. The overall goal for flexitarian diet recipes is to replace animal proteins with plant-based proteins.
You choose how much you want to change, which makes this type of eating sustainable.
The diet’s individualized nature gives you lots of flexibility, so grocery shopping doesn’t get too complicated and food costs shouldn’t increase significantly.
There are tips on ways to adjust your current meal choices to align with a flexitarian diet. For example, when you’re first starting out, forgo meat and dairy for one day a week. Then, as you get used to eating less meat, increase it to 2 to 4 days per week. Remember, nothing is off-limits in the flexitarian diet and minor changes are okay.
Many people have tried being vegan but found it too restrictive. That’s where the flexitarian diet can come into play, as it allows you to incorporate vegan ingredients but leaves out the highly restrictive rules.
Benefits of the flexitarian diet
The benefits of the flexitarian diet are going to vary depending on the foods you integrate into your overall diet. Because of this, the flexitarian diet has shown to have several benefits, including:
- Weight loss and changes to body fat
- Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes
- Increased management of blood glucose levels
- Protection against heart disease
- Decreased risk of certain types of cancer
- Support the environment and sustainable manufacturing processes2 3 4 5 6
Types of plant-based proteins
Replacing animal-based proteins with plant-based proteins may sound challenging. Yet, plant-based proteins are often cheaper than animal proteins and still are full of nutrients.
The following plant-based foods are high in protein:
- Tofu, tempeh, and soy
- Beans and rice
- Dark-colored leafy greens
- Plant-based burgers
If you’re also reducing the amount of dairy you’re eating, try the many plant-based milk alternatives. Oat milk and soy milk have more protein and nutrients than almond milk.
Is the flexitarian diet right for you?
There are several benefits to the flexitarian diet, since you can tailor it to your taste preferences, nutritional needs, and food options.
Since the flexitarian diet doesn’t remove any of the 5 food groups completely, you’ll likely meet all of your nutrient needs—especially with proper meal planning. Low iron is one of the more common nutrient deficiencies for people who limit animal proteins. Include spinach, kale, legumes, lentils, and potatoes in your plant-based meals to ensure adequate intake of iron.
The flexitarian diet still may be a hard transition for daily meat eaters. However, even daily meat eaters can adopt a plant-based lifestyle that works for them. You may also consider changing dishes to be more vegetable-centric, instead of removing your meat completely. For example, try mixing chopped mushrooms into your burger or going half-and-half on meat and lentils in your next burrito bowl.
Daily calorie needs vary based on activity levels, body size, and other factors. Some people with very high calorie needs may find it more challenging to eat enough plant-based foods for their needs. Adding fish and plant-based meat alternatives can be a healthy way to fill in the gaps and meet your calorie needs when following this diet.
3 flexitarian diet recipes
Roasted cauliflower and orecchiette
This hearty and delicately shaped pasta work well with roasted cauliflower and fresh herbs. Cauliflower comes in different colors and each variety provides a host of nutrients.
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon chili flakes
- 1 pound (or head) of yellow (or white), cauliflower florets
- 1 1/2 cups dried orecchiette
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Grated parmesan (optional, dairy, or plant-based)
- Salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Bring a large saucepan to a boil.
- In a bowl, mix 1/3 cup of the oil with the garlic and chili flakes. Add the cauliflower and toss with your hands, coating the cauliflower. Evenly spread the cauliflower on a roasting pan. Roast on the top shelf of the oven for 15 minutes or just until lightly browned.
- Cook the pasta in the boiling water until just al dente. Drain, reserving 1/4 cup of the water.
- Melt the butter and remaining oil over medium heat in a frying pan. Add 2-3 tablespoons of cooking water and bring to a boil. Add the cooked pasta and cook for until the liquid is absorbed, 2-3 minutes.
- Gently toss the cauliflower mixture with the pasta. Serve topped with parsley and parmesan.
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Nut butter and jelly smoothie
Smoothies are an excellent way of being flexible. You adjust the ingredients based on what you have on hand and prepare them ahead of time to make an easy on-the-go option.
- 1 banana
- 1/2 cup pitted cherries
- 1/2 cup hulled strawberries
- 1 tablespoon nut butter
- 1 cup milk of choice (dairy or non-dairy)
Place all the ingredients in the blender. Blend until mixed.
Chili is a wonderful, hearty meal. And just because you’re sticking to plant-based foods, doesn’t mean you have to skip out on this fall favorite.
- 1 orange-fleshed squash (butternut, pumpkin, or golden Hubbard), cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup cornmeal
- 2 medium turnips
- 2 medium red bell peppers, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 6 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
- 2 (10-ounce) cans diced tomatoes
- 2 (16-ounce) cans chili beans, drained
- 2 cups frozen corn
- 1 – 2 tablespoons chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1.5 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large soup pot, cook the butter and olive oil over medium heat until melted. Whisk in the cornmeal until smooth.
- Add the squash, turnip, bell peppers, onion, garlic, and tomato paste. Cook, stirring frequently, for 10-15 minutes or until the onions are translucent.
- Add the broth, diced tomatoes, beans, and corn. Stir in the chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a simmer.
- Reduce the heat and simmer for about an hour or until the squash and turnip are soft.
- Add the salt and pepper and serve.
Many flexitarian diet recipes can be made by making simple modifications. At each meal, build a plate focused on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. Choose plant-based foods and take advantage of the flexibility of this eating style!
About Julie Harris
Julie Harris is a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified personal trainer, and health and wellness writer. She has experience working with digital health companies for the past 10 years. Julie is passionate about sharing information based on science. When she isn’t working, she’s in the kitchen baking something sweet to eat or running on the trails.
1.. “What is the Flexitarian Diet?” U.S. News & World Report L.P. Health.usnews.com.
2. Derbyshire, E.J. “Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature.” Frontiers in Nutrition 3 (2016): 55.
3. Tonstad, S., T Butler, et al. “Types of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight, and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes.” Diabetes Care 32, no. 5 (2009): 791-796.
4. Dinu, M., R. Abbate, et al. “Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies.” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 57, no. 17 (2017): 3640-3649.
5. Wozniak, H., C. Larpin, et al. “Vegetarian, pescatarian and flexitarian diets: sociodemographic determinants and association with cardiovascular risk factors n a Swiss urban population.” British Journal of Nutrition 124, no. 8 (2020): 844-852.
6. Springmann, M., K. Wiebe, et al. “Health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts: a global modeling analysis with country-level detail.” The Lancet Planetary Health 2, no. 10 (2018): e451-e461.