Whether Keto, Whole30 or the Paleo diet, 17.1 percent of US adults aged 20 and over were on a special diet, according to a CDC study. Diets are constantly evolving, and different diet lifestyles continue to fight.

The flexitarian diet is one of the newer trending diets that has generated interest, largely due to a move towards plant-based foods versus the traditional meat options. We’re sharing information about how this diet works, why you can benefit from it, and some recipes to try at home. Please consult your family doctor before changing your diet.

What is a flexitarian?

The name says it all and combines vegetarian with flexible. The flexitarian diet is not restrictive when it comes to the consumption of animal products. There are no hard and fast rules and you won’t be counting calories. It is more comprehensive than it is restrictive. But in general, flexitarians are more geared towards vegetarian practices, while occasionally eating animal products or doing so in small portions.

The term flexitarians is a little over a decade old and relatively new to the healthy eating scene. Registered nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner came up with the sentence in 2009 when she was writing a book on “a mostly vegetarian way” to lose weight and be healthier.

Flexitarians get most of their protein from plants rather than animals. That means recharging yourself with fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. Some even refer to it as semi-vegetarian while others refer to themselves as flexitarians when looking to cut down on animal products.

A flexitarian should not be confused with a pescatarian or vegan. Pescatarians eat fish, but not meat or dairy products. Vegans have more specific rules and do not eat any animal products, including fish.

Since there aren’t many restrictions, being a flexitarian is a life choice rather than an actual diet. For example, vegans lack nutrients like vitamin D and calcium because they don’t eat dairy products. Therefore, they need to carefully eat dark green vegetables that are rich in these nutrients. A flexitarian, on the other hand, can still get calcium from various milk options and reduced-fat cheese and yogurt.

Benefits of Consuming Vegetable Proteins

In general, what do you think of when you think about eating lots of protein? Steak, chicken, fish, or pork, right? While you turn to animals for protein, the plants that produce foods like beans, lentils, vegetables, and whole grains all contain good sources of protein. They also have two important advantages: they are cheaper than animal proteins and are high in nutrients with no unnecessary saturated fats.

Grains are often rated poorly because of their high carbohydrate content, but whole grain products such as quinoa, wild rice or whole wheat pasta are also good sources of protein. The same goes for legumes. One cup of black beans contains 14 grams of minimal fat protein. Likewise, one cup of lentils contains 18 grams of protein, or more than a third of the recommended amount of protein you should be eating per day.

In comparison, a four-ounce serving of sirloin steak – considered one of the leanest steaks – contains 27 grams of protein and 6 grams of saturated fat. Six grams of saturated fat may not seem like much, but it is 30 percent of the recommended daily value.

In plant foods that contain more fat, those fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – are healthier than animal fats. For this reason, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) suggest limiting solid fats in favor of seafood and other vegetable fats, a lifestyle that could help reduce inflammation.

Solid fat foods tend to be nutritious, meaning they are low in vitamins and minerals and instead loaded with fat, sodium, and added sugars – all things that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Think about desserts and fast food! The DGA also suggests limiting saturated fat to 10 percent of total daily caloric intake, although 70 to 75 percent of adults exceed that limit.

Flexible menu

If you’ve never tried the flexitarian diet, the Cleveland Clinic recommends a three-step approach to ease the transition to less animal-based foods and more plant-based foods. To start, choose at least two days a week that you won’t eat meat. Keep your consumption at 28 ounces a week, or about 5 ounces of meat a day.

Once your body has adjusted, limit the days you eat meat to three or four and keep your consumption at 18 ounces a week. The final step is to eat a vegetarian five days a week and keep your meat intake at 9 ounces on the two days you eat meat.

Food for a Flexitarian Dietitarian

Just as being vegetarian doesn’t mean eating simple salads for a living, a flexitarian lifestyle doesn’t mean eating boring food.

When planning meals, focus on high protein foods like tofu, legumes, and lentils. Then add non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

When eating animal protein, keep serving sizes small and choose lean options from the right sources. As a rule of thumb, look for organic, free range, pasture, or grass-fed on the label. Vegetables and whole grains should make up the bulk of your plate.

For snacks, choose healthy fats made from nuts or seeds. Almonds, walnuts, and cashews contain protein and other nutrients, just be careful not to overeat. Flax seeds and chia seeds also contain a balanced set of nutrients that can be added to smoothies or breakfast bowls.

And when you’re trying to say goodbye to dairy products, try many of the plant-based milk alternatives on the market. Almond milk, oat milk, and soy milk all provide nutrients without dairy products. Recently, more grocery stores have started selling banana milk and hemp milk.

Even when restricting animal proteins as part of a flexitarian lifestyle, it is easy to get distracted and make unhealthy choices. As with any diet or healthy lifestyle, try to cut down or cut back on your consumption of processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and added sugars.

Depending on your meal choices, you may be deprived of some nutrients when abstaining from animal products. Many animal proteins contain zinc, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and omega fatty acids (both omega 3 and omega 6). Plant-based proteins can help you regain some of these lost nutrients, but you may still need nutritional supplements to get your recommended daily values. Talk to your GP if you need additional guidance.

Recipes for a flexible diet

Many recipes require simple changes, such as replacing more vegetables in place of beef or chicken. In these recipes we used mushrooms as ground beef in a hamburger and lentils to replace the meat traditionally found in chilli.

Grilled portobello burger with onion jam

Burgers taste great, but they’re loaded with saturated fat from beef and cheese. Much like the meatball recipe, the hearty portobello mushroom mimics the rich beef taste of a typical burger. Plus, onion jam goes well with almost anything – if you like onions. The horseradish cream offers a contrast to the hearty jam.

(Click here to download the recipe as a PDF)

Healthy lentil chilli recipe card

Healthy lentil chilli

Most people think of chili as a hearty, filling, and comforting meal full of ground beef and beans. This version swaps beef for lentil to serve as both a source of protein and a source of fiber. The fiber will help you feel full and you won’t lose the hearty nature as this recipe features navy blue beans.

(Click here to download the recipe as a PDF)

If you are considering starting the Flexitarian Diet, contact your GP or an INTEGRIS Health nutritionist for tips and suggestions.

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