The Flexitarian Diet Overview

Scorecard

Overall
Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
Nutrition
Safety
For Diabetes
For Heart Health

Scores are based on experts' reviews

Pros & Cons

  • Flexible
  • Lots of (tasty) recipes
  • Emphasis on home-cooking
  • Might be tough if you don’t like fruits and veggies

Do's & Don'ts

Don’t: Drink to excess See more Do's & Don'ts

Overview

Type:

Balanced.

The aim:

Weight loss, optimal health.

The claim:

Flexitarians weigh 15 percent less than their more carnivorous counterparts; have a lower rate of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer; and live an average of 3.6 years longer.

The theory:

Flexitarian is a marriage of two words: Flexible and vegetarian.The term was coined more than a decade ago,and in her 2009 book, The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life, registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner says you don’t have to eliminate meat completely to reap the health benefits associated with vegetarianism—you can be a vegetarian most of the time, but still chow down on a burger or steak when the urge hits.

How does the The Flexitarian Diet work?

Becoming a flexitarian is about adding five food groups to your diet—not taking any away. These are: the “new meat” (tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, and eggs); fruits and veggies; whole grains; dairy; and sugar and spice (everything from dried herbs to salad dressing to agave nectar sweetener). A five-week meal plan provides breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack recipes. You can follow the plan as it’s outlined, or swap recipes from different weeks to meet your preferences. It’s a 3-4-5 regimen: Breakfast choices are around 300 calories, lunches 400, and dinners 500. Snacks are about 150 calories each; add two, and your daily total clocks in at 1,500 calories. Depending on your activity level, gender, height, and weight, you can tweak the plan to allow for slightly greater or fewer calories.

Flexitarian meals revolve around plant proteins rather than animal proteins. You might have cereal topped with soy milk, nuts, and berries for breakfast; black bean soup with a salad and whole-grain roll for lunch, an apple with peanut butter for a snack, and a barbeque veggie burger with sweet potato fries for dinner. Jackson Blatner provides tips like a tofu tutorial; a cheat sheet on veggies that taste like meat; strategies to “fend off flatulence;” and preparation tricks for different kinds of beans. Great Northern beans, for example, have a delicate flavor and are tender and moist, so she suggests puréeing them and making dips.

You can follow her regimen at your own pace: Jump in and try most of the recipes, sticking to the meal plan verbatim for five weeks. Or take it slowly, and test one of the recipes every once in a while. The Flexitarian Diet includes what she calls a “Flex Swap” feature: suggestions for recipe alterations and ingredient substitutions, like adding chicken, turkey, fish, or red meat to a vegetarian recipe. Jackson Blatner offers advice for all kinds of followers; if you already eat well most of the time, for example, she’ll show you how to add variety. The diet is molded after her philosophy: “Eat more plants, and do the best that you can.”

Will you lose weight?

Likely. Research shows vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories, weigh less, and have a lower body mass index (a measure of body fat) than their meat-eating peers. If you emphasize the plant-based component of this diet—eating lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains—you’ll likely feel full on fewer calories than you’re accustomed to. With that “calorie deficit” and a little physical activity, you’re bound to shed pounds. How quickly and whether you keep them off is up to you.

  • Vegetarians weigh about 15 percent less than nonvegetarians. That’s according to a review of 87 previous studies, published in Nutrition Reviews in 2006. The obesity rate among vegetarians ranges from 0 to 6 percent, according to the study authors. And the body weight of both male and female vegetarians is, on average, 3 to 20 percent lower than that of meat-eaters.
  • Even semi-vegetarians (or flexitarians) tend to weigh less than full-fledged carnivores do, found a six-year study of 38,000 adults published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders in 2003.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Yes. Research suggests plant-based diets help keep cholesterol and blood pressure in check and heart disease at bay. That’s in large part because plant protein is higher in fiber than animal protein, with less fat and no cholesterol. The American Heart Association says semi-vegetarianism can be healthful and nutritionally sound if it’s carefully planned to include essential nutrients.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

Yes, it’s a good option for both.

Prevention: Being overweight is one of the biggest risk factors for type 2 diabetes. If cutting back on meat helps you lose weight and keep it off, you’ll stand a better chance of staving off the disease. Some research has linked vegetarianism with a lower diabetes risk.

Control: A vegetarian diet is a healthful option, according to the American Diabetes Association. (The ADA does not specifically address semi-vegetarianism.) And because there are no rigid meal plans or prepackaged meals, you can ensure that what you’re eating doesn’t go against your doctor’s advice.

Are there health risks?

No indications of serious risks or side effects have surfaced. However, if you have a health condition, talk with your doctor before making major dietary changes.

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. You’ll have no problem staying within the government’s recommendation that between 20 to 35 percent of daily calories come from fat. A sample daily menu provided 27 percent.

Protein. It’s within the acceptable range for protein consumption—15 percent, compared with the 10 to 35 percent the government recommends.

Carbohydrates.The government advises that between 45 and 65 percent of daily calories come from carbs. Jackson Blatner’s plan should keep you at a middle-of-the-road 57 percent.

Salt. The majority of Americans eat too much salt. The recommended daily maximum is 2,300 milligrams, but if you’re 51 or older, African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, the limit is 1,500 mg. A sample daily Flexitarian Diet menu provided 1,349 mg.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Getting the recommended daily amount of 22 to 34 grams for adults helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. Veggies, fruits, beans, and whole grains—all major sources—are encouraged on this diet, so you should meet the recommendation. A sample daily menu provided 32 grams.
  • Potassium. A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, yet you’d have to eat 11 a day.) The majority of Americans take in far too little. A sample daily menu came up short at 1,277 mg.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 to 1,300 mg. A sample daily menu provided 1,130 mg.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical for proper cell metabolism. Fish like salmon and trout, along with eggs and yogurt, are good sources. A sample daily menu provided 3.3 mcg.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s 15 microgram recommendation with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. A sample daily menu came up short, providing 13.4 mcg. Just 3 ounces of sockeye salmon, which packs almost 20 micrograms of vitamin D, will satisfy the requirement.

Supplement recommended? Adults should take a daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to make sure they don’t skimp on important nutrients, says Jackson Blatner. It’s a good idea to choose gender-specific multivitamins, which are tailored, for example, to meet differing iron needs, she adds.

How easy is it to follow?

Very. Jackson Blatner stresses that you don’t have to follow the diet exactly—it’s all about progress, not perfection. The book includes ample guidelines and even shopping lists.These resources take much of the hard work and planning out of the equation.

Convenience:

Recipes abound, and meal prep shouldn’t be too time-consuming. Eating out is doable, and alcohol is allowed. The diet emphasizes flexibility—you don’t have to stick to any rules all day, every day.

Recipes. The Flexitarian Diet is packed with them. They’re designed to help you easily prepare healthy flexitarian foods that you’ll enjoy. Each recipe calls for an average of only five main ingredients.

Eating out. Allowed. Check out restaurant menus beforehand to find healthy meals; if a restaurant doesn’t have a website, call and ask them to fax or email you a copy. Be wary of words like fried, crispy, breaded, creamy, scalloped, or sautéed—instead go for broiled, baked, grilled, roasted, poached, and steamed.

Alcohol. Allowed. Moderation is key, i.e., one drink a day for women, and two for men. Stick with drinks in the 100-calories-or-less range, such as a 12-ounce light beer, 5-ounce glass of wine, or a shot of liquor in club soda—not tonic water, because it has calories.

Timesavers. Detailed meal plans and grocery lists are provided.

Extras. Jackson Blatner’s website includes recipes (searchable by category), grocery lists, FAQs, and other information about the diet. The book is packed with advice, including a section called FlexLife Troubleshooters. Here, find answers to frequently asked questions about flexitarianism, dieting, and weight loss; strategies to make healthy changes speedy and efficient; tips to tame cravings; and how to clear common diet hurdles, like parties and traveling.

Fullness:

Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. If you’ve built a healthful vegetarian diet around fiber-packed veggies, fruits, and whole grains, you shouldn’t feel hungry between meals.

Taste:

Recipes range from “lunch nachos” to a grilled cheese and rosemary-tomato sandwich, Caribbean black bean couscous, and veggie enchiladas. For dessert, try a peach-raspberry crepe or pineapple with candied ginger and pecans.

How much does it cost?

No exotic ingredients are required, so groceries shouldn’t cost more than they typically do. Bypassing the butcher also helps keep the tab reasonable. The diet’s individualized nature gives you financial wiggle room—by making dinner from whatever produce is on sale, for example. There’s no membership fee, but you will need The Flexitarian Diet ($16.95).

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Most people can customize the Flexitarian Diet to fit their needs; it is, after all, flexible. Pick a preference for more information.

You can easily follow a full-vegetarian diet, and with a few more restrictions (i.e., shunning all animal products), you can become vegan—read about veganism here.

People who can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, can easily follow this diet. The book includes suggestions on gluten-free substitutions.

Doable, but it’s up to you to check the nutrition information on recipes and keep track of your sodium intake. Jackson Blatner recommends using salt sparingly, since just a pinch—1/16 of a teaspoon—packs 150 milligrams of sodium.

Yes, you can make sure your diet is kosher.

Yes, you can make your diet conform to halal guidelines.

What is the role of exercise?

Strongly encouraged. Ideally, you should get 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week (or intense exercise for 20 minutes, three times per week), along with strength training at least two days per week. But anything is better than nothing, says Jackson Blatner. In The Flexitarian Diet, she outlines how to view the world as your gym, maintain motivation, and overcome exercise barriers.


Last updated by Angela Haupt | December 12, 2013

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