Most diets are great at setting rules for what you can and can’t eat (hello, paleo and keto). This is one of the main reasons that so many people find them hard to stick to. But having some flexibility in your diet (we’re talking about the noun and not the verb of “dieting for weight loss” here) can go a long way toward ensuring you remain consistent when it comes to healthy eating.
The flexitarian diet, which is really a fancy term for the way most of us should be eating, is one way to achieve that.
Let’s take a look at what flexitarianism is (hint: it’s not your grandpa’s diet!) and how it might work for some people who are looking for a healthy diet without strict rules, calorie-counting (something we never advise, anyway) or avoiding certain foods that are often actually good for you.
What Is a Flexitarian Diet, Exactly?
Flexitarian is a mashup (if you hadn’t put this together yet) of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian” and it simply means that you focus on your intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, like a healthy vegetarian diet might, but you also don’t have to completely avoid nutrient-dense, lean animal proteins. This is why it’s sometimes referred to as a semi-vegetarian diet, or SVD.
Bottom line is that eating healthy shouldn’t feel overly restrictive or stressful to follow. One of the biggest benefits of eating this way is that it allows for you to focus less on what you can’t eat, and focus more on all the healthy, nutrient-dense, whole foods you can eat.
This flexibility, of course, doesn’t mean it’s granting you freedom to eat junk food every day. It’s really more about the idea of not cutting out specific, nutrient-dense foods or entire food groups.
5 Reasons You Might Practice a Flexitarian Diet
Research has shown that semi-vegetarian diets have benefits on body weight, diabetes risk, blood pressure risk, and overall health. They’re also proving effective in curbing GI issues for people with inflammatory bowel diseases.
Read on to dig deeper into the five reasons you should be eating like a flexitarian.
1. You’ll Help Out Your Heart
When it comes to heart health, study after study has shown that eating whole foods, lots of veggies, and healthy fats is uber-important.
So is generally staying away from processed, packaged foods made with added sugar or refined grains and oils. Red meat (lean and grass-fed preferably) is limited to an occasional option, and you stick to olive oil in lieu of other cooking fats like butter and canola oil.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it basically describes The Mediterranean Diet, which is a great example of a flexitarian lifestyle.
Wondering how to start eating like a flexitarian? Here’s a practical, easy, and heart-healthy menu idea:
Swap a protein-packed pasta dish for a meat-centric meal. Try a legume-based pasta such as ZENB’s Pasta Agile, which is made 100% from yellow peas. One 3-ounce serving packs in 17 grams of protein and 11 grams of fiber.
Mix it with your favorite veggies, like in this Veggie Confetti Stir-Fry with shredded carrots, chopped sweet peppers, and finely chopped ginger. For a spicy kick, serve it with some chili garlic sauce or chili oil.
As many of you know, ZENB Pasta is also gluten-free, non-GMO, and has no artificial stuff (my kind of pasta!)
2. You’ll Lower Your Risk of Diabetes
Some studies indicate that vegetarian and semi-vegetarian diets are ideal for reducing your risk of diabetes, or for managing it.
“The most important aspect of any of these types of diets is emphasizing whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and nuts and reducing saturated and trans fats,” according to a review in Current Diabetes Reports. A 2017 review in Frontiers in Nutrition likewise found that flexitarian and semi-vegetarian diets can potentially reduce our risk of diabetes.
3. You Might Lose Weight
How does a flexitarian diet support weight loss?
Plant-based foods such as veggies and fruits are nutrient-dense and low in calories.
By filling up on fiber-rich plant foods you'll feel more satisfied on fewer calories, in fact up to 300 fewer calories a day. You might even lose weight.
One cross-sectional study of 71,751 subjects compared food patterns of nonvegetarians, semi-vegetarians, pesco vegetarians, lacto-ovo vegetarians and strict vegetarians. The findings, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, show that calorie intake was similar (at 2,000 calories a day) among all the dietary patterns with the exception of semi-vegetarians, who had an intake of 1,707 calories a day. The study also showed that average BMI was highest in nonvegetarians and lowest in strict vegetarians.
A 2020 study from the Max Planck Institute also shows vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories, and have a lower body mass index (a measure of body fat) than their carnivorous peers.
4. Your Gut Won’t Feel So Bloated
There’s emerging evidence that a flexitarian diet can help those suffering from inflammatory bowel disorders (IBD) such as Crohn’s disease, though the reasons haven't yet been confirmed.
The speculation is that a plant-based diet may be effective for gut inflammation through the actions of dietary fiber.
5. You May Even Help the Planet
Reducing your meat intake is not only good for you, but it can be good for Mother Earth. Raising meat, through livestock farming, releases greenhouse gasses, such as methane, CO2, and nitrous oxide, into the atmosphere. This is responsible for almost 15% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions each year.
By reducing our meat intake and increasing our plant intake, we can help shift the planet’s reliance on meat and lessen the burden on our planet.
Brands like ZENB are leading the way, developing proprietary food development processes that lead to less waste. By using the whole plant in making their products, they’re helping to reduce food waste and harness more of nature’s goodness. You can find out more here with the “What Plants Can Do” mini-documentary.
When it comes to how and what we should eat, the most important thing is to find an eating pattern that works for you. What can you be flexible with to live a healthy, consistent life?
Maybe that means no meat, but fish and lots of veggies for some of you. For others, it might be pizza once a week, high-quality meat a couple times a week, and lots of plant-based meals the remainder of the time.
Flexibility is important, but what is key is assessing our own individual needs and cravings to create a diet specific to us, based on healthy guidelines.
Keri Glassman is a renowned celebrity nutritionist, registered dietitian, healthy cooking expert, wellness thought-leader, and founder of Nutritious Life and Nutritious Life Studios. She is also a member of the ZENB Plant Council where her role is to provide insights, support, and guidance in our quest to providing a wide range of crave-able plant-based products that fuel our bodies.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s.
To fuel your flexitarian diet, check out ZENB’s catalog of over 150 recipes, where you can find plenty of ways to deliciously get more plants in your meals. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for even more flexitarian ideas and inspiration!