Becoming a flexitarian: the latest in healthy eating
Estimated read time: 5-6
NEW YORK — Between 2014 and 2018, Americans who converted to a vegan diet exploded by 600%. Remarkably, 71% of Americans have tried at least one plant-based meat alternative, sending plant-based food sales skyrocketing, topping $7 billion in 2020 and continuing to grow — no pun intended.
Plant-based eating plans have become the norm for many, either out of a desire not to eat animals or for health-related issues. Keto, Paleo, Vegan, Gluten Free and Vegetarianism have become well-known terms in the world of dietary restrictions.
For most people, these are not fad diets but rather lifestyle choices. One of those latest trendier lifestyles is based on plant-based eating and is called flexitarian. Just what is it, and how does it work?
What is a flexitarian?
Flexitarian diets or lifestyle is a form of eating focused on primarily plant-based foods while consuming meat and other animal products in moderation. Initially authored by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, it’s an effort to allow people to reap the benefits of plant-based or vegetarian eating without entirely giving up animal products. Hence, the name combines “Flexible” and “vegetarian” as it is more flexible than vegan or vegetarian diets.
Healthline, a health and wellness site, profiles the facets of a beginner’s guide to the flexitarian diet. The main principles include:
Unlike the trend of other fad diets, which ask people to calorie count, and create portion sizes, the flexitarian way is more of a lifestyle than a diet since it doesn’t have set rules.
Sheri Berger, registered dietician and creator of The Plant Strong Dietitian, has consistently practiced a flexitarian diet for at least five years. She describes a flexitarian diet as focusing on eating whole plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.
For protein, the focus is on plants such as beans, lentils, or tofu; however, animal protein from chicken, beef, pork, or fish is not entirely excluded; it is just chosen less often.
Melanie Jordan, a Nationally Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach and founder of Your Health Life Made Easy, has been a flexitarian for more than 20 years — long before it was a known term.
“When I started, I was primarily vegetarian and mixed in fish one to two times weekly,” she says. “Today, I do eat some poultry at times, but still eat a good amount of meals that are only vegetarian or pescatarian. Some flexitarians will occasionally eat red meat, but I am not a fan.”
The flexitarian trend
According to this Plant-Based News article, 47% of young Americans, aged 20 to 39, identify as flexitarians. This was based on a survey of 2,000 Americans commissioned by Sprouts Farmers Market. The poll also found that 43 percent of those who responded considered it to be more than a diet but rather a permanent lifestyle change.
In a statement released about the survey, Sprouts Chief Executive Officer Jack Sinclair offers:
“The interest in plant-based foods and a flexitarian diet is evident — shoppers are more engaged with their food than ever,” he states. “They are seeking innovative and alternative products to mix up the meals they prepare for themselves and their families.
“We believe consumers will remain focused on incorporating healthy foods into their lifestyles to support immunity and overall well-being in the future,” he continues. “This includes introducing consumers to things they never considered before, like plant-based foods and meat alternatives.”
Becoming a flexitarian
The flexitarian lifestyle is not for everyone but is relatively easy to follow since it has no set rules. However, there are some considerations to determine if that is the route to choose.
Berger offers advice to anyone considering making the switch. “Always remember balance when adapting to a flexitarian diet or any diet,” she says. “Since you will be eating less meat, you want to make sure you are swapping in plant protein sources such as beans, lentils, tofu, or tempeh.”
For those unsure of how to achieve a balanced diet, she recommends consulting a registered dietitian, who are the true nutrition experts.
Jordan also recommends that consulting nutritionists and fitness experts will help choose the best lifestyle change. She points to the USDA’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 as a free and helpful resource on guidelines for healthy eating with a nutrient-dense approach.
For those considering the change, she shares that the best way to adapt is “Practice patience with yourself and some experimentation to see where along the flexitarian scale the right balance is for you that matches your lifestyle, preferences and objectives while skewing towards the plant-based, whole grains, nuts, and seeds side.”
Reaping the benefits
Before going flexitarian, one should consider the result and potential benefits. Berger endorses the lifestyle for the benefit to her health.
“A flexitarian diet has helped me to lower my cholesterol levels because I’ve increased fiber and reduced saturated fat,” she notes. “I also find being flexitarian makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight as fruits and vegetables comprise a large portion of the diet, and they are the lowest calorie foods out there!”
Jordan shares that finding something healthy and satisfying simultaneously came with being flexitarian.
“It was the first step in helping me find a healthy eating pattern that worked for me that I could stick with,” she says. “It was like ‘The Three Bears’ for me — vegan was too strict, vegetarian was close but not quite, but flexitarian was the right fit. It also gives me plenty of variety and flexibility in my healthy food choices, so it’s been easy to stick with long-term without feeling deprived or bored.”
The flexitarian conversion also has some famous followers, including Ellen DeGeneres, Meghan Markle, Drew Barrymore and Diane Keaton, and superstar quarterback Tom Brady.
As healthy eating and lifestyle choices constantly evolve, adapting to a plant-based lifestyle is one way many enhance their health through nutrition. For those not ready to embrace life without consuming animal products, becoming a flexitarian can support those health benefits without giving up the occasional hamburger or cheese tray. After all, it’s about being flexible.