The hardest part about going on a diet is saying no to foods you genuinely love to eat. Even those interested in losing weight and passionate about the environment wrestle with the thought of going vegetarian or vegan because they can’t imagine giving up meat. It turns out there is actually a diet for people like this — and you may not have even known it existed until now. Do you want to lose weight and live healthier, even though you refuse to give up the hearty foods that — in your eyes — make food worth eating — like bacon? You may want to give the flexitarian diet a try.
Unlike a straightforward, more traditional vegetarian diet, the flexitarian diet permits you to eat meat occasionally. However, it’s still considered an effective weight loss die. On it, you will eat mostly plant based foods (depending on whether or not you continue to eat dairy, or keep fish as part of your diet). This is a great option for those who are interested in losing weight, but simply do not want to give up chicken sandwiches, bacon, or the occasional double cheeseburger.
Read on to learn what the flexitarian diet entails, its many health benefits, and what is required of those who hope to give this diet a try. Also view a quick sample menu and success tips guaranteed to guide you through your adjustment to a flexitarian diet with ease.
What is the flexitarian diet?
The flexitarian diet is a cross between the flexible diet and a standard vegetarian diet. The flexible diet involves eating whatever you want, whenever you want, as long as it fits into a personalized macronutrient (“macro”) ratio. This, combined with vegetarianism, aims to provide all the benefits of a mostly plant-base diet while allowing the dieter to eat the occasional animal protein whenever they see fit.
The diet is still mostly plant based, but doesn’t require you to give up meat completely. So if burgers are an important part of your diet — and you enjoy eating them — you can still follow a diet plan that might help you lose weight without having to wave goodbye to your go-to protein sources (e.g., beef).
The flexitarian diet isn’t much different from the diet vegetarians follow. You will get the majority of your calories from plant foods such as beans, vegetables, fruits, grains, eggs, and dairy products. You should choose healthy meat alternatives whenever possible. However, you’re allowed the occasional pork, steak, or beef, as long as you stay within your calorie limit.
A diet low in saturated fat
Meat, especially red meat and processed meats like hot dogs, tends to be high in saturated fat, which can raise your cholesterol and significantly increase your risk of developing heart disease and other heart-related conditions. Plants are free of these fats, and even often include healthy fats that can raise your “good” cholesterol. Dairy has some saturated fat, but not nearly as much as a pork chop or hamburger. Significantly reducing your meat consumption is also beneficial for the environment, if that’s a motivator that might convince you to go almost completely meatless.
Say goodbye to processed food — painlessly
When you eat large quantities of nutritious food, there isn’t always room left over for empty calories. You might struggle with intense sugar and sodium cravings now, but it’s very likely these will subside once you shift your focus and eat more filling foods. The flexitarian diet isn’t about cutting out foods, but about eating more good food. Still, by default, don’t be surprised if this diet cures you of your processed food addiction without much notice.
Extremely nutritious — and low in calories
Plant foods are full of vitamins and minerals essential for following a healthy diet and preventing disease. They provide all the nutrients you need — as long as you are eating a variety of different foods, instead of eating the same exact things for every meal every single day. This goes beyond just fruits and vegetables, including foods like beans and whole grains as well. Fruits and vegetables are, however, pack a lot of nutrition into each serving while providing very few calories. You will not have much trouble staying below your calorie limit as long as you continue eating foods high in fiber and protein.
You can start where you’re at
On the flexitarian diet, you can start out as a beginner, dive right in as an expert, or ease your way into the middle as an advanced dieter. Beginners start out eating only a few meatless meals throughout the week, while experts keep meat strictly “occasional.” Even if you currently eat meat multiple times per day, you can slowly transition into eating less and less — until meat becomes an afterthought, instead of the first thing you consider when planning a meal.
Follow the recipes — or venture out on your own
For those who are less comfortable in the kitchen (many new dieters are — no shame!), the flexitarian diet actually provides a series of recipes to follow if you need them. This makes the diet much easier to follow if you aren’t sure what to shop for at the store or just do not have the time to plan out your own meals every single week. However, you also have the freedom to create your own food “schedule” if you want more control over what you eat and when.
Though a more traditional flexible diet lets you eat whatever and however much you want (within certain parameters), the flexitarian diet does have some rules. But do not worry — they aren’t too hard to follow. Many of them will actually seem quite familiar to you, especially if you have ever looked into or actually tried a more traditional vegetarian or vegan diet. As long as you follow the basic premise — mostly plant foods, with the occasional meat source here and there — you’ll be just fine.
The average flexitarian diet provides around 1,500 calories per day, 500 less than a typical 2,000 calorie diet. This aligns with general recommendations to decrease your normal calorie intake by 500 in an attempt to lose weight. Your specific calorie amount does vary depending on your age, gender, and activity level, however. If you lead a much more active lifestyle — or you plan on starting to, as part of your new diet — you will likely consume more (healthy!) calories to offset your deficit.
Fruits and vegetables
A diet that lacks the complete proteins found in animal sources like chicken or beef should consist of a variety of fruits and vegetables. You should include these foods at every meal and snack, if possible. While dried fruits aren’t always the best options (they tend to be high in added sugars, if you buy them pre-packaged), you can never go wrong with fresh produce. Fruits and vegetables are full of dietary fiber, which is an important component of weight loss.
Meat alternatives are a vital part of your success on a flexitarian diet. Without something to replace the protein you will not be getting from meat, you will feel hungry and low on energy almost constantly. Fruits and vegetables are an important part of your diet for this same reason, but it’s essential to have a variety of protein alternatives to balance things out. Eggs, tofu and other soybean based products, and legumes (chickpeas, beans, nuts) can all replace meat as part of your diet. Mix them in with foods you would normally pair with meat to make it an easy transition if you normally eat meat often (such as every day).
Dairy products, which come from animals like meat does, still contain small amounts of saturated fat. However, dairy can still be part of a healthy diet, and is encouraged at dinnertime as part of a basic flexitarian diet. You don’t have to pour cheese over everything you eat (yeah, don’t do that), but you can sprinkle some over your whole grain pasta, or include it as part of your veggie burger. Foods like yogurt are also healthy sources of protein, as long as you buy it unflavored and add your own healthy flavorings to it.
Sugar — and spice(s)
One major benefit of a mostly plant based diet is that it is much lower in sodium than diets high in processed foods and red meats. This concept turns many people off. We’re so used to foods with chemically and artificially enhanced flavors that food low in sodium tastes too bland. That’s why the flexitarian diet encourages the use of herbs and natural sweeteners — as well as a variety of spices — to enhance your food’s flavor naturally, without adding on too many calories and excess nutrients.
Regardless of the diet you are following, you should consume whole grains whenever possible. Unlike refined grains (white breads, white rice, white pasta), whole grains provide more nutrition per serving, which is important when leaving meat out of the equation. Choose whole grain breads, brown rice, whole grain pastas, and other grains like quinoa and teff to keep you full and satisfy your craving for something starchy.
Dietary fiber as part of a plant based diet
You will find dietary fiber in a variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Fiber is a slow digesting carbohydrate, which means it stays in your stomach longer. It also triggers feelings of fullness that don’t subside within an hour of eating. Fiber also helps you digest your food better, and can ease many common digestive issues like diarrhea, constipation, and more.
Judging by its name, you can assume the flexitarian diet allows for a lot of flexibility — and you’re correct. This sample menu is meant to serve as an example of what a meatless day might look like. It even includes many foods you are already familiar with.
- Whole grain bread
- Almond butter
- Apple or cantaloupe slices
- Carrots with hummus dip
- Zucchini noodles with shrimp, tomato slices, garlic, and basil
- Plain Greek yogurt with berries
- Handful of mixed nuts
- Grilled chickpea burger with lettuce, tomato, onion, and avocado
- Grilled sweet potato
- Whole grain dinner roll with olive oil
- Green beans
- Hot chocolate with cinnamon
Tips for success on the flexitarian diet
- Beans are an excellent meat substitute, especially in tacos. Don’t leave the filling out — lettuce and bread alone will just leave you feeling ravenous and unsatisfied. Beans provide both the protein and fiber necessary to make you feel full. Plus, their taste and texture improves the taste of anything you pair them with.
- Soybean based products like tofu and tempeh are not the enemy. They take on the flavors that surround them. This makes them both an easy and worthwhile addition to any dish to boost your plant based protein intake. Since you will be eating mostly vegetables, grains, and legumes, you need all the protein you can get.
- Don’t just settle for lettuce, which won’t fill you up at all. You will want to mix in other greens in salads and sandwiches, especially those packed with protein. Kale and spinach provide plenty of protein in very small servings. These vegetables are low in calories and extremely high in nutrition. So you can technically eat more of them without exceeding your calorie limit for weight loss.
- If and when you do eat meat, choose lean sources of animal protein like chicken, pork, and lean ground beef. Less lean varieties of meat provide more saturated fat per serving. This can contribute to weight gain and other health problems if eaten in excess. Focus on eating healthy meat substitutes, like homemade black bean burgers, when you are craving a juicy hamburger.
The flexitarian diet is a diet suitable for anyone who wants to eat healthy and lose weight. Though there are some restrictions, this diet allows a lot more freedom than many other popular diet plans out there. Feel free to follow the plan’s suggested recipes, or get creative and toss together your own. As long as the diet works for you, it’s definitely worth sticking to for the long term.