Should You Go Flexitarian?

It’s becoming more popular than ever to go vegetarian or vegan, increasing power plant foods while eliminating meat or animal products. But if the idea of totally nixing meat seems more idealistic than realistic for you, it might be time to learn a new term: “flexitarian.”

Flexitarian means you can still eat your favorite animal proteins like eggs and lean meats, even burgers and steaks from time to time, but you’re ultimately focusing more on increasing intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and all the other good stuff in a healthy eating plan. If you eat with purpose, it’s more of an “approach” or a “lifestyle” than a diet, says New York-based registered dietitian Keri Gans, RD

The beauty of a flexitarian lifestyle is that you get to decide how committed you are, and you can stick to whatever feels maintainable. “The basis of a flexitarian approach is that it encourages you to be flexible in your choices, while still keeping plant-based foods as the majority of your diet,” Gans says. “If you’re a big red meat eater, you might incorporate more fruits and vegetables to your diet—but you can go to the BBQ and have the burger if you feel like it.”

Why would someone want to consider leaning into a predominantly plant-based diet? Stacked up against meat-eaters, “vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals), such as carotenoids and flavonoids,” says Harvard Health

According to a 2017 review published in Frontiers in Nutrition on the benefits of a flexitarian approach, researchers found evidence that “semi-vegetarian diets” have benefits on body weight, diabetes risk, blood pressure risk, and overall health, in addition to potentially helping with inflammatory bowel diseases. While women are more likely to take up flexitarianism, men actually eat more meat and could potentially see bigger benefits if they also adopted the lifestyle.

Eating healthy doesn’t need to feel restrictive; rather, it should feel personally doable. “It can look different from person to person, hence the flexibility,” says Mary Mosquera, RD, a dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “For example, some people may choose to be completely vegetarian one day a week and flexible the rest, while some people may eat vegetarian four days a week.” 

The message: Make decisions mindfully. Here are some manageable ways to pull off a flexitarian lifestyle.

Make each plate more plant-based. You don’t have to ditch animal products for entire days, weeks, or even meals. Just think smaller. “Think of it as a side dish on your plate rather than the main star,” says Mosquera. “Aim to fill up half of your plate with vegetables, or a combo of fruits and vegetables.” By eating more fresh produce and less meat, says Mosquera, “you’ll naturally lower your saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium intake, and increase your fiber intake, as well as your intake of minerals like potassium and magnesium.” 

Go meatless a couple of days a week. Choose two or more days per week where you focus exclusively on taking in plant foods like veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. “You might not just have a Meatless Monday, but also a Meatless Wednesday or Friday,” says Gans. “You can choose the days that work for you—probably days where you’re cooking at home versus going out.” That way, you will have more flexibility to join your friends for dinner or eat on the run before your kid’s baseball game for the rest of the week.

Make every meat choice meaningful. One of the best elements of a flexitarian lifestyle is putting every meat you eat under a nutritional microscope. “Go for options like skinless poultry and sustainable fish more often than red meat or fried and breaded options,” says Mosquera. “When you do have red meat, avoid processed items like bacon, sausage, and ham if you can, and go for leaner cuts like loin, round, or 90-percent lean ground beef.” 

Along those same lines, you can ask yourself, ‘Do I really want this? Or, ‘Do I really want this right now?’ says Gans. “A lot of eating can be mindless,” she explains. “You may end up realizing there’s just not a place for meat in that meal or in your diet at all.” Broaden your eating horizons and start incorporating more plant proteins into your meals.

Bottom line: Eat with intention, and you’ll be well on your way to making the flexitarian lifestyle work for your health goals.

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