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Ask a Dietitian: What Does It Mean to Be a Flexitarian?

Plant-based diets have been around for centuries. People who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet choose to abstain from the consumption of meat and/or animal products for a variety of reasons, including weight management, health consciousness, animal welfare, religion and environmental. While many others might want to quit animal products and reap the health benefits of following a vegetarian diet, it can often be easier said than done.

When it comes to the health benefits of a plant-based diet, it's not an all or nothing situation. Going semi-vegetarian has become a popular way to reap the benefits without following a strict diet pattern. The flexitarian diet is becoming more popular, but what is it exactly? Read on to find out what it means to be a flexitarian.

What is a flexitarian diet?

The flexitarian diet (or semi-vegetarian diet) combines vegetarian principles with flexibility—hence the name. It's a method of eating that's mostly vegetarian, with the occasional inclusion of meat or fish. It was popularised by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner with her 2008 book The Flexitarian Diet, with semi-vegetarian diets helping people reap the benefits of eating mostly plants while enjoying meat and animal products in moderation.

There are no specific rules when you're a flexitarian however, it's suggested that followers have between two and five meat-free days per week. As a flexitarian you'll eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, focusing on protein from plants instead of animals.

Despite the diet being around for some time, recently there has been an increasing movement towards this practice due to its positive health and environmental benefits.

What are the health benefits of a flexitarian diet?

The principles of flexitarianism have been shown to be beneficial for our health, promoting weight loss, improved gut health and better metabolic health.

The flexitarian diet helps to promote weight loss as individuals following the flexitarian diet are reducing meat intake and eating more plant-based foods, resulting in limiting higher calorie processed foods and thus eating less calories. Meat products also tend to be higher in saturated fat and thus a reduction in meat consumption can help with weight loss. Such weight loss due to following the flexitarian diet has also been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Increased consumption of fruit, vegetables and legumes when following the flexitarian diet will also increase our intake of essential micronutrients, including iron, folate, zinc and magnesium, helping us to enhance diet quality and meet nutritional recommendations.

The flexitarian diet is also beneficial for gut health, due to the increase in dietary fibre consumption (through the increase in vegetable, fruit and legume consumption). Diets rich in fibre, such as the flexitarian diet have shown to help with symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn's disease.

What are the environmental benefits of a flexitarian diet?

If climate change is a concern that's front of mind but going completely meat-free seems daunting, a flexitarian diet is a good option. Research has found that avoiding meat and dairy is the top way humans can reduce their environmental footprint. Not only can reducing consumption of animal products help decrease greenhouse gas emissions, they can reduce the land and water use, wildlife extinction and environmental degradation.

The takeaway

Although the flexitarian diet can be very healthy, excluding meat may leave us lacking important nutrients, including vitamin B12, iron and zinc. However, if you plan out your diet, include a variety of whole foods nutritional deficiencies shouldn't be a concern. 

The trend of flexitarianism doesn't appear to be subsiding. So, now that you know what it is and the benefits that go with it, it may be time to jump on the bandwagon!

Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.

Explore more content like this in our series, Ask a Dietitian.

Health & Performance Collective is the brainchild of Sydney Dietitians Jessica Spendlove and Chloe McLeod. They use their 20 years of combined knowledge and skills as dietitians to work with motivated people to live and perform at their best.

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