Not Ready For Strictly Plant-Based Eating? Try Out The Flexitarian Diet

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It's no secret that following a plant-based diet is good for you. Unfortunately, going completely vegan or vegetarian isn't realistic for everyone. With a flexitarian diet, animal products are part of the plan.

"The term flexitarian is a combination of flexible and vegetarian," explains Shawna Broida, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health System. "So a flexitarian diet focuses on plant-based foods but allows for meat and animal-based products on occasion. It's more flexible than becoming vegetarian or vegan, but still promotes healthy and whole eating."

The Perks Of A Flexitarian Diet

Coined by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, the flexitarian diet emphasizes adding plant-based foods to your daily meals rather than fixating on which animal foods to nix. The principles of the flexitarian diet fall in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grains and its broad range of protein foods, including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds.

"The idea is to focus on eating mostly whole, plant-based foods — without requiring you to go vegetarian or vegan at every meal," Broida says.

A few of the key flexitarian diet perks:

  • It's good for the planet. A flexitarian diet uses fewer of the planet’s resources. Cultivating protein from kidney beans is a lot less demanding on the planet than raising animals to eat. In fact, growing plant protein uses 11 times less energy than producing animal protein.
  • It's good for your health. According to Broida, studies suggest that the potential benefits of a flexitarian diet include improved markers of metabolic health, lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. A semi-vegetarian or flexitarian diet may also play a role in treating constipation and diverticulitis.
  • It helps you meet your nutrient needs. Eating plant-based foods can help you meet the dietary recommendations for fiber, a critical nutrient lacking in many American diets. Fiber is not only important for gut and bowel health, but also to reduce your risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Plant foods also boast plenty of vitamins and minerals that support health, including vitamins A, C, E, K and folate and the minerals potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese.
  • It's flexible. It's easy to follow without rigid rules. The diet emphasizes flexibility — and you don't have to stick to any rules all day, every day. Eating out is doable, and alcohol is allowed, too.

Add it all together and eating plant foods that include a full rainbow of colors not only ensures you get the nutrients you need, but also makes mealtime more interesting.

"Any time you add more whole fruits or vegetables to your diet, that's a change for the better," Broida says. "And plant proteins like beans and lentils are packed with fiber and antioxidants you won’t find in chicken and beef."

How To Go Flexitarian

There are many ways to successfully go flexitarian. Maybe you decide to have a burger once a week, with real meat. Or maybe you choose to be vegan before 5 p.m. and allow yourself to eat animal products at dinner.

In general, flexitarians get the lion's share of their calories from fruits, legumes, whole grains and vegetables. When it comes to protein, they eat mostly plant-based sources like nuts, seeds, soy foods and legumes, and occasionally foods from animal sources, such as dairy, seafood and meat.

A sample day of meals might look something like this:

  • Oatmeal with berries, nuts and seeds for breakfast.
  • Bean burrito for lunch.
  • Raw veggies and hummus for a snack.
  • Salmon with potatoes and spinach for dinner.

The flexitarian diet allows you to work your way toward a more plant-based diet, focusing first on what you can add (gradually) rather than what you need to eliminate. And unlike a vegetarian or vegan diet, you don't have to overhaul your diet overnight. Just be forewarned that plant-based meat substitutes may be packed with sodium and short on key nutrients.

"The best part of a flexitarian diet is that it emphasizes vegetarianism as a guiding principle, but not an absolute rule," Broida says. So if you're looking for a plant-focused dietary approach that allows you to eat steak, too, the flexitarian diet may be the way to go.

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To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Shawna Broida is a registered dietitian nutritionist who sees patients at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.

Categories: EatWell