The essentially plant-based diet with moderate or occasional presence of foods of animal origin is related to health benefits compared to the omnivorous diet of the majority of the population.
There are several food models that are healthy. The flexitarian diet can be one of them because it is based on plant foods and incorporates some foods of animal origin, selected among the healthiest.
WHAT IS THE FLEXITARIAN DIET?
The concept “flexitarian” arises from the combination of the word’s “flexibility” and “vegetarian”, which already says a lot about the philosophy of this food trend.
It is a non-restrictive eating pattern, which adapts to personal tastes and needs. It is often followed by people who value the vegetarian or ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet, but who do not need to give up some foods of animal origin, either for culinary taste, for health reasons or even for comfort.
In general, most opt for occasional or moderate consumption, in frequency and quantity, of foods of animal origin. Flexitarian people do not follow ethical criteria that prevent them from eating meat or fish, as is the case with vegans and many ovo-lacto-vegetarians. Nor do they consider all foods of animal origin to be unhealthy.
Sometimes, the flexitarian diet is considered as a temporary phase of adaptation between omnivorous and vegetarian or vegan food.
WHAT DOES A FLEXITARIAN DIET LOOK LIKE IN PRACTICE?
The flexitarian diet does not set goals in terms of calories, nor specific conditions in the combination of foods, how to prepare them or schedules.
In general, most flexitarians adapt to the recommendations agreed by nutrition experts, such as the Harvard University plate guideline, take into account the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) or are guided by traditional models such as the Mediterranean diet or the Japanese diet.
Flexitarians are usually people interested in health and, in particular, in the care of their well-being through food. That is why they can follow practices with sufficient scientific evidence about their health benefits:
- To prepare the menus they choose mainly whole natural foods, instead of their refined versions or ultra-processed products, which are usually rich in added sugars and poor-quality fats.
- Most of the calories in the flexitarian diet come mainly from nutrient-rich foods such as legumes, whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
- Proteins come mainly from foods of plant origin (legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds) and to a lesser extent, from eggs, dairy products, fish or meat. Among meats, there is usually a preference for lean poultry (white meat). As for fish, white, blue or fatty and seafood are usually combined. Red or processed meat is usually rejected (WHO considers them likely to cause cancer).
- Flexitarians who want to eat red meat often look for organic quality and grass-fed animals. Eggs and organic dairy products are also preferred.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF THE FLEXITARIAN DIET?
Scientific evidence indicates that the balanced flexitarian diet, because of its emphasis on the presence of plant foods, can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer, as well as help control weight. The adequate amounts of macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidant phytonutrients and fiber that the vegetarian diet can provide explain the benefits.
An article published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition by nutritionist Emma J Derbyshire, concludes from the review of 25 studies, that the vegetarian diet can produce benefits in relation to body weight, metabolic health and blood pressure. Consequently, it can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, certain cancers and inflammatory diseases.
The benefits of the diet are based on the nutritional quality of the selected plant foods and on the moderation or absence of products that increase risks, such as red meat and ultra-processed foods.
Compared to vegan and vegetarian diets, flexitarian facilitates the contribution of vitamin B12, making supplementation unnecessary, and omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA from fatty fish, more easily assimilated than omega-3 found in a scarce number of plant foods.
WHEN SHOULD YOU FOLLOW A FLEXITARIAN DIET?
Anyone can benefit from a reduction in red meat consumption, since it is usually excessive. It is also positive to increase the presence of whole plant foods, rich in minerals and vitamins, fiber and antioxidants.
A flex vegetarian diet can reduce inflammation and can help in the case of inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease.
It may also be recommended for people who want to follow an essentially vegetable diet, but who have difficulties, for example, to digest legumes.
TIPS TO GET STARTED ON THE FLEXITARIAN DIET
- At each meal, at least 75 percent of the volume of intake should be composed of plant foods, including vegetables, legumes, cereals and fruit.
When choosing protein sources, opt first for plant-based foods (legumes, including soy derivatives), which can sometimes be supplemented with eggs or moderate amounts of meat or fish.