Okay, what the heck is the flexitaran diet? I have to be honest: I am a carnivore. I love me some meat. But even I can’t ignore the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that there must be a reason why seemingly every single other person in the world has started counting their grams of protein.
The past few years have felt like a veritable vegan vortex. But while veganism doesn’t allow for basically anything – the strictest of vegans even adhere to a "no honey" rule because it essentially comes from an animal – being a flexitarian is, as the name alludes, a whole lot more flexible, and potentially a lot more realistic than waving goodbye to Shake Shack forever.
Maybe that’s why the number of people who identify as flexitarian has recently taken a massive leap, with a 2016 study indicating that annual meat consumption per person has fallen 15 percent in the past 10 years, while about 10 percent of U.S. call themselves "flexitarian."
And with vocal advocates from the likes of Stella McCartney, who launched "meat-free Mondays," to Gwyneth Paltrow and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, this appears to be a lot more than just a passing – pretty much impossible to adhere to – fad.
So what exactly does being a flexitarian entail? Is it good for you, and how do you actually do it? We have the scoop on what this whole flexitarian movement is about.
What is a flexitarian?
It’s basically when you mostly don’t eat meat, but sometimes do — except it’s a lot more thought out than just, "Oh I don’t have any meat in my fridge, so let me scramble some stuff together."
Blogger Annabelle of theflexitarian.co.uk told The Debrief, "Flexitarians make a conscious effort to reduce their meat consumption for health, environmental, and/or animal welfare reasons. There are no rules."
"For me, it’s having the ethical and nutritional frame of mind of a vegetarian, but part-time," said Athina Andrelos, a food stylist and foodie extraordinaire.
Can flexitarians eat meat?
The whole point of being flexitarian, basically, is that it’s flexible, so you can pretty much do what you want, when you want.
Mark Bittman, author of #1 New York Times bestseller VB6: Vegan Before 6, advocates eating a strictly vegan diet all day and then doing whatever at night: "That’s worked well for me and others, but it’s really just a strategy," he said.
To this regard, he recently joined The Purple Carrot, a meal kit company that ships only plant-based meals.
"I’m not interested in seeing people 'go vegan,' I’m interested in seeing people figure out ways to get more plants into their diets. It’s not about deprivation — it’s about branching out in ways that we know to be healthier for us and the planet."
Meanwhile, in her book, The Flexitarian Diet, Dawn Jackson Blatner offers three different levels of flexitarianism: beginner, advanced, and expert. Beginners start with two meatless days per week, gradually decreasing the amount of meat until you reach expert level, which is five meatless meals a week.
Kind of annoying for people (like me) who really like to adhere to strict guidelines with things like this, but basically you can do whatever — kind of.
What are the health benefits of a flexitarian diet?
Loads. A 2015 study found that a semi-vegetarian diet effectively lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke. Researchers followed more than 450,000 Europeans for around 10 years and found that those who ate the most "pro-vegetarian" diets (at least 70 percent of food coming from plant sources) had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who ate more meat.
Why become flexitarian? Will a flexitarian diet help you lose weight?
What are the effects of a flexitarian diet
Annabelle explained how going flexitarian has also helped with her joint pains: "I have suffered for years with inflammatory pain in my joints. Having mostly a plant-based diet has really helped me ward off the pain," she said. "I started seeing changes eight months after reducing my meat intake. My energy level has also increased, probably because eating a plant-based diet has improved my digestion."
Athina also noted another benefit of the diet, claiming that the flexitarian lifestyle left her feeling morally better: "There’s no doubt we’re over-consuming meat right now, and that has led to the over-production of animals — and as a result, the unfair treatment of them," she explained. "The fact that chicken is marketed as a snack in this day and age is crazy to me."
Flexitarian and nutritionist Lana Almulla of atablefor1.com builds on this, noting that we’re really hurting our world: "Raising livestock and their byproducts accounts for around 51 percent of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. That’s more than the combined exhaust from all transportation and something we should really be thinking about, considering the fact that global warming is becoming more and more of a concern," she says.
Do flexitarians live longer?
It’s hard to say, but being a flexitarian is generally better for your overall health, so there is a greater chance that you will live longer.
How do flexitarians get protein?What’s the catch?
Not all that much, really. Mark does acknowledge that you do get a bit hungrier and have to eat more, as plants are not as calorie-dense as junk food or animal products. "That’s not so bad though," he countered. "Being hungry isn’t terrible, and neither is eating more. It helps to not be afraid of healthy fats, because things like nuts, olive oil, and avocados can really fill you up."
You also have to be quite meticulous in planning your meals to ensure you're getting all the nutrients you need. As some health experts have noted, a plant-based diet could technically consist of Pop Tarts for breakfast, cheesy nachos for lunch, and a veggie burger with fries for dinner. But that’s probably not very good for you, is it?
How does the flexitarian diet work?
Essentially, flexitarianism should be about more than just eating less animal products and more about making smart food choices in general. Many flexitarians, like Annabelle and Athina recommend committing to one meat-free day a week at first and ensuring that when you do eat meat, it’s better meat (like organic) and in smaller portions.
Cooking for yourself is always a great way to go about it, too: "The more you practice making some of these dishes, the more you’ll build up your knowledge and realize how exciting meat-free dishes can be," said Athina.
"The best way for me was to start focusing my meals on making vegetables super tasty and being able to eat them on their own, so at least one or two meals a day didn’t consist of animal protein," explained Lana. "Brown rice bowls with baked sweet potato, a tahini lemon dressing, or brown rice pesto pasta and fruit smoothies...there are so many things that don’t involve meat that are so delicious."
So, do you think you can get on board with this flexitarian diet?
This post was written by Alya Mooro. For more, check out our sister site the Debrief.