How to Become a Flexitarian

Olivia deGregory

Written by Olivia deGregory | Edited by Carol Coutinho

The beginning of a new year brings us a fresh start to try something new, usually with the intention of improving our lifestyle, and it is a good excuse to take up a fun trend. Every year as New Year’s Eve rolls around, we start to make wishful promises to ourselves about committing to a new diet. In fact, every New Year’s, google searches for “flexitarian” spike because people are likely looking to add another resolution to their list. Luckily for you, this is one resolution that is easy to keep up with! The flexible nature of this diet makes it more convenient, so you won’t find yourself giving up on it before spring even begins. If you want to know how to become a flexitarian, we are going to give you all the information you need to try this lifestyle out yourself and hopefully you will find that it has stuck around into every new year!

WHAT IS A FLEXITARIAN?

 Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a flexitarian as “a person who follows a mostly vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish”; it is a combination of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian”. Now, I know what you are thinking – is that not just a regular diet? It’s true, a flexitarian diet does fit under the definition of an omnivore diet (someone who eats both plants and animals), but there is a distinction that makes flexitarianism different than your standard omnivore diet. Flexitarianism focuses on eating mainly plant-based, with meat or fish only being eaten a few times a week. There are no set rules as to how much meat you should eat – it is flexible after all. The goal is simply to eat a vegetarian diet most days of the week, and occasionally allow yourself a meal with meat or seafood in it. Flexitarian is thus sometimes referred to as a semi-vegetarian diet, or rather a flexible vegetarian.

Here’s a Brief Refresher on Popular Diet Definitions:

  • Vegetarian: a vegetarian diet is the abstinence from consuming animal meat. They may still consume animal by-products such as dairy, eggs, and honey. 
  • Vegan: a vegan diet is the abstinence from consuming any animal products, including meat and animal by-products. 
  • Pescetarian: this refers to someone who does not eat land animals, but eats seafood such as fish or shellfish. Some pescetarians may still eat land animal by-products. 
  • Omnivore: a person who consumes both plants and animals.

Of course, these are not the only diet options. Many of these diets have sub-categories that specify foods even further. There are  numerous reasons why someone may choose a specific diet, whether it be for religion, animal welfare, health, or simply a taste preference. Every diet has its pros and cons. Here at Cook & Culture we see the value in our differences, so it is important never to judge someone for the diet they choose for themselves. Our goal is to give you the tools you need to make informed choices about the food you eat and to spark a passion in foodies everywhere.  

While a vegetarian diet could mean eating cereal or cheese pizza for every meal, that isn’t exactly the aim of a flexitarian diet. Those who choose to follow a flexitarian diet often do so with the intention of improving their health. It is important not to think of it as cutting out a food category, but rather as an opportunity to enrich your diet with more vegetarian-friendly foods. Registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner is the author of the book, “The Flexitarian Diet” in which she breaks down how to become a flexitarian, along with over one hundred recipes to get you started. Blatner did not coin the phrase flexitarian, but she has devised the most concrete set of guidelines for how to be a healthy flexitarian. 

Blatner has created the “Five Flex Food Groups” which focuses on adding food into your diet instead of giving it up. Let’s take a look at her suggestions!

THE FIVE FLEX GROUPS

  1. Meet the New Meat

    This category focuses on replacing meat with protein-packed vegetarian alternatives. When on a flexitarian diet, getting protein from meat is allowed, but by reducing your meat intake you will want to make sure your body is still getting the vital nutrient it needs to stay healthy. This means adding in ingredients like tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts, and eggs to fill you up! Blatner  focuses on the importance of health without sacrificing flavor, especially that umami taste we crave from meat. For some inspiration, check out, “10 Environmentally-Friendly Proteins That Actually Taste Good” by Mayella Vasquez. 

Lentils, chickpea, nuts, beans, spinach, tofu, broccoli and  chia seeds. Vegan sources of protein. Selective focus

2. Veg Out and Satisfy Your Fruit Tooth

This category stresses the importance of revving up your fruit and veggie intake. Blatner explains how filling up on vegetables can help you feel full on fewer calories than meat.  The trick is finding what vegetables you enjoy and getting the proper nutrients – don’t feel like you have to start eating brussel sprouts if you can’t even stand the scent of them. We do suggest that you have an open mind and try out vegetables that are unfamiliar to you! Along with increasing your vegetables, Blatner suggests reaching for fruit when you have that afternoon sweet craving. Fruits naturally contain sugar, with the added bonus of vitamins and antioxidants! Having them conveniently nearby may help curb the habit of going to the vending machine at work. 

Healthy food background. Assorted fresh ripe fruits and vegetables, top view

3. Go With the Grain

This section is all about enjoying the breads and pastas we all love, just with a healthier spin on them. Switching to whole-wheat is not the only option, Blatner explores other whole grains such as quinoa, barely, spelt, buckwheat, and more! Don’t worry, you won’t have to give up rice for this diet. 

Variety of raw uncooked grains superfood cereal linen seeds, sesame, mung bean, wheat, buckwheat, oatmeal, coconut, rice in wooden bowls over green texture background. Flat lay, space

4. Dairy Discovery

This category explores the world of non-dairy alternatives to milk, but also highlights the benefits of traditional animal milk in moderation. Animal milk can be an important source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and much more. Check out this article, Done With Dairy? The Best Plant Based Milk-Substitutes for You by Marissa Seely to get you started!

Vegan non dairy alternative milk. Coconut, almond, hazelnut, oat homemade milk.

5. Sugar and Spice (and everything in between)

In this section Blatner discusses the world of flavor available to us through seasonings, sauces, oils, and condiments. She also talks about natural sweeteners, like agave nectar and barely syrups. Starting a new diet is hard enough, sacrificing the flavors you love does not have to be a part of that process!

Colorful spices in wooden spoon

In her book, Blatner defines three stages for being a flexitarian. The first stage, Beginner Flexitarian, starts with having two meatless days per week while exploring new vegetarian alternatives, then once you get more comfortable, she encourages you to move to Advanced Flexitarian, which has three or four meatless days per week. Finally, once you feel ready, she suggests moving up to Expert Flexitarianism, which has five or more meatless days per week. As mentioned before, these are just suggestions, you do not have to label yourself into a category, or even move up through the stages. The whole point of this diet is its flexibility for everyone, so if you decide you only want to move to the advanced level, that is okay! 

BENEFITS OF A FLEXITARIAN DIET

Health: Depending on how you go about this diet, there may be health benefits. First, it is important to note that reducing your meat intake will not immediately reap you the benefits of a vegetarian diet. If you are filling your plate with veggies and fruits, sure, there will definitely be a health reward. Just don’t make the mistake I made when I went vegetarian – I doubled up on carbs. I thought I needed to get a double scoop of mashed potatoes to fill me up, when I should have been filling up on plant-based protein alternatives. If you are following the plan (adding in more vegetables and plant-based protein) then your diet will be rich in protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber. 

As with a vegetarian diet, there are certain nutrients you need to keep an eye on. It can be difficult to meet the daily recommended amount of iron, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which we typically get from animal meat. Monitoring your health should always be your number one priority, and the joy of a flexitarian diet allows you to bend in certain places to meet your dietary needs.

Blatner’s book begins with some big promises about health – weight loss, improved heart health, decreased risk of diabetes, decreased risk of cancer, and a longer life expectancy. While you may reap some of these benefits, there are many other outside factors, besides your diet, which you should also consider to achieve these goals.

Better for the Planet: It is no secret that the animal agriculture industry is a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Between land use, energy consumption, and the methane released from animal sources, eating meat contributes to a larger environmental footprint. By reducing your meat consumption you can minimize the demand for animal agriculture and lessen our impact on the environment. To learn more about the impact that meat has on the environment, check out Eric Witiw’s article, “Breaking Down the Environment’s Beef With Meat (and Dairy)”

Easy to Follow: True to its name, a flexitarian diet is flexible. It allows you to reduce your meat intake without the pressure of labeling yourself as vegetarian or committing to an entirely new lifestyle. The lack of rigid rules allows you to set your own pace and standards for what flexitarian means to you. Perhaps you want to commit to vegetarian meals at home, but allow yourself to eat meat at restaurants occasionally, the choice is yours! The overall goal is simply to increase your intake of plant-based nutrition while minimizing how much meat you eat. Another benefit of this is that you do not have to throw everything out of your pantry to start. Flexitarianism does not require any expensive or exotic ingredients that you have to hunt down at the nearest  local Whole Foods. If anything, maybe just an extra trip to the farmer’s market for some produce could do the trick. 

CONCLUSION 

We understand the pressure of society to eat both a healthy and ethical diet, but it is not feasible for everyone to commit to a vegan or vegetarian diet. There are restrictions such as health conditions, food deserts, and income, all of which play a role in how we can eat. Flexitarianism allows people across the world to work towards a healthier and sustainable diet on their terms, without having to learn a whole cookbook of new recipes just to get started. We challenge you to try to be a beginner flexitarian this week! That means one or two meatless days this week! Starting off slow and easy will help you build up the ability to try more and more meals without meat. Let us know how it goes on Instagram @cookandculture and tell us if you have decided to commit to being a full-time flexitarian!

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