Becoming a flexitarian: the latest in healthy eating

Estimated reading time: 5-6 minutes

NEW YORK — Between 2014 and 2018, Americans who converted to a vegan diet exploded by 600 percent. Surprisingly, 71% of Americans have tried at least one plant-based meat alternative, causing plant-based food sales to skyrocket, surpassing $7 billion in 2020 and continuing to rise — no pun intended.

Plant-based meal plans have become the norm for many, either due to a desire not to eat animals or health concerns. Keto, Paleo, Vegan, Gluten Free, and Vegetarianism have become well-known terms in the world of dietary restrictions.

For most people, these aren’t fad diets, but rather lifestyle choices. One of those latest trendy lifestyles is based on plant-based eating and it’s called flexitarian. What is it and how does it work?

What is a flexitarian?

Diets or flexible lifestyles are a form of eating that focuses primarily on plant-based foods while consuming meat and other animal products in moderation. Initially written by dietician Dawn Jackson Blatner, it is an effort to enable people to reap the benefits of eating plant-based or vegetarian without giving up animal products entirely. Hence, the name combines “Flexible” and “Vegetarian” as it is more flexible than vegan or vegetarian diets.

Healthline, a health and wellness website, outlines the facets of a beginner’s guide to flexible dieting. The core principles include:

Unlike the trend of other fad diets, which ask people to count calories and create portions, the flex way is more of a lifestyle than a diet since it has no set rules.

Sheri Berger, registered dietitian and creator of The Plant Strong Dietitian, has been consistently flexible dieting for at least five years. She describes a flexitarian diet focused on eating whole plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

For protein, the focus is on plants like beans, lentils, or tofu; however, animal proteins from chicken, beef, pork or fish are not completely excluded; it’s just chosen less often.

Melanie Jordan, nationally certified health and wellness coach and founder of Your Health Life Made Easy, has been a flexitarian for more than 20 years, long before it was a household term.

“When I started, I was mostly a vegetarian and mixed in fish once or twice a week,” she says. “Today I sometimes eat a little poultry, but I still eat a good amount of meals that are vegetarian or pescatarian only. Some flexitarians occasionally eat red meat, but I’m not a fan.”

The flexitarian trend

According to this Plant-Based News article, 47 percent of young Americans, ages 20 to 39, identify as flexitarians. This was based on a survey of 2,000 Americans commissioned by Sprouts Farmers Market. The survey also found that 43% of respondents considered it more than a diet, but rather a permanent lifestyle change.

In a statement released on the survey, Sprouts CEO Jack Sinclair offers:

“The interest in plant-based foods and a flexible diet is evident: shoppers are more engaged than ever with their food,” she says. “They are looking for innovative and alternative products to mix up the meals they prepare for themselves and their families.

“We believe consumers will remain focused on incorporating healthy foods into their lifestyles to support immunity and overall well-being in the future,” she continues. “That includes introducing consumers to things they’ve never considered before, like plant-based foods and meat alternatives.”

Become a flexitarian

The flexible lifestyle is not for everyone but it is relatively easy to follow as it has no fixed rules. However, there are some considerations in determining whether this is the path to choose.

Berger offers advice to anyone considering making the switch. “Always remember the balance when adapting to a flexible diet or any diet,” he says. “Since you’ll be eating less meat, be sure to swap in plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, tofu, or tempeh.”

For anyone who isn’t sure how to get a balanced diet, it is recommended that you consult a registered dietitian, who are the true nutrition experts.

Jordan also recommends consulting nutritionists and fitness experts to choose the best lifestyle change. He points to the USDA’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 as a free and helpful resource on guidelines for eating healthy with a nutrient-rich approach.

For those considering the change, she shares that the best way to adjust is “Practice patience with yourself and a little experimentation to see where along the flexitarian scale is the right balance for you that matches your style of life, preferences, and goals as you lean toward plant-based, whole grains, nuts, and side seeds.”

Reap the benefits

Before switching to a flexitarian, the outcome and potential benefits should be considered. Berger supports the lifestyle for the benefit of his health.

“A flexible diet helped me lower my cholesterol levels because I increased the fiber and reduced the saturated fat,” she notes. “I also find that being flexible makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight since fruits and vegetables make up a big part of the diet and are the lowest calorie foods out there!”

Jordan shares that finding something healthy and satisfying at the same time has come with being flexible.

“It was the first step in helping me find a healthy eating pattern that worked for me that I could stick with,” she says. “It was like ‘The Three Bears’ for me: vegan was too strict, vegetarian was close but not quite, but flexitarian was the right fit. It also gives me a lot of variety and flexibility in my healthy food choices, so it’s It was easy to stay loyal long-term without feeling deprived or bored.”

The flex conversion also has some famous followers, including Ellen DeGeneres, Meghan Markle, Drew Barrymore and Diane Keaton and superstar quarterback Tom Brady.

Since healthy food and lifestyle choices are constantly evolving, adapting to a plant-based lifestyle is one way to improve your health through nutrition. For those who aren’t ready to embrace life without consuming animal products, becoming a flexitarian can support those health benefits without giving up the occasional burger or cheese platter. After all, it’s about being flexible.

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