Brief history of the Flexitarian diet
Registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, creator of the Flexitarian diet, invented the term “flexitarian” over a decade ago. In 2009, she published The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life, which outlined the basics of Blatner’s mostly-vegetarian eating plan. The diet states that flexitarians live longer (3.6 years long, to be exact) and weigh less (15 pounds less) than their omnivorous counterparts, and flexitarians also have a lower risk of certain diseases, like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Flexitarian diet guidelines
The Flexitarian diet is not about eliminating foods, but adding them. If you try this diet, the first thing you’ll hear is that you need to incorporate five food groups into your daily eating plan:
- New “meats”: Proteins and filling, “meaty” foods like beans, eggs, lentils, nuts, peas, seeds, and tofu.
- Sugar and spice: Natural sweeteners (agave), salad dressings, and dried herbs.
- Fruits and veggies: Not surprisingly, this almost-vegetarian diet emphasizes plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Dairy: Milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products.
- Whole Grains: Swap white breads and white rice for whole-wheat bread and brown rice.
Is “Semi” Vegetarian Enough?
While for some, being “mostly vegetarian” seems like falling short, others feel that something is better than nothing. “I really do believe that people who eat less meat do make both an environmental and health impact for the better,” says Rachel Berman, a Registered Dietitian and Health Director at About.com.
“Not having to be perfect all the time is important,” Berman says. “We get in the mindset that we have to do something extreme.” She finds that cutting out meat most of the time allows her clients to improve their health in a sustainable, long-term way.
How much does it cost?
No exotic ingredients are required, so groceries shouldn’t cost more than they typically do. Bypassing the butcher also helps keep the tab reasonable. The diet’s individualized nature gives you financial wiggle room – by making dinner from whatever produce is on sale, for example. There’s no membership fee, but you will need “The Flexitarian Diet” ($16.95).
Nothing is off-limits, but the goal is to add more plant-based foods to your diet while cutting back on meat.
The book has a short assessment of eating habits that will determine how you begin. Blatner considers you a beginner flexitarian if you have two meatless days per week (26 ounces of meat or poultry per week).
Advanced flexitarians skip meat 3 to 4 days a week (18 ounces of meat or poultry a week).
Experts go meatless 5 or more days a week (9 ounces of meat or poultry).
How does The Flexitarian Diet work?
Becoming a flexitarian is about adding five food groups to your diet – not taking any away. These are: the “new meat” (tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, and eggs); fruits and veggies; whole grains; dairy; and sugar and spice (everything from dried herbs to salad dressing to agave nectar sweetener). A five-week meal plan provides breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack recipes. You can follow the plan as it’s outlined, or swap recipes from different weeks to meet your preferences. It’s a 3-4-5 regimen: Breakfast choices are around 300 calories, lunches 400 and dinners 500. Snacks are about 150 calories each; add two, and your daily total clocks in at 1,500 calories. Depending on your activity level, gender, height and weight, you can tweak the plan to allow for slightly greater or fewer calories.
Flexitarian meals revolve around plant proteins rather than animal proteins. You might have cereal topped with soy milk, nuts and berries for breakfast; black bean soup with a salad and whole-grain roll for lunch, an apple with peanut butter for a snack and a barbeque veggie burger with sweet potato fries for dinner. Jackson Blatner provides tips like a tofu tutorial; a cheat sheet on veggies that taste like meat; strategies to “fend off flatulence;” and preparation tricks for different kinds of beans. Great Northern beans, for example, have a delicate flavor and are tender and moist, so she suggests puréeing them and making dips.
You can follow her regimen at your own pace: Jump in and try most of the recipes, sticking to the meal plan verbatim for five weeks. Or take it slowly, and test one of the recipes every once in a while. The Flexitarian Diet includes what she calls a “Flex Swap” feature: suggestions for recipe alterations and ingredient substitutions, such as adding chicken, turkey, fish or red meat to a vegetarian recipe. Jackson Blatner offers advice for all kinds of followers; if you already eat well most of the time, for example, she’ll show you how to add variety. The diet is molded after her philosophy: “Eat more plants, and do the best that you can.”
A sample Flexitarian diet menu could include:
- Whole grain cereal
- Soy milk
- Black bean soup
- Whole grain roll
- Veggie burger
- Sweet potato wedges
Is it the best way to lose weight?
Clinical studies support the adherence to a plant-based or primarily plant-based diet for weight loss and overall health. On average, vegetarians live about 3.6 years longer than omnivores and weigh about 15% less. This last point was supported by a review of 87 clinical studies, which was published in Nutrition Reviews in 2006. Vegetarians also have a decreased risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Part-time vegetarians can also reap these benefits. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders in 2003 followed 38,000 adults for six years. The study results indicated that partial vegetarianism is indeed beneficial for long-term weight loss. Losing excess weight is one of the best things you can do if you are diagnosed with diabetes or pre-diabetes. Plus, the fiber in plant-based foods is beneficial for cardiovascular health.