The Flexitarian Diet: The Ultimate Guide to Going Vegan-ish in 2020

Veganism, vegetarianism … it is on the rise. Meat shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing people to make new dietary choices. People question whether meat and dairy consumption is good for their own health and the future of our planet.

You have been asking yourself these questions.

You buy into the idea that eating fruit and vegetables is good for your health. And of course, you want to play your part in saving the planet.  Who wouldn’t?

The thing is, you like the odd burger.

You like oysters with a nice glass of white.

That freshly caught fish you had on holiday last year was to die for.

Just the thought of going cold turkey (excuse the pun) on meat, poultry and fish gives you shivers!

A flexitarian diet could be just the thing for you. You don’t have to give up those things all together and you could still make a positive impact.  From today.

But what does a flexitarian eat in place of meat, poultry and fish? How often do Flexitarians eat meat? Can Flexitarians eat dairy?  How can you ensure you still have a healthy diet?

So many questions! Where exactly do you start with it all?

What is a flexitarian diet? 

Smash flexible and vegetarian together and you get flexitarian.

You get someone who seeks to reduce their animal protein and fat consumption, but not necessarily give it up entirely. So, a flexitarian can still have that burger, those oysters or that fish from time to time.

Dietician, Dawn Jackson Blatner, coined the term flexitarian in her 2009 book, The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life. She advocates a reduction in meat-based protein to leave more room for plant-based protein.  The official Flexitarian Diet does this as part of a calorie-controlled plan.

Nowadays, a flexitarian diet is more a lifestyle choice to reduce meat and dairy consumption rather than a strict regimen. We also sometimes call flexitarians semi-vegetarian or vegan-ish.

A flexitarian diet isn’t just about less meat

 Not always ordering the steak on the menu is just one part of a flexitarian lifestyle.

Choosing plant-based options over animal protein and fat is also accompanied by favouring home cooking and replacing highly processed foods with more natural food options.  So that means ditching food that has been pre-cooked, canned, frozen and packaged and opting for fresh, natural produce instead.

Foods or drinks containing refined, rather than natural, sugar are also limited.

Simply put, it’s your 5-a-day plan, plus plant-based protein and fibre found in things like lentils, beans, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, oatmeal, nuts and seeds.

As for the animal-based protein eaten more sparingly, flexitarians choose organic meat, wild-caught fish and free-range or pasture-raised eggs.  These can be more expensive but as you are buying less of them, it shouldn’t hit your bank balance too hard.

Is the flexitarian diet healthy? 

Diets higher in plant-based protein are better for your health. Period.

The flexitarian diet offers the same documented benefits as a vegan or vegetarian diet. The extent to which you reap these benefits is simply down to how much you cut back on meat and dairy.

Heart disease, cancer and strokes are the three biggest killers in the western world and reducing meat consumption protects against these and other diseases.

The latest research from the Journal of the American Heart Association concluded over an eight year study that those who consume more animal products and refined carbs were 32% more likely to die of heart disease and up to 25% more likely to die of all causes.

Are you also wondering if a flexitarian diet can help with inflammatory bowel disease and other digestive problems? Research from the World Health Organisation found that eating just 50 grams of processed meat every day may increase the risk of colorectal cancer.

Food for thought, isn’t it?

Flexitarians are healthier … and are saving the planet at the same time!

 Vegans are often berated for being smug. And why shouldn’t they be? Vegans are well aware of the impact their dietary choices have on our planet. Well, guess what? As a flexitarian, you can be smug for the same reasons!

Reduce your meat, poultry and dairy consumption and you also:

#1. Decrease greenhouse gas emissions

study in 2019 concluded that if all Americans reduced their meat consumption by 25% by introducing more plant-based proteins, it would represent an annual reduction of 82m metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector. Reducing your meat consumption can positively impact climate change more than if you never got on a plane again.

Think about that for a moment.

#2. Preserve natural resources

Sustainability is a 21st century buzzword. We need sustainable development models as we move forward.

The ready-to-assemble furniture multinational, IKEA, launched a vegan version of its famous, Swedish meatballs across the UK recently. Customers want more choice, but importantly this also feeds into the company’s People and Planet Positive strategy. IKEA wants to be a fully circular and climate-positive business by 2030.

Companies are doing their part. You can play your part too.

#3. Devote more land to food for humans

Ask yourself this simple question: Why are we producing grain to feed animals to farm meat, rather than feeding directly the world’s growing population?

According to global management consulting firm, AT Kearney, 46% of all crops grown in the world are used as livestock feed.  If we used them to directly feed humans, we would feed 7bn additional humans.  This could come in very handy as the United Nations predicts a global population of 10 billion in 2050.

There is nothing a flexitarian can’t eat!

 So what foods are off your shopping list as a flexitarian?

Well, nothing entirely.  As we said, flexitarians seek to reduce rather than eliminate.

 Along with less animal protein (meat, fish, seafood), a flexitarian reduces animal fats (milk and dairy products for example).  There are many plant-based alternatives on the market now that use oats, soy, or almond for example. You can easily switch to these.

As whole grains are the preferred choice, this translates as buying less refined carbohydrates such as white pasta, white bread and white rice.

Fast food, pastries, soda and crisps don’t make the grade either.  No big surprise there.

How often do flexitarians eat meat?

There is no definite answer to this. Think of flexitarianism as a progressive approach to reducing your animal protein (meat, poultry, fish) and animal fat (dairy) intake, without necessarily having an end goal or a strict tempo in mind.

Blatner’s Flexitarian Diet sketches this out in stages for those who want to work to a framework:

  • Beginner: 6–8 meatless meals/week
  • Advanced: 9–14 meatless meals/week
  • Expert: 15+ meatless meals/week

But finding your own pace brings real success.  You may be wondering how easy it is to follow if there are no strict guidelines.  But that is the beauty of it.

The flexitarian way of life is convenient in its flexibility.  You choose not only what you eat, but also when you eat it.  This is what makes it so easy and non-restrictive.

Restructuring your eating habits can take many forms. Let’s go through a few options

#1. Choose to be meat-free on most days …

… but have meat, fish or chicken when out in a restaurant or at the work canteen. That way, eating out doesn’t have to be a headache, like it can be on more restrictive diets

#2. Choose to eat meat every day …

… but instead of having meat at lunch and dinner, you simply limit it to lunch and choose a vegetarian option in the evening

#3. Start with one day in the week …

… when you eat no animal protein at all

If you are a big meat eater, take it slowly. Maybe you have heard of Meat Free Monday, started by Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney just over 10 years ago? It’s a not-for-profit campaign that encourages one plant-based day each week.  It’s a great example of the third option, as are Tofu Tuesdays.

The main principle is to reduce your animal protein by replacing it with plant protein: how you do that is up to you. Rather than asking how often a flexitarian eats meat, simply ask yourself: how often do I eat meat now? And then set yourself incremental steps to decrease that.

Semi-vegetarian doesn’t have to mean semi-nutritional!

People worry they won’t have all the necessary nutrients if they start to dramatically reduce eating meat, fish and dairy food groups.

If you eat a balanced diet, with at least 5 portions of fruit a day, you vary the produce you eat and you accompany it with whole grain food, you really shouldn’t have a problem.

Major nutrients found in animal protein and fats are also to be found in many alternative plant protein sources:

#1. Vitamin B12

This is the main one to look out for as it is only found naturally in animal foods, including meats, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy.  You are more at risk if you are on a strict vegan diet, but if you want to reassure yourself, you can buy plant-based milks that include additional B12.

#2. Zinc

It is true that red meat and poultry provide the majority of zinc in the Western diet. Maybe you are less aware of some other food sources, which include beans, nuts and whole grains.

#3. Iron

Iron is found in red meat, but also in green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and cabbage.  Popeye ate spinach for a reason! Vitamin C also increases iron absorption, so be sure to include things like fruit juice, sweet peppers and tomatoes in your flexitarian diet.

#4. Calcium

Associated with dairy foods, calcium is important for healthy teeth and bones. Plant-based milks are often fortified with calcium and dark leafy greens, soya beans and tofu are all naturally strong in calcium too.

#5. Omega-3 fatty acids

Your body needs these too. Omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure and reduce the likelihood of heart attacks and strokes. Typically found in fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines, make sure you include flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and plant oils in your diet as alternative sources.

Want to shift some pounds? Choose a flexitarian diet for weight loss

The flexitarian diet is not about just cutting out meat and dairy produce.

The flexitarian diet is a balanced diet with limited saturated fat, processed food and refined sugar.  So, if you follow it correctly there is every chance you will lose some weight.

Just remember, an unbalanced vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diet will not help you feel healthier or help you to lose weight.

Beer and chips are vegan, but excessive quantities of either don’t make for a balanced, healthy diet!  Work on all elements of the diet and not only will you feel healthier but there is every chance that you will slim down too.

Going vegan-ish doesn’t mean you have to give up the odd tipple

Lots of us like a nice cold lager or a glass of wine from time to time.  The flexitarian lifestyle is not prohibitive with regards to meat and it’s not prohibitive when it comes to alcohol.

We all know too much alcohol is not good for our health or our waistline, so the take-away here is to drink responsibly and in moderation.

The Flexitarian versus the Mediterranean Diet: What’s the difference?

The Mediterranean Diet, the Omnivore Diet, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet: there are a lot of diets out there advocating more fruit and vegetables.  It’s a no-brainer nowadays that we all need to ensure a good intake of these essentials.

If you are confused as to how these diets all differ, here’s a quick guide:

#1. The Mediterranean Diet

Researchers noticed that populations living around the Mediterranean Sea, particularly in Italy and Greece tend to live longer and have a lower risk of so-called lifestyle diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.  The cause was traced back to their traditional diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and olive oil.

Like the flexitarian lifestyle, this diet is low in sugar, or processed meat and highly processed foods. However, the main difference is that fish and seafood play a large part in the Mediterranean Diet, as does dairy food to a smaller degree.

#2. The Omnivore Diet

You may remember learning about carnivores, herbivores and omnivores when learning about dinosaurs at school!  An omnivore diet is about eating both animal and plant protein in a balanced way. Unlike flexitarians, omnivores have no intention of progressively making their meals more plant-based.

#3. The DASH diet

Promoted by the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, this diet is designed to lower blood pressure. Researchers noticed that vegans and vegetarians suffer from less hypertension.

The DASH diet seeks to lower salt intake, found in many processed foods and promotes eating fruit and vegetables, nuts, beans and seeds and low-fat and non-fat dairy. It advocates lean meat, poultry and fish.

As a rule of thumb, go for lighter coloured meats

 Some animal protein is healthier for you than others.  If you want to make healthier choices in terms of the meat you keep in your diet, the first thing to take out of your shopping trolley is processed meats. What do we mean by that?  Bacon, salami, pâté, ham, cured meats are to be left on the supermarket shelves.  And you probably know this already but heavily processed fast food such as hot dogs and chicken nuggets, they can go too!

The lighter the meat colour, the better it will be for you. When it comes to fresh, unprocessed meats, red meats like beef are higher in saturated fats than lighter coloured meats such as pork or chicken.  In terms of poultry, duck is one of the fattiest meats with chicken being a leaner option and turkey even better.

As a general rule, also look at how your meat is farmed and sourced. Grass-fed beef, for example, can be better for you. It has less fat and contains a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids.

Here’s an outlier for you: how about ostrich?  It tastes like red meat but is lean like poultry!

Looks like meat, tastes like meat … but it’s plant-based and a huge business


 Tofu, jackfruit, lentils, mushrooms … they have all replaced meat in vegan and vegetarian meals for a long time.

When we talk about vegan meat replacements nowadays, we are talking about plant-based protein made to look and feel like meat.

AT Kearney, in the same report that detailed the 46% of world crops that are currently used to feed livestock, predicts that in 2040 only 40% of the meat we consume will come from animals, 35 percent will be grown in a laboratory, and 25 percent will come from plant-based replacements.

It is a massive business.

And it is a solution to another major problem the world’s growing population is about to face: water shortages. According to the UN, 2.1bn people already do not have access to clean drinking water.  The agriculture industry uses 70% of the world’s viable water.

Not quite ready to leave the juicy, meaty texture of a burger behind just yet?

Rather than having one from time to time, you can try some of the options already in the supermarkets, such as the Beyond Burger from the US company Beyond Meat.  Made with pea protein, coconut oil and potato starch, this burger even “bleeds” beetroot juice for those who like their “meat” rare. Impossible Foods, with their simple and effective strapline “meat made from plants” offer the competitor Impossible Burger made from soy, and that bleeds in its own way too.

Just remember though, as much as they use plant-based ingredients, so are these new forms of burgers highly processed. Recommended in moderation, they can be a good way to help ease you off a high meat intake in the first instance or sate the odd craving

You may have heard of hybrid cars, but what about hybrid burgers?

It is the next frontier and companies such as Danish Crown Beef, Tyson and Applegate are all working on them. Watch out for interesting VC-backed tech start-ups too such as Planetarians. It’s half animal protein, half plant protein.  It makes the burger healthier whilst keeping the same meaty taste and texture.  One for the flexitarian maybe?

Meatless meals or less meat in your meals: 3 tips to get you started

 Today is the day!  You have understood the concepts, but how do you start putting them into practice?  How do you start reducing animal protein in favour of plant-based proteins?

How do you develop a flexitarian diet?

#1. Rethink your portions

The easiest – and maybe first – way to reduce your meat consumption is to not take it out of the meal altogether, but to rethink your portion sizes.  As a rule of thumb, downsize the meat and grain portion and supersize the fruit and vegetable portion.

What does that look like?  25% of the plate is taken up with meat, fish or poultry, 25% with grain and 50% with fruit and/or vegetables.

#2. Revisit some of your favourite recipes

Take the food you like but replace the meat with beans, lentils or chickpeas for example.

A classic shepherd’s pie is transformed into a vegan option by replacing the minced beef with lentils.  Chicken and spinach curry can be easily transformed into chickpea and spinach curry.  Some of your favourite stews and broths can be reinvented by using beans instead of meat.

#3. Check out some new recipes

There are so many recipe books out there to help you develop a new approach to cooking that relies largely on the plant-based protein found in fruit and vegetables.

There are also endless resources online.  Just search for vegetarian and vegan recipes made from your favourite fruit and vegetables.  And if you are not too familiar with foods such as chickpeas and lentils, beans or whole grains, search for recipes containing these new food types.

Flexitarian diet recipes: Book suggestions to inspire you

Do you need inspiration?  If you are used to meat in every meal, it can be hard to reprogram your thinking.  There are so many great cookbooks out there for vegan and vegetarian meals. … and a number of chefs who are pretty much flexitarian in their approach and so offer a mix of meat-based and plant-based recipes.

Here are a few to look out for:

#1. Forks over Knives (Del Sroufe)

An iconic vegan reference in the US, this is the cookbook produced off the back of the 2011 advocacy film for veganism of the same name.  Contains over 300 vegan recipes.

#2. BOSH! (Henry Firth and Ian Theasby)

One of a series of recipe books by two UK guys who have been called the vegan version of Jamie Oliver.  Some good reworkings of UK classics here too.

#3. Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen (Richa Hingle)

How about using the flexitarian experience to try out new cuisines?  Richa Hingle takes us to India in this exciting and entirely vegan cookbook.

#4. Plenty and Plenty More (Yotam Ottolenghi)

Two books here from the successful English Israeli cook, Yotam Ottolenghi. Cordon-bleu trained, these books offer hundreds of simple and delicious vegetarian recipes.

#5. Vegan(ish) (Jack Monroe)

A recent publication from the award-winning anti-poverty campaigner and writer, Jack Monroe, this book offers simple and affordable vegan recipes for those also watching the pennies.

The future is flexitarian: Be a part of it from today

We all want to live longer and healthier lives.

Just starting today to reduce slightly your meat and dairy consumption is the first step on a path to a better you.

It is not vegans or vegetarians that are driving the plant-based food market.  Flexitarians are.

It is estimated between 0.1 and 5% of the world’s population is vegan. If we take the top end of that range, that still leaves 95% – about 7bn people – who could be convinced to eat less meat and dairy.

Are you one of them?  Are you convinced?

If you are, not only can you choose a flexitarian diet for a healthier lifestyle, but you can make a significant difference to the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring a sustainable future.

And you can do all of this whilst still having the odd burger, occasionally having those oysters with a nice glass of white wine and choosing that delicious fresh fish again when you go on holiday next.

Now go and dust off those cookery books or jump on the internet! It is time to revisit your recipes!

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