What is a flexitarian diet?

Plant-based diets are increasingly popular, but what are the health benefits of being a flexitarian? We asked a dietitian to give her view…

Vegetable tagine with quinoa in a bowl and on a plate

Flexitarianism or 'casual vegetarianism' is an increasingly popular, plant-based diet that claims to reduce your carbon footprint and improve your health with an eating regime that's mostly vegetarian yet still allows for the occasional meat dish. The rise of the flexitarian diet is a result of people taking a more environmentally sustainable approach to what they eat by reducing their meat consumption in exchange for alternative protein sources. 

We asked dietitian Emer Delaney for her view...

What does 'flexitarian' mean?

Following a flexitarian diet highlights an increased intake of plant-based meals without completely eliminating meat. It is about adding new foods to your diet as opposed to excluding any, which can be extremely beneficial for health. These plant-based foods include lentils, beans, peas, nuts and seeds, all excellent sources of protein.

It is also widely accepted that soluble fibre found in lentils and beans helps to reduce high cholesterol as part of a healthy diet, so including these regularly is definitely recommended. Nuts and seeds such as linseed (flaxseed), pine nuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts are high in the heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats which help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels and provide essential fatty acids. Research has shown that practicing a flexitarian diet in conjunction with physical activity can promote a lifestyle consistent with recommendations for reducing risks of breast and prostate cancer.

Read more about high fibre diets.

What are the healthiest meats to include?

When people do choose to eat meat, opting for good quality lean meat is best, such as chicken or turkey. I would advise having processed meats such as bacon, sausages, salami, ham and pâtés very occasionally as they are high in both saturated fat and salt and provide very little in the way of vitamins and minerals. Research from the World Health Organisation found that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day may increase the risk of colorectal cancer, so it's best to limit these foods.

Read more about how much meat is safe to eat.

Spring chicken, vegetables and potatoes in a pot

How can I ensure I’m getting all the nutrients I need from a flexitarian diet?

If you're thinking about changing to a flexitarian diet, I would advise plant-based foods at every meal, at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day and wholegrain foods. It is a good idea to include alternative sources of iron that may be lacking due to a low intake of red meat. Good sources include low sugar, iron-fortified breakfast cereals and dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, cabbage, kale and broccoli. As vitamin C increases iron absorption, a small glass (150ml) of fruit juice or salad items like sweet peppers, lamb's lettuce and tomatoes with meals is recommended.

Read more about how to get enough iron as a vegetarian.

Indian sweet potato and dhal pie


Flexitarian recipe suggestions...

Vegetable tagine with apricot quinoa
Double bean & roasted pepper chilli 
Indian sweet spotato dhal pies
Spring chicken in a pot
Spicy chicken salad with broccoli


Like this? Read more...

What counts as five-a-day?
What is a balanced diet for vegetarians?
11 things you find out when you start eating 10-a-day


This article was last reviewed on 4th July 2018 by Kerry Torrens.

Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

A registered nutritionist, Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Have you tried following a flexitarian diet? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below...

 

Comments, questions and tips

Sign in or create your My Good Food account to join the discussion.
IsabellaHurst
4th Aug, 2017
information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor
apple999
29th Jul, 2017
i think life has four stages, Get (from lactating mother and strong father) Build nurture maintain pls tell me the flexitarian diet you have recommended is for what age and stage. how chid can be strong mentally and physically and what are the minimum nutritional food for child looking at child food reluctance based on taste also for vegetarian and vegan diet. apple999
goodfoodteam's picture
goodfoodteam
31st Jul, 2017
Thank you for your question, we've written this guide to provide information and a nutritionist's opinion on the flexitarian diet. BBC Good Food advocates a balanced diet, packed with whole foods. If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to get in touch at goodfoodwebsite@bbc.com Thanks, The Good Food team
Be the first to suggest a tip for this recipe...Got your own twist on this recipe? Or do you have suggestions for possible swaps and additions? We’d love to hear your ideas.