Flexitarian Diet: A Complete Guide

Medically Reviewed By Katherine Marengo LDN, R.D.

Generally, a flexitarian diet involves prioritizing plant-based and meat-free foods, such as vegetables, dairy, and whole grains, while having the flexibility to eat meat from time to time. Vegetarians eliminate meat and fish from their diet. As per its name, a flexitarian diet is a more flexible alternative to vegetarianism, as it allows eating meat and fish.

Research suggests that a flexitarian or lower-meat diet may have health benefits, such as reducing the risk of some chronic conditions.

You can talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian if you are considering a flexitarian diet.

This article discusses flexitarian diets, plus foods to include or limit, benefits, and concerns.

What is a flexitarian diet?

Two people eating a variety of plant-based foods
Ina Peters/Stocksy United

A flexitarian diet is a semi-vegetarian diet. It involves prioritizing plant-based and meat-free foods but still eating meat occasionally.

It has no official rules for how much meat, animal produce, or other food types to eat.

According to a 2021 study, 50% of people who eat a flexitarian diet eat meat more than four times per week, while around 14% heavily restrict meat in their diet.

What foods should I include as part of a flexitarian diet?

Flexitarian diets can include any food. Typically, flexitarian diets emphasize plant-based and meat-free foods.

To follow a balanced Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source flexitarian diet, try prioritizing the following foods:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole grains
  • oily fish, such as salmon, trout, and sardines
  • plant-based proteins, such as:
    • beans
    • nuts and seeds
    • soy products like tofu and tempeh
    • seitan

Someone on a flexitarian diet can consume eggs and dairy. However, if you want to limit animal-based foods even more, consider alternatives. For example, you could opt for plant milk or substitute aquafaba (chickpea juice) for eggs.

What foods should I limit as part of a flexitarian diet?

Flexitarianism involves limiting Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source how much meat (and sometimes fish and seafood) you eat, including:

  • poultry
  • game meats
  • red meats
  • organ meats
  • processed meats, such as sausages and bacon

If you eat meat, certain types may be higher quality sources of nutrients. Consider choosing lean meats, such as chicken and reduced-fat beef mince, rather than highly processed or high fat products like deli meats, sausages, and pâté.

Learn more about high quality sources of protein.

Some people also choose to limit other animal products, such as Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source :

  • milk, cheese, and other dairy products
  • eggs
  • animal byproducts, such as:
    • gelatin
    • animal rennet or lard
    • honey or beeswax

What are the benefits of a flexitarian diet?

One advantage of a flexitarian diet is that you might have similar Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source dietary benefits to vegetarianism while still getting essential nutrients from meat.

Some meat and animal products are important sources of nutrients, and people who don’t eat them may experience Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source deficiencies as a result.

Meanwhile, a 2017 analysis Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source also suggests that vegetarians have a 25% lower risk of ischemic heart disease and an 8% lower risk of any cancer type, compared with people who eat meat and processed foods.

Learn more about the benefits of vegetarianism.

More research is needed to know whether the effects are the same for vegetarianism and flexitarianism, as well as to weigh up the pros and cons of including meat in the diet.

Still, eating a diet that reduces meat and is closer to vegetarianism may be beneficial in the following ways.

General health benefits

Health benefits already linked to a flexitarian diet include:

  • promoting weight loss and improved weight management in people with excess weight
  • reducing blood sugar levels
  • reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes
  • improving cholesterol levels
  • improving blood pressure management

Reducing meat consumption

A significant concern about diet and its effect on health is the overconsumption of red and processed meats. These types of meats may increase Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source the risk of:

  • death in general
  • cardiovascular disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • some types of cancer

Limiting your overall meat consumption as part of flexitarianism may mean you are less likely to eat red and processed meats as well. The 2021 study suggests that 54% of people eating a flexitarian diet ate beef, a type of red meat, less than once per week.

However, some people who follow a flexitarian diet may still eat significant amounts of these types of meats, as there are no specific rules about how much to eat. Reducing your meat consumption without limiting red and processed meats likely won’t have Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source as many health benefits.

Sustainability and animal welfare

By decreasing meat consumption, a flexitarian diet may benefit Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source the environment as well as your health, such as Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source by:

  • reducing greenhouse emissions
  • reducing land and water use
  • using fewer resources in general

Another benefit for some people is supporting animal welfare by not contributing to the demand and production of meat.

Are there any downsides to a flexitarian diet?

Flexitarian diets may lead to some of the following concerns.

Not limiting certain foods

While flexitarian diets may appear healthy, limiting meat doesn’t necessarily mean your diet is balanced otherwise. Any foods and ingredients can be included in a flexitarian diet, including those that can be harmful Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source to health in high levels, such as:

Be careful to follow a balanced diet even if you are practicing flexitarianism. Prioritizing whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, over highly processed options may help.

Learn more about important nutrients and how to have a balanced diet.

Nutritional deficiencies

Depending on how much you limit meat, fish, and other animal products, you may have a risk Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source of nutrient deficiencies. This is because meat and seafood sometimes have nutritional advantages, including:

As a result, limiting meat and other animal products can contribute to some nutrient deficiencies, including Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source a lack of:

  • zinc
  • iron
  • calcium
  • vitamin B12
  • omega-3 fatty acids

People who follow a meat and seafood-restricted diet may need to take Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source supplements to meet their nutritional needs.

Always talk with a doctor or registered dietitian before changing your diet

Always talk with a doctor or registered dietitian before making any significant changes to your diet. They can provide personalized guidance based on your health and preferences.

Also talk with a doctor or dietitian for personalized advice about what supplements they recommend for you before trying any. Supplements are not thoroughly checked by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Trusted Source Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Governmental authority Go to source for safety, effectiveness, or accuracy of their labeling before they can be sold.

Summary

A flexitarian diet involves limiting how much meat you eat and focusing on plant-based, meat-free foods. However, there are no set rules for how much meat you can eat on a flexitarian diet.

For example, you may prioritize fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Consider including lean, minimally processed meats and oily fish to help your diet stay balanced.

Talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian before making any significant changes to your diet or if you have any questions.

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Medical Reviewer: Katherine Marengo LDN, R.D.
Last Review Date: 2024 Feb 8
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