Summary List Placement
A flexitarian diet is exactly what its name implies — it's a flexible way to kickstart healthy eating and potentially shed some pounds and improve your health in the process.
Generally speaking, the purpose of the flexitarian diet is to reduce the amount of animal-based products you consume and replace them with whole, plant-based options.
For example, replace your barbacoa taco filling with spiced black beans. However, this does not mean replacing your jerky snack with potato chips.
To lose weight on a flexitarian diet, you'll need to choose the right foods to support that goal, says registered dietitian-nutritionist Scott Keatley, RD, CDN.
"Technically, potato chips and table sugar are vegetarian but we know that if our diet includes too much of these types of food we will not lose weight," Keatley says. "However, picking whole-grains, fruits, and vegetables as well as some lean proteins make for a high-fiber … calorie-controlled diet."
Here's how to try a flexitarian diet with a 7-day meal plan as well as more on the benefits you may reap from following it.
What to eat and drink on the flexitarian diet
A flexitarian diet encourages a lot of healthy behaviors, like rarely eating red meat and loading up on lean protein and whole foods. Here's a list of foods that experts recommend eating frequently, in moderation, and rarely while following a flexitarian diet.
Foods/drinks to have often:
Foods/drinks to have in moderation:
- Low-fat cheese
- Low-fat yogurt
- Caffeinated beverages
Foods/drinks to avoid whenever possible (true for all eating plans):
- Processed meat (bacon, salami, hot dogs, sausage)
- Refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta, and pastries made with white flour)
- Processed snacks (candy, chips, cookies)
- Drinks with added sugar (soda, sweetened juice, energy drinks)
7-Day flexitarian meal plan
If you're interested in trying out a flexitarian diet, here's a 7-day sample flexitarian meal plan, according to registered dietician Shena Jaramillo, MS, RD. Adjust serving sizes and calorie proportions to your specific needs.
Breakfast: Oatmeal (made with dairy-free milk), topped with fruit and walnuts
Lunch: Mixed green salad with spiced chickpeas, avocado, cherry tomato, cucumber, and balsamic vinaigrette
Snack: Bell pepper and hummus
Dinner: Butternut squash and black bean frittata
Breakfast: Whole-wheat toast with peanut butter, apple slices
Snack: ¼ cup walnut halves
Lunch: Whole-wheat pita with mixed greens, bell pepper, and roasted chickpeas
Snack: Sliced pear
Dinner: Chicken stir fry with mixed vegetables and nutritional yeast
Breakfast: Whole-wheat toast with avocado, sprouts, and chickpeas
Snack: Sliced apple with peanut butter
Lunch: Quinoa and broccoli stir-fry with roasted tofu
Snack: 1 cup of strawberries
Dinner: Whole-wheat pita with vegetables, balsamic vinegar, and low-fat cheese
Breakfast: Buckwheat cereal with blueberries
Snack: Carrot sticks with hummus
Lunch: Strawberry almond kale salad with citrus vinaigrette and grilled chicken breast
Snack: Celery with peanut butter
Dinner: Tempeh taco sliders with tomato, cabbage, and vegan sour cream
Breakfast: Fruit smoothie
Snack: Baked kale chips
Lunch: Black bean veggie burger on a whole-wheat bun
Snack: Popcorn with nutritional yeast
Dinner: Veggie pasta salad with lime and balsamic vinegar
Breakfast: Egg scramble with mushrooms, onions, and peppers
Snack: Fruit smoothie
Lunch: Avocado "Reuben" sandwich on rye with mustard, sauerkraut, and vegan thousand island dressing
Snack: Rice cakes with nut butter and pomegranate seeds
Dinner: Vegetarian chili
Breakfast: Whole-grain bagel with peanut butter and banana
Snack: Tomato, cucumber, and basil salad with tahini or vinaigrette
Lunch: Whole-wheat mac and cheese (either with real cheese or vegan cheese made with soaked cashews and nutritional yeast), roasted broccoli
Snack: Almonds and clementines
Dinner: Curried coconut quinoa with shrimp and roasted cauliflower
What the research says about a flexitarian diet
Research that is specifically on the flexitarian diet is limited since the guidelines aren't as strict as vegetarianism and veganism, which makes flexitarianism more difficult to study.
That said, there's plenty of research indicating the advantages of reducing your consumption of animal products while eating more whole grains, veggies, legumes, and other plant-based foods.
Better weight management and body composition
Jaramillo says that since plant-based proteins tend to be high in fiber, they can make you feel full for longer while reducing your overall caloric intake — which can ultimately lead to weight loss. Here's what the research says:
- A 2011 comparative study showed a connection between the consumption of animal products and body mass index (BMI). The more animal-based foods in subjects' diets, the higher their BMI tended to be. While vegans had the lowest BMI, semi-vegetarians still had a lower BMI than non-vegetarians.
- Another 2010 study found a positive association between total meat consumption and weight gain, even after adjusting for caloric intake. This aligns with the findings of a 2015 study, which reports that post-menopausal Korean women who maintained a semi-vegetarian diet over 20 years had a "significantly lower" BMI, as well as body fat percentage, than the non-vegetarians in the study.
- Additionally, a 2019 study conducted in Spain found that a "pro-vegetarian" diet — which researchers defined as "preference for plant-derived foods but not exclusion of animal foods" — can help reduce the risk of obesity.
Lower blood pressure
- According to a 2020 review, a plant-based diet has been shown to lower blood pressure — even if small amounts of meat and dairy are still consumed.
Reduced risk of heart disease and heart failure
- In 2017, researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York found that people who mostly ate a plant-based diet were 42% less likely to develop heart failure throughout the four-year study, compared to participants who ate fewer plant-based foods.
- Similarly, a 2017 overview found evidence that high consumption of plant-based foods is associated with a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers believe this may be because plant-based foods are high in heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, as well as fiber and antioxidants.
Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
- A 2018 study in the Netherlands found that a diet that emphasized plant-based foods was associated with lower insulin resistance, lower risk of pre-diabetes, and lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Reduced risk of cancer
- A 2015 study of more than 77,000 people found that semi-vegetarians were 8% less likely to get colorectal cancer — the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths — when compared to non-vegetarians.
- A 2019 review found that a plant-based diet may help to reduce inflammation, and thus, help to alleviate painful symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
A flexitarian diet offers an ideal compromise for people who regularly eat meat and want to cut down on meat and dairy products without giving them up entirely.
Research suggests that people with high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or heart disease can benefit from the flexitarian diet.
Moreover, "anyone can benefit from a flexitarian diet — but those with inflammatory conditions such as arthritis may see the greatest benefit with decreased inflammation," says Jaramillo.
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