Do you want to reap the health benefits of a balanced vegetarian diet while still enjoying a cheeky barbecue every now and then? Then perhaps you should think about going flexitarian.
    (Photography: Getty)

    Move over, vegetarianism and veganism: the latest lifestyle trend to hit Australia is flexitarianism, also known as “casual vegetarianism”.

    Plant-based diets have become increasingly popular in recent years. Now, more than two million Australians report their diets are almost all or completely vegetarian, a considerable increase of 30 per cent in the past four years.

    Vegetarian, pesctarian and vegan diets are simple to define but there’s definite confusion about what it really means to be flexitarian, since the boundaries are fuzzier.

    So what exactly is it and why has it become so popular? Is it a healthy lifestyle choice, a diet for the indecisive or just vegetarianism with benefits? We take a look at what the flexitarian lifestyle involves, its benefits and how to do it.

    Flexitarianism & its benefits

    Flexitarianism focuses on a plant-based vegetarian diet while still allowing eating fish, poultry or meat in moderation. Created by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner to help people reap the health benefits of being vegetarian while still enjoying a juicy steak when the craving hits, it’s more a lifestyle than a diet.

    So what are the real benefits of going flexitarian? The flexitarian diet is becoming increasingly popular due to its ... um, flexibility. It’s great for people who don’t want to be committed to a fully vegan or vegetarian diet and can be tailored according to the individual’s lifestyle, allergies and intolerances.

    “Along with its health benefits, flexitarian diets (if done in the right way) have been proven to have a positive impact on climate change by reducing your overall carbon footprint.”

    For a flexitarian there are no set rules, only guiding principles. For example, some flexitarians eat meat only once a month while others eat meat or fish more frequently, especially if it’s from ethical and sustainable sources.

    One of the biggest benefits of flexitarianism is its range of health benefits. A balanced plant-based diet is usually a lot lower in fat and salt than a diet high in meat and saturated fats.

    According to Blatner, “Flexitarians weigh 15 per cent less, have a lower rate of heart disease, diabetes and cancer and live 3.6 years longer than their carnivorous counterparts.”

    Recent studies have shown that consuming primarily plant-based foods helps reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke and Type 2 Diabetes. It is also associated with reduced incidence of all cancers, especially colorectal cancer. Eating mainly plant-based foods is also an effective way to cut calories through better weight management.

    Along with their health benefits, flexitarian diets (if done in the right way) have been proved to have a positive impact on climate change by reducing your overall carbon footprint. If everyone in the world adopted a flexitarian diet, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could be reduced by more than half.

    How to do it

    Take one step at a time

    It’s best to take it slow when first adopting a flexitarian lifestyle, especially if you’re currently a meat eater. It’s not easy to go cold turkey so by going slow you are more likely to stick to the diet.

    Take baby steps and gradually build up to consuming more plant-based meals a week. Try to make breakfast and lunch plant based, reduce the serving of meat for dinner and stock up on healthy plant-based snacks.

    In Blatner’s book The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life, she suggests that consumers new to the flexitarian diet first try the diet as a “Beginner Flexitarian” (two meat-free days per week) then move up to “Advanced” level (vegetarian diet three–four days per week) and eventually “Expert” level (five meat-free days per week).

    Beginner: 6–8 meatless meals/21 total meals each week

    Advanced: 9–14 meatless meals/21 total meals each week

    Expert: 15+ meatless meals/21 total meals each week

    Don’t exclude foods

    Unlike other diets, which have a long list of foods you can’t eat, a flexitarian diet focuses on an inclusive eating plan rather than exclusive.

    Since meat is not off limits you’re not likely to crave it as much since you won’t feel deprived. This is why many diets fail.

    It’s all about adding foods into the diet, focusing on the five Flex food groups below:

    1. The “new meat” (non-meat proteins) including legumes, lentils, beans, tofu and tempeh

    2. Fruits and vegetables including a variety of non-starchy and starchy vegetables

    3. Wholegrains including quinoa, oats, barley, corn and farro

    4. Dairy including yoghurt, milk, kefir and cheese

    5. Sugar and spice including ingredients that boost flavour including herbs, agave syrup and vinegars

    Get creative

    Plant-based meals can be fun to make but often take more creativity to taste good. Try new recipes to help you feel excited about cooking and experiment with different flavours and vegetables. Allocate one day per week to meal preparation and planning meals.

    There are also many recipes where plants are the hero rather than the sideshow — for example, those by English-Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi.

    Try reinventing old classics by swapping meat with plant-based proteins like lentils, beans, mushrooms and chickpeas in your favourite recipes like lasagna, shepherd’s pie and spaghetti bolognese. Burger lover? Ditch the beef and substitute a quinoa patty or try a Beyond Burger.

    Eat more plant-based proteins

    A largely plant-based diet is recommended in the flexitarian diet. By reducing your meat intake, it’s essential that you’re getting enough protein in your diet. Our bodies require protein for energy and to build and repair tissue.

    Look out for plant-based proteins like lentils, beans, nuts, tofu, tempeh and seeds as well as including foods rich in fibre, folate, iron and magnesium.

    Cut out the meat

    Think outside the square of meat-free Mondays. Another great way to reduce meat consumption is to reduce your portion size.

    For example, try to make 25 per cent of your plate meat or poultry, 25 per cent whole grains and the remaining half fruits and vegetables. When you eat meat, think better quality (free-range chicken and organic grass-fed beef) and think smaller portions.

    Think ethically & sustainably

    Change the way you shop and focus on local, seasonal and sustainable. Be a savvy shopper and research where the food comes from and how it is produced.

    When eating meat and other animal product in the flexitarian diet, try to opt for sustainable and ethically sourced meat from your local butcher — organic and free-range wherever possible.

    Ask your local fishmonger about the most sustainable fish at the moment (look for local species, seasonality and fishing methods).

    It’s recommended eggs be free-range or pasteurised and dairy and poultry should be sourced from organic grass-fed or pastured animals.

    Avoid processed foods

    Processed foods should be avoided as much as possible since they’re often chock full of unhealthy fats, added sugars and sodium. In particular, fast foods, refined carbohydrates, added sugar and processed meats like bacon, salami and sausages should be strictly avoided.

    Lisa Holmen is a food and travel writer and photographer. Her aim is to “eat the world” one inch at a time and explore as many different cuisines and cultures as possible. Follow

    Lisa’s journey at