To eat meat or not to eat meat? That’s a question many people ask when trying to follow a healthy diet. For some, it’s a simple answer—those strictly vegan or vegetarian say no, and those who love steak, burgers, and more say yes. But for those who eat meat sometimes, the answer is a little more complicated. Enter: the flexitarian diet, a semi-vegetarian eating style, in which you eat plant-based most of the time and meat occasionally.
This diet can be a game changer for runners looking to enjoy the best of both worlds: eating meat and following a plant-based diet—a pretty welcoming way of eating. To find out what works best and to help you master this approach, we sifted through the research and spoke with two registered dietitians including the one who coined the term.
What is a flexitarian diet?
This eating style imitates a vegetarian diet but allows for more flexibility, hence the name flexitarian (a combination of the words flexible and vegetarian). The diet encourages individuals to eat more plant foods while occasionally eating meat a few times a week. It was introduced in 2010 by Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N, author of The Flexitarian Diet, who says she wrote her book because she wanted to eat a healthy diet similar to a vegetarian, but with a little more meat and a lot more flexibility.
“I call it positive nutrition. It’s more focused on what you’re supposed to eat more of, and not so much about what you’re cutting out, so that’s the heartbeat of it. It’s a pro-plant diet, not anti-meat,” says Blatner.
As a flexitarian, the main goal is to eat more plant foods, so this means adding more fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, lentils, and beans to your diet while still enjoying eggs, fish, red meat, pork, and poultry in moderation.
How do you practice a flexitarian diet?
There are no hard and fast rules to practicing a flexitarian diet. Ultimately how you practice this diet will depend on how much meat you want to keep eating. But if you’re looking for a few pointers on how to keep up with this eating style, here’s how Blatner suggests you approach it:
First, as we mentioned before, think about eating more plant foods, and less animal meats. Also, consider cutting back on faux meats, sugary foods, and processed foods. Ultra processed foods, including plant-based meat alternatives, don’t have as many natural nutrients as whole foods, Blatner says, so for flexitarians to maximize nutrition, its best to eat more whole foods.
To start the flexitarian diet, you don’t have to cut any animal protein from your diet if you don’t want to. Beginners can eat about 26 ounces of meat or poultry a week, which is the same amount recommended by The Dietary Guidelines for Americans for those who eat 2,000 calories a day and follow the Mediterranean diet. “It’s actually not saying eat any less than what everybody’s supposed to eat,” Blatner says.
Kicking up your plant intake (the goal of the diet), can be as easy as having fruit with your breakfast or as a snack throughout the day, Blatner says. And when making some of your favorite meals, consider swapping out animal protein for plant protein. “Once in a while instead of putting chicken on your salad, maybe you put chickpeas. Instead of making a steak stir fry or chicken stir fry, maybe you do edamame or tofu,” she recommends.
Once you get the hang of that, then advance to the next level and cut back even more on eating animal proteins. Advanced flexitarians eat about 18 ounces of animal protein each week, which is about six servings of a chicken breast (about the size of a deck of cards) or three 6-ounce filet mignons. Those Blatner considers to be flexitarian experts eat about 9 ounces of animal protein, which is about three pieces of chicken breast per week. But the key is to supplement animal protein with protein-rich plant foods to maintain a balanced energizing diet.
“It never goes to zero because this is flexitarian vibes. But you can again, go up and down depending on what you’re doing,” Blatner says. Remember there aren’t any strict rules, so you can eat 26 ounces of animal protein one week and less the next. It’s all about how flexible you’re willing to be.
What are the benefits of practicing a flexitarian diet?
By now it’s clear the biggest benefit this diet has to offer is flexibility, but it isn’t the only advantage. There are health and social advantages to practicing this diet, too.
Many people prefer this style of eating as opposed to vegan or vegetarian because it means they’ll have more options to choose from when dining out or attending a catered event. This diet really molds to your lifestyle, so if you want to eat meat at a barbecue or baseball game you have the flexibility to do so, Blatner says.
Also, the flexitarian diet is a great starting point for someone who’s transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. “I like to encourage clients to start with the flexitarian eating pattern before making a 100% shift to a vegan diet to see what works, what doesn’t and to make it more individualized to their lifestyle and nutritional needs,” says Yasi Ansari, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., sports dietitian and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In terms of health benefits, flexitarians can reap the same ones as vegetarians and vegans. “When you add more plants to your diet—whether or not you decrease animal protein intake—you can still benefit from eating a variety of fruits, veggies, and plant proteins,” says Ansari.
For example, a recent study published by in American Heart Association-backed journal, Circulation linked eating more fruits and vegetables with lower mortality rates. Another study published in the International Journal of Cancer associated eating more fruits and vegetables with lower risk for breast cancer after studying the dietary patterns of a group of women for 30 years.
When it comes to comparing the flexitarian diet to plant-based diets, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that flexitarians have the best gut bacteria. Researchers attributed this to the fact that a flexitarian diet is rich in fruits and vegetables containing dietary fibers and resistant starch that promote microbial diversity. Blatner says this can be very beneficial because gut bacteria helps improve regularity, digestive health, and immunity.
Also, practicing a flexitarian diet can be more environmentally friendly. A report published in the journal Nutrients found that replacing meat twice a week with fiber-rich pulses (or legumes) can have a moderate effect on the environmental sustainability of a diet. Researchers say this is because the more plant foods you eat, the greater the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production.
While there are many ways you can benefit from swapping out animal protein for plant protein, there are limits. Due to this diet’s flexible nature, it’s important to note that all benefits will vary depending on how much meat, fruits, and vegetables you eat, not to mention other lifestyle factors that play a role in overall well-being like sleep and stress management.
How can this diet benefit runners?
The flexitarian diet is a great combination of two things every runner needs, Blatner says: carbohydrates and protein. “That is much of what the flexitarian diet is—it’s this great balance of carbs for fuel, and protein for strength that runners need,” she says. So naturally runners can follow this diet while training.
Practicing this eating style, as opposed to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, can help runners met all their nutrition needs—including necessary vitamins and minerals thanks to the uptick in plant eating and protein thanks to animal products—without worry about taking any supplements.
By continuing to eat foods like dairy, poultry, fish, or red meat in conjunction with fruits and vegetables throughout the week, Ansari says, runners get nutrients like vitamin B12 and zinc, which are nutrients plant-based diets sometimes lack. Plus, this eating style can help runners eat more nutrients that both non-meat eaters and meat eaters alike lack. This includes iron, vitamin C, and magnesium.
The bottom line on the flexitarian diet for runners
The flexitarian diet can be a great way to eat healthy without giving up foods you enjoy, particularly if you like to have meat occasionally. Just be mindful and take into consideration how this diet will impact the foods you eat before, during, and after runs to avoid any pitfall like bonking or fatigue.
As with any diet, consider consulting with a registered dietitian to ensure that you’re making the right nutrition decisions that will help you successfully fuel your training and daily activities.
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