Plant-based eating is growing by leaps and bounds. While many consumers are keen to explore plant-forward foods and alternative proteins, the majority still draw the line at cutting meat and other animal products out of their diet entirely.
This desire to reduce but not eliminate animal proteins has given rise to one of today’s most popular eating patterns: the flexitarian diet. Read on for a look at five important things to know about this increasingly common eating style.
1. It combines a vegetarian focus with a flexible attitude.
The key to what the flexitarian diet is all about is right in the name (which, incidentally, appeared in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary for the first time in 2012). The eating style is essentially a flexible approach to a vegetarian diet.
In other words, flexitarian eating typically follows a semi-vegetarian diet, but also includes moderate consumption of animal products. This approach is based on the central idea that the health benefits of a vegetarian diet can still be accessible to eaters even if they aren’t completely vegetarian.
The most important thing to understand is that flexitarians aren’t just lazy vegetarians, though they are sometimes branded as such. On the contrary, choosing to be a flexitarian eater suggests an active and deliberate, not to mention a realistically attainable, movement away from a meat-heavy diet and toward a healthier way of eating.
2. It’s in line with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Broadly speaking, health experts tend to approve of the flexitarian approach to eating because it lines up well with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (Now in its eighth iteration, the Dietary Guidelines are designed, and continually updated, to help Americans make healthier choices when it comes to food.)
According to recommendations made in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, the key components of a healthy eating pattern include a variety of colorful vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, a variety of protein foods, and limited amounts of saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium.
All of these components can be found in plenty in a healthy flexitarian diet. Flexitarians tend to get the majority of their calories from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, plus protein from mostly plant-based sources.
3. It offers a number of diverse health benefits.
By now, it’s probably clear that health is one of the big motivating factors behind the flexitarian diet. Because it focuses so strongly on fresh, healthful foods such as those described in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, the flexitarian diet has been linked to a wide range of health benefits, including:
Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Numerous studies have linked high consumption rates of predominantly plant-based foods with a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease. This is likely due to the beneficial nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidant vitamins, that these foods typically contain.
Good gastrointestinal health. Did you know that most Americans only consume about half the recommended daily amount of dietary fiber? A key part of good gut health, dietary fibers help promote digestion and nutrient absorption and prevent blockages in the gastrointestinal tract. Many plant-based foods, unlike animal products, are good sources of dietary fiber.
Lower cholesterol. A study from 2005 points to benefits that can come from even a short stint as a flexitarian eater. In this study, participants who followed a flexitarian diet for just four weeks saw their total cholesterol levels reduced by almost 20 points. Their LDL levels in particular (low-density lipoproteins, or the “bad” cholesterol) were reduced by nearly 15 points.
4. It is attractive to people for a variety of reasons.
Many people choose to explore flexitarian eating for health-related reasons. However, there are plenty of other factors that motivate today’s eaters to boost their plant consumption and reduce their meat intake.
Some are motivated by environmental concerns. The meat industry is a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.
Others are motivated by concerns about the ethical treatment of animals. These flexitarians may choose to reduce overall meat consumption so that they can focus on animal products from sources and producers that they know are committed to the humane treatment of animals.
Still others may simply be supporting fully vegetarian or vegan family or household members.
5. It represents a major market opportunity.
Whatever the reasons someone chooses this eating style, the flexitarian diet clearly represents a significant market opportunity for restaurants and other players in the food service industry. Some of the top tips that restaurants can consider in order to attract and retain flexitarian clients include:
Quality over quantity when it comes to meat. Many people who follow a flexitarian diet will focus on eating plant-based foods at home but are still likely to consume meat dishes when they eat out. This means that they will be looking for high-quality meat items, rather than big portions, on restaurant menus. Think in terms of a small but delicious petit filet instead of a big T-bone steak.
Go beyond the conventional vegetarian menu items. Today’s eaters, flexitarian and vegetarian alike, are increasingly looking for creative plant-based menu options that go beyond the standard vegetarian fare. Pasta primavera and portobello mushroom burgers are just two examples of token vegetarian dishes that few diners get excited about these days. Instead, restaurants need to focus on exciting flavors and ingredients to make their plant-based offerings as attractive as their meat dishes.