Flexitarian Eating: Flexible Eating in Practice
By Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 26 No. 3 P. 10

The Middle Ground of Plant-Focused Eating Plans

With the increased popularity of plant-based eating, the flexitarian diet is gaining traction. The eating plan combines the concept of diet flexibility with vegetarian principles. The flexitarian diet also is known as a semivegetarian diet, as it doesn’t eliminate meat, but allows for more plants on the plate while leaving room for animal products based on individual preferences.

The term flexitarian was coined by Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, CSSD, in her 2010 book, The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life.1 The diet, which is considered a lifestyle, enables individuals to reap the benefits of including more plant foods while still enjoying animal products. In 2024, the flexitarian diet ranked number five in US News & World Report’s Best Overall Diet.2 In addition, the International Food Information Council’s 2023 Food and Health Survey found that 52% of participants followed a diet or specific eating pattern with the flexitarian diet being named as the sixth most followed plan.3

This article discusses the benefits of the flexitarian diet, how research defines it, and how RDs are providing clients with guidance to follow a flexitarian eating pattern. Sample flexitarian plates and recipe also are included.

Flexitarian 101
The term “flexitarian” doesn’t have an official definition, and it has been defined differently in various research studies; however, the definition usually focuses on a lower consumption of red meat and poultry.4 A 2017 review of 25 epidemiologic, randomized, controlled clinical trials examined the benefits of following a flexitarian diet to determine whether it was associated with lower body weight, improved markers of metabolic health, blood pressure, and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.5 The review also showcased the different definitions of the flexitarian diet, which varied from study to study, such as “excluded red meat but ate poultry and fish” and “ate red meat, poultry, fish one [time]/month to one [time]/week, and eggs or dairy at any level.” According to Blatner, “Flexitarian is a ‘flexible vegetarian’ who gets the benefits of a plant-based eating style without having to follow the stricter rules of traditional vegetarian or vegan [eating styles].” The goal of this eating plan is to add more plant foods without excluding any food groups. Blatner explains that the emphasis is on flexibility as the plan bends to the individual’s preferences and lifestyle.

The flexitarian diet is in line with the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), and it’s also in agreement with MyPlate, which recommends three-quarters of the plate include plants, such as fruits, vegetables, and starches.6,7

There’s also a growing body of research showing the positive health effects of adopting a flexitarian diet to help prevent heart disease, diabetes, weight management, cancer, and other chronic diseases. A 2017 study examined evidence from prospective cohort studies showing that high consumption of mostly plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains is associated with a significantly lower risk of CVD.8 A 2015 study compared diabetes biomarkers of individuals following a nonvegetarian diet vs a flexitarian diet and found that the flexitarian eating plan was associated with significantly lower glucose and insulin levels and reduced insulin resistance compared with the nonvegetarian diet.9 This study also showed that subjects following a flexitarian diet had significantly lower body weight and lower body fat percentage compared with nonvegetarians.9

Individuals with a higher intake of plant-based foods get more fiber, vitamins, and minerals, such as vitamin E; folate; potassium; and lutein. The flexibility of adding animal foods like dairy and eggs also provides opportunities to increase vitamins A and D, B-vitamins, and calcium. The combination allows for the nutrients from various animal-based products to complement those from plant-based foods, thereby increasing the variety of nutrients in the overall diet.

Using the Flexitarian Diet in Practice
Blatner says it’s helpful for RDs to refer to the DGA’s protein categories to show clients how a flexitarian plan reduces meat and poultry but allows room for plant-based proteins like pulses (eg, dried beans, dried peas, lentils, chickpeas), soyfoods, and nuts and seeds. It provides “RDs with a sense of what to help clients shift in their protein eating pattern, while all other food groups remain consistent to the US Healthy Eating Pattern,” Blatner says. Below are the differences in weekly protein targets based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

DGA Healthy US-Style Pattern6:
• 26 oz-eq of meat, poultry, eggs;
• 8 oz-eq fish; and
• 5 oz-eq nuts, seeds, soy.

Estimated Flexitarian Pattern:
• 13 oz-eq meat, poultry, eggs;
• 8 oz-eq fish;
• 6 oz-eq pulses;
• 8 oz-eq soy; and
• 7 oz-eq nuts/seeds.

Jackie Topol, MS, RD, CDN, (www.jackietopol.com), a prediabetes expert and cofounder of the Culinary Nutrition Collaborative in Rockaway, New Jersey, uses the flexitarian diet in practice because many of her clients are interested in moving toward a plant-based diet but still want to continue eating small amounts of animal foods. “We swap plant proteins in place of their usual meat-based entree as much as possible, and they begin to eat more nonstarchy vegetables as well. When they feel like having some animal protein, it’s not the star of the plate, and I guide them toward having slightly smaller portions than they used to,” Topol explains. Topol finds that clients are eating more fiber, less saturated fat, and often fewer calories, which can lead to weight loss without any calorie counting or restrictive measures.

Mandy Enright, MS, RDN, RYT, the FOOD + MOVEMENT Dietitian and worksite wellness specialist in Asbury Park, New Jersey (https://mandyenright.com), says it’s important to “let clients know they don’t have to make a sudden shift to all plant proteins. Instead, start to slowly transition to plant proteins by doing a combination of half plant and half animal proteins.” Enright provides a few ideas clients can try, like combining 8 oz of chopped mushrooms or beans with 8 oz of ground meat instead of a full 16 oz of ground meat for dishes like burgers, meatballs, or tacos; combining crumbled tofu with eggs to make scrambles; and pureeing beans to make a creamy sauce for animal protein. In addition, RDs can give clients a list of food products, such as legume-based pastas, hearts of palm pasta, shirataki noodles, jackfruit, and roasted chickpea snacks, to take with them to the grocery store so they can begin increasing their intake of plant foods.

Building a Flexitarian Plate
According to Blatner, “a flexitarian plate actually is the USDA MyPlate!” The only difference is that the flexitarian plate is more focused on a greater variety of animal and plant sources. Building a flexitarian meal involves allocating 50% of the plate to colorful produce, 25% of the plate to grains or potatoes (at least half coming from whole grains), and the remaining 25% of the plate to protein with a flexible mix of animal and plant sources.

Blatner provides the following four examples of flexitarian meals that have a similar balance to MyPlate:

• Taco Plate: Seasoned turkey or lentils, corn tortillas, cabbage slaw, guacamole, salsa, and yogurt;

• Medi-Plate: Chicken or chickpeas, lemon-dill brown rice, cucumber-tomato feta salad, and tzatziki;

• Sesame Ginger Bowl: Salmon or edamame, quinoa, coleslaw mix, sesame ginger dressing; and

• Burger Night: Beef or bean burger, sweet potato fries, sliced fresh vegetable sticks (eg, carrots, peppers, celery), and yogurt ranch dressing.

Recommendations for RDs
The flexitarian diet is a flexible meal plan that can help clients increase plant-based food intake to meet recommendations for various food groups typically underconsumed in American diets. In addition, this plan is appropriate for various cultures and individuals with specific needs. Enright adds: “There truly is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to follow a flexitarian approach to eating. It really is about aiming to make plants the star of the meal and animal proteins the supporting cast members.”

— Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, is founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition (tobyamidornutrition.com) and a Wall Street Journal bestselling author. She’s written 10 cookbooks, including the upcoming Up Your Veggies: Flexitarian Recipes for the Entire Family and Diabetes Create Your Plate Meal Prep Cookbook: 100 Delicious Plate Method Recipes. She’s also a nutrition expert for FoodNetwork.com and a contributor to U.S. News and other national outlets.


Soba Noodle Salad With Vegetables and Grilled Tofu
Serves 4

8 oz dried soba noodles
4 T olive oil, divided
3 T freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp dried cilantro
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp salt, divided
8 oz extra-firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
Nonstick cooking spray
4 cups lightly packed baby spinach
1/2 English cucumber, chopped
2 medium carrots, grated

1. Fill a large pot three-quarters full with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the soba noodles, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain and run under cold water. Place in a large bowl and set aside to cool slightly.

2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together 3 T olive oil, lime juice, chili powder, cilantro, garlic powder, and 1/4 tsp salt. Set aside.

3. Place the tofu in a medium bowl. Add 2 T of the lime juice mixture; toss to coat. Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

4. Coat a large skillet with nonstick cooking spray. Heat over medium heat until hot. Add the tofu, discarding the marinade, and cook, turning once, until golden brown, about 5 minutes total. Transfer to a clean plate, reserving the skillet.

5. In the reserved skillet, heat the remaining 1 T olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the spinach and remaining 1/4 tsp salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 3 minutes.

6. In a large bowl, combine the soba noodles, tofu, cooked spinach, cucumber, and carrots. Add the remaining lime juice mixture and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Nutrient Analysis per 2-cup serving
Calories: 405; Total fat: 17 g; Sat fat: 2 g; Protein: 13 g; Total carbohydrate: 52 g; Dietary fiber: 6 g; Total sugars: 5 g; Sodium: 382 mg; Cholesterol: 0 mg

— Source: Amidor T. Up Your Veggies: Flexitarian Recipes for The Whole Family (Robert Rose Inc, Canada 2023). Photo Courtesy of Ashley Lima.


1. Blatner DJ. The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life. 1st ed. New York: McGraw Hill; 2010.

2. Best diets overall 2024. US News & World Report website. https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-diets-overall. Updated January 1, 2024.

3. International Food Information Council. 2023 Food and Health Survey. https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/IFIC-2023-Food-Health-Report.pdf. Published May 23, 2023.

4. Webb D. The flexitarian diet. Today’s Dietitian. 2021;23(3):40-44.

5. Derbyshire EJ. Flexitarian diets and health: a review of the evidence-based literature. Front Nutr. 2016;3:55.

6. US Department of Agriculture. The 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans-2020-2025.pdf. Published December 2020.

7. MyPlate. US Department of Agriculture website. https://www.myplate.gov/

8. Patel H, Chandra S, Alexander S, Soble J, Williams KA Sr. Plant-based nutrition: an essential component of cardiovascular disease prevention and management. Curr Cardiol Rep. 2017;19(10):104.

9. Kim MH, Bae YJ. Comparative study of serum leptin and insulin resistance levels between Korean postmenopausal vegetarian and non-vegetarian women. Clin Nutr Res. 2015;4(3):175-181.