What Is a Flexitarian Diet?

This flexible eating plan can help you reduce your carbon footprint.

Scene at a table with a couple enjoying lunch at a vegan cafe.
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As the name implies, flexitarianism is a flexible form of vegetarianism. Adherents of a flexitarian diet fill their plates with mostly plant-based whole foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, and unrefined grains. Eggs and dairy are also permitted, and instead of forbidding meat, flexitarianism allows people to enjoy it on occasion.

This highly customizable and increasingly popular way of eating makes it easier for omnivores to keep their time-honored food traditions while acknowledging animal agriculture's role in the climate crisis.

What Do Flexitarians Eat? 

Flexitarians eat everything. No single food is forbidden, although the diet is primarily plant-based. Because of their focus on whole foods, flexitarians generally steer clear of refined carbohydrates, added sugars, processed and cured meats like sausage and bacon, and fried and fast food. But as with meat, every once in a while, the flexibility of this diet allows indulgence.

When flexitarians choose to eat meat, fish and poultry are often chosen over red meats like pork, lamb, and beef. Which and how much meat, as well as when to consume it, is up to the individual. Flexitarianism centers less on a specific type or amount of clean meat and more on reducing the overall amount of meat by increasing the number of vegetarian or vegan meals. 

Vegetables

To call flexitarianism “plant-forward” is no joke—flexitarians fill their plate with vegetables before any other food group.

  • Leafy greens (kale, spinach, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower)
  • Stem vegetables (asparagus, celery, fennel, leek)
  • Bulb vegetables (peppers, onion, garlic)
  • Root vegetables (carrot, beet, ginger, potato, sweet potato)
  • Foods commonly thought of as vegetables (mushroom, avocado, bell pepper, squash, pumpkin, cucumber, corn, eggplant, tomato, olive)

Fruits

The second-in-command for flexitarians: fruit. A great alternative to processed sweets, fruit gives you post-prandial satisfaction in a whole food form. 

  • Pomes (apple, pear, pomegranate)
  • Citrus (orange, lemon, lime)
  • Berries (strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, grapes)
  • Melons (watermelon, cantaloupe)
  • Tropical fruit (banana, pineapple, mango, papaya)
  • Stone fruit (cherry, apricot, peach, plum, date)

Whole Grains

Leave the white flour and cereals for the occasional treat. On the flexitarian diet, whole grains can help fill out any meal. 

  • Brown rice (over refined white rice)
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Teff
  • Farro
  • Whole-grain bread

Plant Proteins

Top view of leguminous seeds on rustic wood table
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Legumes, nuts, and seeds are the superstars of flexitarianism. They provide the plant-based protein that takes the lead in this meat-light diet.

  • Legumes (edamame; black, kidney, navy, pinto beans; garbonzo; lentils; peas; green beans)
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Nuts (peanuts, walnuts, cashews, almonds, coconut, including nut butters)
  • Seeds (flaxseed, chia seed, sunflower, sesame, including seed butters)

Dairy 

Animal- and plant-based dairy products play a supporting role in the flexitarian diet. Choose organic whenever possible.

  • Animal dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir)

Dairy alternatives, such as soy, oat, almond, and hemp milk, as well as vegan cheeses, are also popular among flexitarians.

Eggs

Choose organic, free-range, or pasture-raised eggs.

Meat

Flexitarians generally opt for sustainably-sourced seafood and lean meats over processed and fast food meat. If possible, buy organic, pasture-raised, or grass-fed varieties.

  • Fish and shellfish
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey)
  • Pork
  • Ruminant meats (beef, lamb, goat)

Did You Know?

There’s no wrong way to eat flexitarian. Some flexitarians observe meatless days of the week; others keep vegan at home, but eat all animal products when dining out. Other folks eat vegetarian almost exclusively but never say no to a family recipe that contains meat.

Is a Flexitarian Diet More Sustainable?

Assortment of flexitarian foods on a kitchen table.

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A flexitarian diet focused primarily on plant-based foods uses far fewer natural resources than a diet that includes meat at every meal.

Currently, around 15% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide come from livestock-based food production. Even the highest emitting plant-based foods, including rice, avocados, tofu, and tomatoes, still emit less than half the amount of carbon from fish and less than 20% of the emissions from beef. (Emissions from other fruits and vegetables are negligible.)

Moreover, the reduced carbon footprint from a flexitarian diet proves that reducing the amount of animal products consumed can have a measurable positive impact on the climate crisis. Research indicates that if Americans simply reduced their beef intake by half, destructive deforestation could be stopped, and the world would still have enough land to feed the 10 billion people predicted to populate the planet by 2050.

When it comes to individual efforts to combat the climate crisis, the most sustainable actions are the ones that can easily be incorporated into your daily routine. Because flexitarianism doesn’t restrict any food—even the most carbon-intensive food, beef—most people find it easy to maintain for the long haul.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What do you eat on a flexitarian diet?

    Whatever you like! The advantage of a flexitarian diet is that it includes fruits, vegetables, plant proteins, whole grains, some eggs and dairy, and meat in moderation. No food is off-limits.

  • What are the disadvantages of a flexitarian diet?

    For people looking for diets that provide calorie counts or requirements for ounces per week of meat, flexitarianism might not have enough structure. The diet is, by design, flexible and self-determined.

  • What do flexitarians eat for breakfast?

    Smoothies, nut butter, or avocado on whole wheat toast, oatmeal, yogurt, and eggs make great flexitarian breakfast options. Even the occasional bacon strip might appear. Just because the diet is plant-forward doesn't mean flexitarians don't enjoy "traditional" breakfast foods on occasion.

  • Do flexitarians eat eggs and dairy?

    Yes, flexitarians do consume dairy and eggs, although the diet generally aims for more plant-based proteins than animal proteins.

View Article Sources
  1. Eshel, Gidon, et al. “Environmentally Optimal, Nutritionally Sound, Protein and Energy Conserving Plant-Based Alternatives to U.S. Meat.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 8 Aug. 2019.

  2. Water Footprint of Crop and Animal Products: A Comparison.” Water Footprint Network.

  3. "Key Facts and Findings." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

  4. Ritchie, Hannah. “The Carbon Footprint of Foods: Are Differences Explained by the Impacts of Methane?Our World in Data, 10 Mar. 2020.

  5. Eisen, Michael B., and Patrick O. Brown. “Rapid Global Phaseout of Animal Agriculture Has the Potential to Stabilize Greenhouse Gas Levels for 30 Years and Offset 68 Percent of CO2 Emissions This Century.PLOS Climate, Public Library of Science. doi:10.1371/journal.pclm.0000010

  6. Waite, Richard, et al. “6 Pressing Questions about Beef and Climate Change, Answered.” World Resources Institute, 7 Mar. 2022.