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What is a Flexitarian and Does that Describe Me?

What is a flexitarian?

For the most part, you try to eat a plant-based diet. You substitute hot dogs for not-dogs at family BBQs, and you channel your love of bacon into the soy variety. The chicken nuggets you feed your kids are meatless, and lentils and quinoa are regular fare. Across the week your diet is mostly vegetarian, even vegan. And, a few times a week you enjoy that nice piece of fish for dinner or some pepperoni on your pizza. Last weekend you went out for double cheeseburgers with your friends (worth it); your protein powder of choice is probably whey-based.

If you can relate to some or all of this, you might very well be a flexitarian! This term has been in existence for decades - it’s derived from combining the words flexible and vegetarian. It gained increased popularity in the mid- 2000s when a flurry of flexitarian diet books was published. In the last few years, with the exploding popularity of plant-based diets, flexitarian is a moniker worn with pride by significant numbers in the world of sport and fitness.

Why become a flexitarian?

The answer to that is both broad and individual; interest in environmentalism and sustainability spurs many to make the switch. For others, health and wellness is the mitigating factor. Alternatively, the reverse may be the case - perhaps you’re a vegetarian or vegan and want or need to add meats, fish, poultry, or dairy for the nutritional value and complete amino acid profiles that support wellness or muscle performance. Maybe you’re just a foodie whose tastebuds are happiest with an extremely varied diet full of different flavors and textures. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong reason to become a flexitarian and your reasons can and will be as varied as the clothes you wear and the music you love. What you eat should always fit you and your goals.

I eat what I want. Am I a flexitarian or an omnivore?

Humans are omnivorous (defined as eating both plant and animal foods), and as such are well-equipped to digest and use a wide variety of foods found naturally across both the plant and animal world. A person who eats what they want with no real motivation, and who incorporates a fair amount of both plant and animal foods in their diet, would be classified as an omnivore. By comparison, a flexitarian is also an omnivore but generally is motivated to incorporate as many plant foods as possible, or to substitute a significant portion of animal-based foods with plant-based options. So, it would be accurate to say all flexitarians are omnivores, but not all omnivores are flexitarians.

Can flexitarians be athletes?

Yes, and successful ones at that! If you have spent time around athletes, especially physique athletes or those with weight management goals, you know that sometimes you feel like you’re back in math class with all the numbers and grams of calories, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. While these are indeed important, something to consider is that we don’t eat calories or grams directly – we eat food. While the foods we choose to eat absolutely contribute calories and grams of protein, fat, and carbs, these foods are contributing amino acids, fatty acids, glucose, vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, fiber, and antioxidants – literally thousands of different compounds in the form of nutrients to our bodies. These nutrients power the functions occurring in our bodies every moment that not only makes us human but also help support performance.

Many different diets are quite limited or restricted in what they allow; some eliminate complete food groups, ultimately creating a risk for nutrient deficiencies.  By following a flexitarian diet, you will likely be eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, as well as some dairy, meats, poultry, fish, and seafood. These supply a plethora of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, Plus, they add beneficial fats, energy-rich carbohydrates, and complete protein to support muscle recovery.

Muscle and Protein Needs

Many vegetarian athletes face the challenge of consuming sufficient protein throughout the day to support their goals, while at the same time keeping carbohydrates within a specific target range.  For muscle and performance goals, flexitarians who choose to consume some animal proteins throughout the day have an advantage over strict vegetarians and vegans. This is because animal proteins from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy are not only complete proteins, but also typically provide higher protein with fewer carbohydrates per gram than plant-based protein. So, while vegetarians and vegans can absolutely build muscle and support performance; flexitarians have more tools in their nutritional toolkits to easily customize their nutrition.

Flexitarians commonly lean toward plant-based foods to obtain micronutrients and some macronutrients like carbohydrates. Then, they supplement with a dairy-based protein powder to help increase total daily protein while keeping carbs lower than many plant-based, protein-rich foods. While a food-first approach is always desirable, a whey protein powder can provide triple what other plant proteins, like beans and peas, can per serving. If you like the convenience of a protein powder but don’t want a dairy protein, Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Plant Protein provides 24 grams of protein per serving.

Ultimately, how you choose to eat to support your goals and performance is a personal choice. Becoming a flexitarian might just be a lifestyle that suits you!