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Flexitarian and Mediterranean: Plant-Forward Diets With Key Differences

The Mediterranean and flexitarian diets are very similar plant-forward diets, though there are key differences.

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Keto and paleo aside, many popular diets of the 2020s emphasize the importance of plant-based nutrition from fruits and vegetables. Two of the most common, the flexitarian and Mediterranean diets, overlap in many ways. However, there are a handful of key differences between the two, especially in how they deal with meat and dairy.

The Mediterranean diet is largely focused on vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, whole grains and olive oil. It also allows for small amounts of lean protein, such as eggs, tofu, fish, and legumes, and limited amounts of red meat. The flexitarian diet, on the other hand, requires large amounts of plant or plant-based foods alongside dairy and eggs. It allows for much smaller amounts of meat than an omnivorous diet.

Related: Keto vs. Paleo: Two Meat Heavy Diets, With Major Key Differences

Plant-Forward Diets Like These Are Trending

A colander full of assorted vegetables
Plant-forward diets have gained tremendous popularity for reasons relating to the environment and human health. Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Beth Wyman, MPH, RD of Wyman Nutrition explains that diets and health trends come and go based on media trends. But plant-forward plans are trending upwards, because of ongoing discussions regarding their connections to living longer and avoiding chronic illnesses. For example, a 2023 Netflix documentary called Live to 100 about so-called blue zones, which highlights the benefits of plant-forward diets, sparked interest from many of her clients in early 2024.

“It helped open up a conversation about whole-body wellness and the other aspects of the blue zones they were incorporating,” she says, “such as community and exercise.”

Similarities and Differences Between the Flexitarian and Mediterranean Diet

FlexitarianMediterranean
Allowed FoodsFruits and vegetables; plant-based foods; grains; legumes; nuts; oils; red meat; poultry; fish; alcohol; and sugar.Fruits and vegetables; whole grains; legumes; nuts; seeds; olive oil; fish; lean proteins such as tofu and fish; and small amounts of red wine.
Banned FoodsLess but not all refined carbohydrates; added sugars; processed and cured meats; and fried foods.Processed red meats; refined grains; refined and processed oils; refined sugars; butter; and heavily processed foods.
How It Makes You FeelBecause flexitarianism doesn’t eliminate anything, dieters often feel satisfied without feeling much different than they already do.With regular exercise, whole foods and exclusively healthy fats, many say the Mediterranean diet makes them feel full, satisfied and energized.
Short-Term EffectsSatisfied after meals, weight loss, improved inflammation and lowered blood pressure.Lowered weight and BMI, improved heart health, lowered blood pressure and improved mood.
Long-Term EffectsMay lower the risk of heart disease and hypertension.Longer and healthier life, may lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as risk of cognitive decline.
Cheat DaysNo real restrictions, but aim to stick to nine ounces of meat per week.Stay away from red meat, processed carbohydrates and refined sugars.
AccessibilityFresh food is more expensive and harder to find than typical American processed foods.Fresh food is more expensive and harder to find than typical American processed foods.
Calories Per DayNo calorie restrictions.No calorie restrictions.
Cost Per YearAn average $2,184 on groceries on a flexitarian diet annually per person.An average $4,056 per year on groceries on the Mediterranean diet annually per person.
Environmental ImpactLess meat wastes less water, results in lowered methane emissions, and inflicts less animal cruelty, so only nine ounces per person per week is pretty impressive.Depending on how the diet is done, less meat is better for the environment. But there is no limit on lean meats.

The Flexitarian Diet Largely Phases Out Meat in Three Stages

A couple prunes their vegetable garden
Plant-forward diets are known to come with a variety of health benefits, without necessarily eliminating meat.Stock Photos|50-54 Years/Getty Images

The flexitarian diet focuses on eating less meat. An article from the Cleveland Clinic explains that flexitarianism concentrates on mostly eating fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes and nuts. In addition, it allows for only the occasional serving of meat.

Registered dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD of the Cleveland Clinic recommends that people phase out meat over a three-week period. Stage One encourages flexitarians to forgo meat for two days a week to start, then for three to four days a week, and then five to seven days a week. The ultimate goal is to only consume about nine ounces of meat, weekly.

There Are Many Benefits to Reducing Your Meat Consumption for a Flexitarian Diet

Two women exercising together
A flexitarian lifestyle can often result in weight loss, and lowered BMI.LeoPatrizi/Getty Images

A study published to the National Library of Medicine lists the many benefits of going flexitarian, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Improved metabolic health
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Helps with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis

With No Strict Guidelines, Flexitarianism Feels Less Restrictive Than Going Fully Vegetarian or Vegan

Even though a fully vegan or vegetarian diet works for some people, it isn’t right for everyone. That may be because someone has a past with disordered eating, can’t get enough nutrients, or they just don’t want to feel restricted. That’s why some people opt for flexitarianism — fewer restrictions work for some people better than others.

Short Term, Flexitarians Might See Some Weight Loss

Person stepping on a scale.
Lowered weight will result in increased heart health, long-term.Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Even though flexitarianism doesn’t have calorie restrictions, those who reduce their meat consumption may lose a few pounds. According to Eating Well, flexitarian diets often result in weight loss, largely because the diet largely consists of plants. However, this will vary based on caloric intake, as well as what plant-based foods are part of the individual’s diet.

Related: Keto vs. Atkins Diet: Same Theory, Different Approach

Long-Term, Flexitarianism May Stave off Various Health Conditions

Along with aiding in weight loss and reducing BMI, eating less meat can also lower your blood pressure, according to Eating Well. It can also reduce the person’s risk of developing type two diabetes, as well as the risk of developing heart disease.

There Are Few Disadvantages to Flexitarianism, but Pay Attention to Vitamin Intake

Not everyone experiences disadvantages from the flexitarian diet, but there are possible downfalls. According to Plant-Based Pantry, flexitarians may be prone to iron and B12 deficiencies. This is why consulting a dietitian before transitioning to a more plant-forward diet is crucial. Additionally, those with histories of eating disorders should consult an expert before trying the flexitarian diet, as restricting food groups may exacerbate symptoms.

The Mediterranean Diet Reflects Dietary Traditions From Crete, Greece and Southern Italy

A young woman dines by the sea.
The Mediterranean diet reflects the regimens of those in Crete, Greece and southern Italy.Urbazon/Getty Images

The Mediterranean diet focuses on whole grains, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and lean proteins such as fish and tofu. It shies away from processed foods, sugars and red meat. A Harvard University blog post notes the diet’s emphasis on eating seasonal foods and healthy fats, as well as daily movement. There are no caloric restrictions or specified portion sizes.

The Mediterranean Diet Is Associated With Physical and Mental Benefits

A study by the University of Milan’s Daniela Martini lists many health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Lowered risk of cancer
  • Lower risk of heart disease
  • Lower risk of diabetes
  • May help prevent depression
  • May help prevent cognitive decline

Short-Term, the Med Diet Can Improve Your Quality of Life

An old, happy couple dances outside.
The Mediterranean diet can help people live longer, happier and healthier lives.Westend61/Getty Images

It seems as though only a few months on the Mediterranean diet can do wonders for the body and mind. A study published to the Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases looked at physiological and psychological effects of the Mediterranean diet. The study found that only six months on the diet, which included daily exercise, reduced test subjects’ BMI and weight. It also showed improvements in both heart health and mood.

Long-Term, It Can Lead To a Longer, Healthier Life

A feature from NBC News praised the Mediterranean diet for its “host of health benefits,” which contribute to a longer life. Long-term, the article states, the diet can help people live longer and healthier, thanks to its cardiovascular and cognitive benefits. This is also because it staves off type 2 diabetes.

“It’s a way of life, it’s a cuisine, it dates back thousands of years, and in the last five to six decades, it is the most highly researched cuisine in the world,” RMIT University professor Catherine Itsiopoulos stated via NBC News.

The Mediterranean Diet Can Include a Lot of Calories

Although it depends on the person and their dietary habits, results of the Mediterranean diet may vary — sometimes for the worse. According to Medline Plus, some may see weight gain from increased fat intake derived from nuts and olive oil. Some have also become deficient in iron, B12 and other vitamins. This is why, again, consulting a dietitian before trying the diet is encouraged.

Both Flexitarian and Mediterranean Diets Can Be More Costly and Less Accessible Than the Average American Diet

A grocery store stocked with very little fresh produce
Depending on where you live, healthy, fresh foods may be more expensive, and harder to find.japatino/Getty Images

The average American that diet relies on processed meats, refined sugars and refined carbohydrates. And in general, these ingredients will be cheaper and more accessible than some plant-forward flexitarian or Mediterranean diets. An op-ed published to Yale Daily News by Elaine Louden explains “vegan privilege.” This means that foods like fresh vegetables, Beyond Burgers, whole grain pasta, and for the Mediterranean diet, locally caught fish, are pricier (and for some, harder to find) than burger patties and chips. But expensive groceries aren’t the only way to adhere to the diet.

Ways to Save on the Flexitarian and Mediterranean Diets:

  • Buy frozen and canned fruits and vegetables.
  • Use tinned fish instead of fresh.
  • Rely on tofu, eggs and beans for cheaper proteins, rather than pricier options.
  • Shop seasonally from farmer’s markets.

Flexitarian and Mediterranean Diets Lower Your Environmental Impact— But Which Is Lowest?

A slab of raw beef on a cutting board.
The meat industry does a number on our planet.grandriver/Getty Images

The average American diet consists of a surplus of processed meats, which take a toll on the planet. An article from Sentient Media explains that the meat industry not only inflicts animal cruelty, but it also notoriously wastes large amounts of water, emits large amounts of methane and results in significant amounts of land clearing. With less meat in both diets, the flexitarian and the Mediterranean diets are both inherently lower impact than a typical American diet.

However, the flexitarian diet tends to be more environmentally-friendly than the Mediterranean diet, if the person adheres to the suggested nine ounces of meat per week. Although there is a restriction for red meat, there is no limit to lean meats on the Mediterranean diet.

Both Mediterranean and Flexitarian Diets Are Plant-Forward, Heart-Healthy and Environmentally Friendly

The Mediterranean and flexitarian diets are meant to reduce red meat consumption, and increase plant-based foods in your life. Neither are particularly restrictive, and although weight loss often ensues, it generally isn’t the main goal of either diet. With a reduction in meat intake, both are also more environmentally-friendly than the average American diets.

What is better for you: The flexitarian or Mediterranean diet?

The flexitarian and Mediterranean diet are quite similar, but the Mediterranean doesn’t put a limit on lean meats and fish. In comparison, the flexitarian diet encourages only nine ounces of meat per week.

ABC News notes that both diets promote plant-forward meals and whole grains, and both are considered to be extremely healthy. So it depends on how you want to approach weight loss and healthy eating.

Which is better for the environment: Flexitarian or the Mediterranean diet?

Because flexitarian promotes consuming even less meat than the Mediterranean diet, the flexitarian diet is better for the environment.

Does the flexitarian diet have specific restrictions?

The flexitarian diet doesn’t have specific restrictions, but once the dieter has mostly decreased their meat consumption to zero to two days per week, they are encouraged to eat no more than nine ounces total weekly.

Does the Mediterranean diet allow alcohol?

The Mediterranean diet encourages small amounts of red wine with meals.

Why would someone choose flexitarian over vegetarian?

If someone still wanted the freedom to eat a little meat every once in a while, someone might choose flexitarian over a vegetarian diet.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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