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Flexitarian vs. Vegetarian Diets— What’s the Difference?

Vegetarianism and flexitarianism are very similar diets, but what are the similarities and differences? What are the benefits and disadvantages?


In the last decade, more information has surfaced regarding factory farming and the impact of red meat on the human body, and many people are taking action by reducing their meat consumption by adopting vegetarian and flexitarian diets.

However, Going Full Vegan or Vegetarian Isn’t for Everyone

Instead, many have resorted to flexitarianism, a semi-vegetarian diet which involves reducing one’s meat consumption. And it’s no surprise, considering how much meatless cuisine has evolved over the last few decades. Sarah Lynn Quick, MS, RDN, CDN of Sarah Lynn Nutrition, explains that it’s a “flexible” way to reduce one’s meat intake, without completely eliminating it.

“The overall aim is to eat less animal products, but not avoid them entirely,” Lynn Quick explains. “Both diets can be healthful, however, the flexibility of the flexitarian diet allows for more variety and therefore a higher likelihood of getting all of the nutrients you need.”

A basket filled with eggplant, tomatoes, greenbeans, and okra
Plant-forward diets are becoming increasingly popularRizky Panuntun/Getty Images

Similarities and Differences Between the Flexitarian and Vegetarian Diets

Diet CategoriesFlexitarianVegetarian
What Dieters Can EatFruits, Vegetables, Carbohydrates, Dairy, Soy Protein, Eggs, Legumes, Nuts, Fish, Meat, PoultryFruits, Vegetables, Carbohydrates, Dairy (unless ovo-vegetarian), Soy Protein, Eggs (unless lacto-vegetarian), Legumes, Nuts
RestrictionsMeat on a daily basis (a few times per week is fine) though no actual restrictionsMeat, Fish, Dairy (if Ovo-Vegetarian), Eggs (if Lacto-Vegetarian)
How It Makes Dieters FeelFlexitarianism not only gives people more freedom; but oftentimes it makes people feel “healthier”Some vegetarians feel energized from a higher vitamin and antioxidant intake, while others report improved digestion. However, if done incorrectly with lack of protein and supplements, some feel lethargic
Short-Term EffectsA mostly-plant-based diet may alleviate inflammatory bowel disease symptoms, and increased fiber results in feeling of fullness with less caloriesStudies have shown that short-term, vegetarians often have improved gut health and digestion, lowered blood pressure, weight loss, reduced chronic medication
Long-Term EffectsStudies have shown more plant-based foods can result in a lower BMI, lower blood pressure, and a lessened risk of heart disease, cancer, and moreLong-term, vegetarianism results in lower LDL cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of both hypertension and diabetes
Environmental ImpactEating less meat reduces one’s environmental impact by reducing carbon and methane emissions, water use, and animal crueltySame as flexitarianism, but to an even greater degree — same goes for veganism
Accessibility Considered to be more accessible than vegetarian or veganism because it still allows meat if plant-based food isn’t as accessibleVegetarianism can be less accessible if living in a food desert, where fresh produce and healthy foods may not be as common
CostVaries based on location, person, etc. though could average at around $42 per week per personCan be as low as $34 per week per person, depending on cost of living, the person, etc.
Cheat DaysAllows for meat intermittently, and any other food as neededDoesn’t allow for “cheat” meat; that would mean the person is flexitarian

Features and Benefits: Flexitarianism

A woman slices vegetables in her kitchen
Transitioning to a more plant-forward diet takes a little time.Aja Koska/Getty Images

In an explainer, Cleveland Clinic delves into the popular diet, detailing its three stages to wean dieters off meat. Stage One has dieters eating no more than 28 ounces of meat in a week. Stage Two involves no more than 18 ounces of meat in a week, and Stage Three includes no more than nine ounces per week.

“Determine how often you NEED to have meat,” Lynn Quick instructs Woman’s World readers intrigued by the flexitarian diet. “Begin with having meatless Mondays and slowly add more meatless days over the course of a few months.”

The Physical Benefits of Cutting Back on Meat Are Enticing

Benefits of the flexitarian diet include decreased risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes. For some, it can also result in weight loss, and it’s better for the environment. And luckily, getting started isn’t too hard.

Going Vegetarian or Flexitarian Allows Home Cooks to Get Creative in the Kitchen

A woman laughs while preparing to cook in the kitchen with her young child
Plant-based and plant-forward cooking has become more mainstream in recent yearsFreshSplash/Getty Images

Lynn Quick explains that eating more plant-based foods allows cooks to get more creative in the kitchen: “Experiment with plant based proteins you may not be familiar with to maintain lots of variety in your diet (tofu, edamame, beans, seitan, tempeh, chickpeas, mycoprotein, etc),” she explains.

Including a protein source with every meal is essential for staying full and maintaining muscle mass. Protein intake can easily fall below recommended levels after cutting down on meat/animal products and not adequately replacing it.

Sarah Lynn Quick

Flexitarians Need to Pay Attention to Their Nutrient Intake

Healthline’s beginner’s guide to flexitarianism notes that limited animal product consumption can lead to certain deficiencies if not executed properly. For example, depending on how you adhere to the diet you may become deficient in vitamin B12, protein, iron, zinc, and calcium. However, if done right, not everyone will experience this.

And, as is with any diet that involves restrictions, flexitarianism can result in disordered eating. As long as the dieter has the right mindset, however, this shouldn’t happen. But talking to a dietitian or physician before going on the diet may be helpful to prevent this from happening.

Features and Benefits: Vegetarianism

An older woman shops at a farmer's market
Eating vegetarian healthily is easy, but it may help to consult a dietitian before transitioning to a plant-based dietTatiana Maksimova/Getty Images

Vegetarianism can look different for everyone. A lacto-ovo vegetarian adheres to a meatless diet, while still eating dairy and eggs. A lacto vegetarian includes milk but excludes eggs from their regiment. And finally, an ovo vegetarian is someone who eats eggs but not dairy. However, the thing they have in common: They don’t eat meat, poultry, or fish.

There Are Many Physical Benefits Associated With a Vegetarian Diet

A study from PubMed breaks down the advantages of vegetarianism. Those who adhere to the diet often tend to have lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. They also have a lower risk of developing hypertension, osteoporosis, heart disease, dementia, and certain cancers.

A Vegetarian Diet Also Lowers Your Environmental Impact

Young woman pets goats on a hillside
A plant-based diet is environmentally sound for many reasonsAnna Peisl/Getty Images

Similar to flexitarianism, a vegetarian’s environmental impact is low than that of meat eater’s. The meat industry heavily contributes to methane and carbon emissions. It’s also linked to serious water waste, and animal cruelty. A study from Yale shows that vegans have an even lower environmental impact — about one fourth of that of a meat-eater.

“The more plant-based your diet, the better for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Lynn Quick explains. So based on that, I would say vegetarian [is better than flexitarian]. Vegan is probably even better.

However, the flexitarian eating pattern is probably more sustainable/doable for most people. As a dietitian, I would rather see most people follow a flexitarian eating pattern for life vs only a few people follow a vegan or vegetarian diet for life because they struggled to stick with it.

Lynn Quick

Like Any Diet, Vegetarianism Can Also Come With Disadvantages

A woman browses pharmacy shelves
Vitamins are an important part of daily life for many vegetariansTashi-Delek/Getty Images

If the diet isn’t done right, vegetarians can face various health concerns. An essay on the advantages of the diet from the American College of Cardiology (ACC) explains that if the diet isn’t done right, dieters can end up short on important nutrients. They risk becoming deficient in:,B12, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc and calcium. Those who opt for processed foods over whole foods may also experience weight gain and other health issues.

Similar to flexitarianism, a restrictive diet isn’t for everyone. For some, it may trigger disordered eating. Speaking to a dietician or nutritionist ahead of starting the diet may help dieters determine what’s right for them.

For Many People, the Less Meat, the Better

Flexitarianism is when someone significantly reduces their meat, poultry, and fish consumption, but they don’t give themselves any definitive restrictions. Vegetarians, on the other hand, don’t eat meat, poultry, or fish. Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy but not eggs, while ovo-vegetarians consume eggs but not dairy. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat both dairy and eggs.

Both have physical benefits, but speak to a physician before taking on either diets, as results vary for everyone.

Which is healthier: vegetarianism or flexitarianism?

Depending on how one does the diet, vegetarianism and flexitarianism can be equally healthy. Speaking to a physician or dietician before trying either is helpful, to avoid facing any vitamin deficiencies of any kind.

Which is better for the environment: vegetarianism or flexitarianism?

Vegetarian is considered to be better for the environment. Animal product and byproduct consumption results in higher carbon and methane emissions, water waste, land clearing and animal cruelty. Therefore, it’s better for the planet to consume fewer animal products altogether.

Do flexitarians have specific restrictions?

Flexitarians don’t have specific restrictions, but it’s recommended to “phase out” the amount of meat you eat, rather than going cold turkey (no pun intended!).

Why become flexitarian?

People become flexitarian as to reduce their environmental impact and meat consumption overall, which can have health benefits. It gives them the freedom to sometimes eat meat, but doesn’t totally restrict them from ever eating it again.

Are there disadvantages to reducing one’s meat consumption?

There are many benefits from reducing one’s meat consumption, including lowered cholesterol, weight and blood pressure. If not done right, someone may become deficient in certain types of nutrients. And because it involves eliminating certain food groups, it can lead to disordered eating. That’s why it’s advised to speak to a dietitian or physician before changing one’s diet in that way.

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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