Reducing meat and animal protein intake in favor of more plant foods, like fresh fruit, nuts and seeds, leafy greens (and other bright-colored veggies), whole grains, beans, and legumes is becoming increasingly popular. In fact, many brands are using beans, legumes, or soy protein to create meatless alternatives for eggs, fish, and meat products.
Mung beans, faba (a.k.a. fava) beans, chickpeas, lentils, black beans, edamame, tofu, and quinoa are all common ingredients in plant protein blends, which are used to create these processed “fake meat” options. And they’re popping up on menus and in grocery stores everywhere, as demand for meatless alternatives continues to rise.
But there are a few different kinds of eating plans to choose from, all of which have some degree of lessened animal meat and a boost in plant foods. You can be vegan (where all animal products are totally off limits), vegetarian (you may include dairy and eggs, if desired), and more, so there’s no shortage of options to choose from.
In general, the “plant-based” in the plant-based meal plan can be broad in nature, but it’s seen as being a way of eating that offers flexibility — as if you’re dipping your feet in the water but not necessarily jumping in later (like converting to being a vegan, for example).
There’s also the “flexitarian diet,” so it can be confusing to figure out how they compare, since both are supposed to involve eating more plants and being flexible (hence the name).
What's the Difference Between Plant-Based and Flexitarian?
The Flexitarian Philosophy
A flexitarian eating pattern consists of foods that are plant-based for the majority of the time, where exceptions are incredibly sporadic. Flexitarian dieters will occasionally dig into their favorite dishes — think: a bowl of whole wheat pasta and meat sauce or baked (or air fried) chicken tenders, which are crispy on the outside but are soft, juicy, and tender within.
However, the flexitarian generally removes all animal sources for the majority of the time. Instead, they’ll eat nuts and seeds, soy and meat alternatives like seitan or tempeh, whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, and beans and legumes.
“The reasoning for following this eating pattern may be due to health, environmental, or ethical reasons,” Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, says. “For example, someone following a flexitarian pattern for health reasons may eat vegan most of the time, but make exceptions and eat meat on holidays."
Similarly, if you’re flexitarian because of a concern for environmental or ethical animal welfare reasons, you may choose to eat limited amounts of animal products when you feel confident in the quality and sourcing.
So, eggs from a local farm where chickens are pasture-raised or milk from cows grazing on a farm rather than in bad living conditions indoors might get a flexitarian's stamp of approval for those special occasions.
The Plant-Based Meal Plan
A plant-based diet is any meal plan consisting of predominantly plants, but with variability in degree of plant foods. It may be completely vegan or vegetarian, but it may also just be an eating pattern with way fewer animal products than what’s common for the average person on the Standard American Diet (SAD).
“For example, instead of a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast with butter, you may choose a vegetable-filled omelet with avocado toast, and instead of a stir fry made with pork and eggs, you may have tofu and a smaller amount of egg,” Jones says.
Both flexitarian and plant-based diets are much lower in animal products than the dietary patterns of average Americans.
“In most cases, they are also much more rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and unsaturated fats, since they tend to be more rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and plant fats,” Jones says. “These are also the main principles of the Mediterranean diet, which we know is associated with longevity as well as lower risks of heart disease, type II diabetes, and cognitive decline."
To be honest, the two eating patterns not really all that different.
“Plant-based eating patterns may include small amounts of animal products on their plates daily, while a flexitarian pattern likely tends to include animal products less often,” says Jones.
So, it’s really just a matter of frequency with animal consumption, which makes these two dietary plans slightly different. The foods to enjoy and the foods to reduce intake of or avoid altogether are pretty much the same.
Which Is Better for You?
Because of their similarities to the Mediterranean diet, both plant-based and flexitarian eating patterns boast tremendous health benefits and are comparable, so there’s not really one that’s vastly healthier than the other.
The most important focus is to ensure that whichever nutritional approach you choose to follow, you're doing it correctly.
“Some people may follow a flexitarian or plant-based eating pattern and choose lots of packaged foods rather than whole plant foods,” Jones cautions.
This is more likely — as of late — with the emergence of processed beef alternatives, or “fake meats” and “fake fish.” For either meal plan, it’s best to go for raw, whole foods when possible, and to check labels to make sure that the products are high quality and nutritious.
A long list of foreign ingredients is a red flag, and there could potentially be sneakily-high amounts of sodium, sugar, carbs, and other additives lurking in those plant-based alternatives that make the “fake meat” product taste, look, and feel like the real deal. (But at what cost, right?)
With either eating plan, if you are cutting out meat intake and loading up on more plant produce and proteins instead, then it’s going to be a healthy choice regardless in comparison to SAD. Just make sure to stick with it and see if you benefit from the larger intake of plants and reduction in animal meat eaten throughout the week.