Can a Flexitarian Diet Work for Athletes? Insights for Those in Sport and Nutrition Training


The vegetarian lifestyle is becoming increasingly popular for its environmental, nutritional, and ethical considerations. Unfortunately, for some people, a vegetarian diet can be difficult to maintain, since it requires more careful attention to protein levels and caloric intake. This is where the flexitarian diet comes in. Essentially, the flexitarian diet is a vegetarian diet with flexibility. It focuses on consuming mostly plant-based foods while allowing room for animal products in moderation.  

When it comes to athletes, nutrition and diet plans play a more significant role in developing optimal training programs, achieving a healthy weight, and reducing the risk of injuries as the body ages. For that reason, athletes need to consider the impact of different diets and their suitability for the physical demands of sport. Read on for a closer look at the flexitarian diet and its impact on athletic performance.

What Can You Eat On a Flexitarian Diet?

The overall goal of a flexitarian diet is to consume more nutritious plant foods, less meat, and limit your intake of added sugar. The focus of the diet is less about restriction and more about adding a wide range of plant foods. For those who want to consume a more nutritious diet without eliminating meat entirely, the flexitarian diet offers a balanced alternative to the vegetarian diet. The five key food groups of the flexitarian diet are:

  • Non-meat proteins e.g. beans, eggs, tofu
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Dairy 
  • Seasonings 

At the same time, consumers can incorporate some animal products into their diets from time to time, including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. While many vegetarian diets can lead to nutrient deficiencies, a flexitarian diet covers a wide range of foods that makes the possibility of experiencing nutrient deficiencies very low. Those earning a sport nutrition certificate will explore the different food constituents important in nutrition to understand their role in diet and health. 

Those with a nutritionist certificate should know the key food groups of a flexitarian diet

The Benefits of a Flexitarian Diet For Athletes

A flexitarian diet is not just about eating fewer animal products and more plant-based foods – it’s also about optimizing health. The quality of one’s food choices is extremely important for maintaining a productive and healthy lifestyle, especially for athletes. As those in sport and nutrition training will know, an athlete’s diet forms an integral part of their training, and getting the proper nutrients is essential for optimal athletic performance. 

An athlete’s diet is important for optimal performance in sport

Many important nutrients, such as protein, iron, and vitamin B12, are easier to obtain from animal products. The flexitarian diet accounts for this by allowing athletes to gain the nutritional benefits of meat in moderation. In particular, protein is a key component for muscle growth and recovery, and the flexitarian diet provides a rich array of both plant-based and animal sources. At the same time, the long-term health benefits of reduced meat consumption include:

  • Reduced risk of diabetes
  • Lower risk of colorectal cancer
  • Increased cardiovascular health

With a diet that combines a high density of plant-based foods and moderate meat consumption, athletes can optimize their overall health while meeting higher demands for essential nutrients.

A flexitarian diet allows for adequate protein intake through animal products

Key Considerations for Those With a Sport Nutrition Certificate

For female athletes especially, red meat in moderation is important for its iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and protein content. While iron can come from many sources, including plants, it is far more bioavailable when it comes from animal sources. When following a flexitarian diet, athletes should account for this in their meat consumption. Endurance athletes, with increased protein needs, should consider incorporating an animal product once per day in their training plan. At the same time, for athletes doing strength training and building up a lot of muscle, the protein requirement is about twice that of a sedentary person. Beyond increasing their protein intake, athletes should maintain a diet based on minimally processed grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts to promote their general health.  

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