Flexitarian Diet Myths, According To A Nutrition Expert – Forbes Health

2022-10-09 07:01:37 By : Ms. Lynn Huang

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The cost of plant-based food alternatives is on the rise, with Bloomberg estimating over a $100 billion increase in value from 2020 to 2030[1]Plant-Based Foods Poised For Explosive Growth. Bloomberg Intelligence. 2020. Accessed 9/12/2022. . However, although plant-based eating, and the flexitarian style of eating in particular, is gaining popularity, many people are confused about what the terms “plant-based diet” and “flexitarianism” mean. In fact, a 2022 consumer survey of 1,014 U.S. adults commissioned by Danone North America found that 54% of survey participants were unfamiliar with the flexitarian concept.

Over the past 20-plus years, I’ve studied and worked on the complex interaction between probiotics, the gut and microbiota. Danone has allowed me to bring my passion and expertise to this field and as vice president of scientific affairs at Danone North America. I’ve helped the global food and beverage company translate the growing body of evidence on different probiotic strains into a range of consumer products. I am also a professional member of the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) and American Society for Nutrition (ASN), an advisory board member of Future of Food Tech, and a Forbes Health Advisory Board Member. I personally consider myself a flexitarian, and I also believe this style of eating may be the future of food in the U.S. It’s the reason why many companies are investing to expand offerings in both dairy foods and plant-based dairy alternatives.

The word “flexitarian” blends “flexible” and “vegetarian,” and represents a primarily plant-based style of eating that may feature some meat or fish consumption. Some flexitarians consider themselves part-time or semi-vegetarians—eating an abundance of plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, nuts and seeds), while consuming animal products in moderation.

According to Danone’s survey, 20% of U.S. adults identify as either flexitarians or reducetarians (a similar concept that promotes reducing animal products from a person’s diet for sustainability purposes, but doesn’t eliminate them entirely). In contrast, only 3% identified as vegetarian, and 1% identified as vegan. Most Americans (42%) still eat meat and dairy nearly every day, according to the Danone survey.

A flexitarian style of eating comes with several benefits including enhancing muscle and bone health and beneficially impacting your gut microbiome. What’s more, you reap these health benefits without needing to eliminate the foods you love. As the name implies, the approach is more flexible than a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, which helps make it a more sustainable style of eating over time.

A 2016 review of 25 studies in Frontiers in Nutrition found that a flexitarian eating pattern may have benefits for managing body weight and has been linked to improved indicators of metabolic health, blood pressure and blood sugar[2]Derbyshire EJ. Flexitarian diets and health: A review of the evidence-based literature. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2017;3:55. . Additionally, widespread adoption of a flexitarian diet has been proposed as a strategy to limit global warming and improve air quality in Europe, potentially reducing agricultural ammonia emissions in the EU by 33% over time, according to a 2022 study in Ecological Economics[3]Himics M, Giannakis E, Kushta J et al. Co-benefits of a flexitarian diet for air quality and human health in Europe. Ecological Economics. 2022;107232. .

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Aside from the many potential benefits of a flexitarian diet, many consumers are still confused about the various plant-based styles of eating. Some of the most common myths about flexitarian diets include:

The Truth: A flexitarian diet can, in fact, provide the same health benefits as a vegan diet, without completely eliminating all animal products. I believe it’s important to note that, in some cases, vegan does not necessarily equal healthy, as someone following a vegan diet may choose to eat an abundance of certain types of vegan foods, such as chips, fries and sugary snacks, rather than a balanced diet.

In some cases, a flexitarian approach to eating may actually provide additional benefits, such as being associated with higher gut microbiome alpha diversity compared to other eating styles, including vegetarian, vegan and the standard American diet, according to a 2022 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition[4]Cotillard A, Cartier-Meheust A, Litwin NS, et al. A posteriori dietary patterns better explain variations of the gut microbiome than individual markers in the American Gut Project. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2022;115(2):432-443. . Gut microbiome diversity, or the measure of different kinds of bacteria in the digestive tract, has been associated with several health and disease outcomes. Experts agree that in most cases, an unhealthy gut is associated with low diversity of gut microbiota.

The Truth: According to the Danone survey, most Americans (91%) do not consider flexitarianism a plant-based diet, although it is. A flexitarian diet is based on eating mostly plants while still allowing for animal products, such as meat and dairy, in moderation. The terms “plant-forward” or “plant-rich” help clear up some of the confusion and broaden recognition that “plant-based” does not mean “plant-only.”

The Truth: Dairy products are not only included in a flexitarian eating pattern but considered important as well, especially when you’re reducing meat intake. Nutrient-rich milk, yogurt and cheese are good sources of complete protein and can help supplement meat in a flexitarian diet. Dairy products also have a lower carbon footprint than other animal-based proteins, such as beef and pork, with cheese, milk and egg production emitting fewer greenhouse gasses per kilogram, according to research by Our World in Data, a group dedicated to gathering research on some of the world’s largest problems[5]Environmental Impacts of Food Production: Greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of food product. Our World in Data. Accessed 9/12/2022. . Despite all this, 88% of U.S. adults mistakenly believe dairy is not included in a flexitarian diet, according to Danone.

The Truth: Flexitarianism is not just for adults. In fact, a study by the EAT-Lancet Commission On Food, Planet and Health concluded that a balanced vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet that includes some meat, fish and dairy can meet the nutritional needs of anyone over 2 years old[6]Willet W, Rockstrom J, Loken B et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393:447-492. . In this case, we are including not only plant-based protein sources but also some animal protein sources to make sure children have the right amounts of high quality, complete protein.

According to the Danone survey results, 20% of parents report their children are following a flexitarian or reducetarian approach, which is significantly larger than vegetarian (4%) or vegan (5%).  Nearly 89% of those parents believe that plant-based dairy alternatives are a nutritious option for children, while more than half (51%) believe that dairy products offer multiple essential nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and potassium. A flexitarian approach can be a nutritious option for children, and many parents are already offering more plant-based foods and beverages to their children along with dairy, per survey results.

The Truth: It’s easy to consume adequate amounts of high-quality protein when increasing plant foods, especially with a flexitarian approach that includes a moderate amount of animal products. Yet the Danone survey finds that 66% of U.S. adults don’t recognize that dairy contains high-quality, complete protein, which is especially important when reducing meat consumption. Similarly, 73% of U.S. adults do not think plant-based dairy alternatives, such as soy, can provide high-quality protein. Within the milk alternative category, soy milk has the highest protein content—almost the same as cow’s milk—and is a complete protein as well.

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The flexitarian eating pattern has no clear-cut rules or strict recommendations for amounts of meat or dairy products, so it’s flexible and easy to adapt to your preferences.

You may want to start by replacing meat with vegetable-forward dishes a few days a week, or consider ways to reduce meat intake by increasing the amount of plant foods in recipes, such as grain bowls, stir-fries and thick stews packed with vegetables, legumes and whole grains.

I also recommend exploring the array of dairy-free alternatives to milk and yogurt made with soy, oat, almond and mixed protein sources to see what you enjoy. Consider having both dairy and dairy-free alternatives available and alternating which days you consume dairy and plant-based options.

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Through decades of experience and personal intrigue, Miguel Freitas has studied and worked on the complex interaction between probiotics, the gut and the microbiota. His 20+ years at Danone North America have allowed him to bring his passion and expertise to this field, and as vice president of scientific affairs at Danone, he has helped the global food and beverage company translate the growing body of evidence on different probiotic strains into a range of consumer products. With a Ph.D. in microbiology, nutrition and cell biology from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, he has published several peer-reviewed studies on microbes and human health. He frequently speaks at scientific conferences around the world while designing research protocols for researchers worldwide.

Meaghan is an editor and writer who also has experience practicing holistic medicine as an acupuncturist and herbalist. She's passionate about helping individuals live full, healthy and happy lives at every age. Outside of writing and editing for Forbes Health, Meaghan loves practicing yoga, reading and spending time with her family near the ocean in her home state of Maine.