Overall diets have changed dramatically over the past century. Food selections, availability and science are constantly evolving, and new trends are emerging for foods that we consume. Some of the current and most prominent diet trends include flexitarian, organic, functional/value, and gluten-free diets. Knowing the facts about these nutrition trends can help you make more informed diet decisions.
The Good, the Bad and What You Need to Know
By Pamela Kelle, RD, LDN
The Flexitarian Diet
Designed for those who aren’t ready to embrace a full vegetarian diet, the flexitarian diet balances a decreased consumption of meat with more produce. This diet is receiving positive feedback by the nutrition community as it encourages eating more healthful vegetarian foods such as beans, nuts, whole grains, and fresh produce while being flexible in the amount of meat eaten.
The diet plan has three levels:
• Beginner – 2 meatless days a week with 5-6 oz. of meat-based protein consumed on each of the other 5 days
• Advanced – 3 or 4 meatless days a week with 6 oz. of meat-based protein consumed on each of the other 3 days
• Expert – 5 meatless days a week with 9-10 oz. of meat-based protein consumed per week
One of the benefits of this diet is the ease of reducing the consumption of meat while enjoying more produce. It also provides a smooth transition for those who do not care for the taste of protein replacements but want to slowly wean themselves from meat.
Another positive: this diet encourages more complete whole grains as protein complements. New research suggests that people who consume several servings of whole grains per day, while limiting daily intake of refined grains, appear to have less fat tissue thought to trigger cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
One area of concern, however, is that the flexitarian diet may not contain enough complete proteins for growth and maturation or provide enough protein for athletes. If one is not fully committed to the responsibility of obtaining proteins; this diet can cause health complications.
Influenced by the seasonality and the locality of foods, these diets focus on sustainable consumerism and choosing foods that are good for you as well as for the Earth. Among these foods are organic and raw foods. Often debated, organic foods are not exposed to pesticides and other chemicals thought to be harmful when consumed and bad for the environment. Organic livestock farmers do not use antibiotics or hormones, thought to cause different types of cancer, to prevent disease and spur growth in animals. Raw foods are not prepackaged or cooked, keeping them rich in flavor and nutrients.
Because organic foods can be 50 to 100 percent more expensive, experts encourage consumers to spend their food dollars wisely by carefully choosing between organic and conventional items. Produce and foods that a family eats most often are most important to spend extra on. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., recommends choosing organic at least for produce with the highest pesticide residues. These selections include produce with thin or no skin such as apples, pears, peaches, berries, all leafy greens, peppers, celery and potatoes. Raw food sales are on the move. Susan Baker, marketing leader at Whole Foods Market–Greenlife Grocery agrees and notes an emerging trend towards a completely raw foods diet and the nutritional benefits.
Experts all agree that a diet high in fresh foods, including fruits and vegetables, is good for one’s health. However, there is some concern for diets based entirely on raw foods. Andrea N. Giancoli, M.P.H., R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in Los Angeles, says in the journal EatingWell, “There’s no doubt that plant-based diets have been linked with a lower risk of obesity and other chronic diseases, but because the raw-foods diet is so restrictive, its followers are at risk for deficiencies of vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. And the diet isn’t based on science: cooking destroys some nutrients, but it makes others (like the lycopene in tomatoes) more absorbable.”
According to Cornell University, decreasing consumption volume and placing a focus on eating healthy foods is the cornerstone of the functional or value diet. The consumer is motivated to build a meal plan around foods that offer more than just taste and calories, thus getting more nutrient value from foods. The focus of this diet is on the function of the foods and benefits they provide.
A functional diet might include foods with added bioflavonoid and probiotics such as yogurt and dairy products to regulate intestinal health. This diet often includes exotic fruits (or “superfruits”) such as mangosteen, goji berries, and noni that have a high nutrient and antioxidant content. Research supports that adults can increase their chances of maintaining healthy brain activity by adding certain functional foods and beverages to their diets. For example, dark chocolate provides natural stimulants like caffeine to enhance concentration, and nuts and seeds provide good sources of vitamin E, an antioxidant associated with preventing cognitive decline. Coldwater fatty fish is an excellent functional food as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are linked to lower dementia and stroke risks; slower mental decline; and are thought to play a vital role in enhancing memory.
No one challenges the benefits of this type of diet other than to advise that foods are balanced across meals.
The gluten-free craze is another diet trend that’s becoming hard to ignore. This diet has increased in popularity over the last few years partly as a result of greater awareness and improved diagnosis of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by exposure to gluten. Additionally, there has been a mass movement toward gluten-free products by those who have self-diagnosed gluten intolerance, believe a gluten-free diet is a healthier way of eating, or believe that it can help to help reduce weight. Since 2004, the gluten-free market has experienced an average annual growth rate of 28 percent. Today, less than one percent of the population has celiac disease; however, marketers believe that between 15 and 25 percent of consumers want gluten-free products.
The good news is that consumers who are following a gluten-free diet are usually eating less white and processed foods, and more fruits and vegetables. Another positive is that the trend has motivated manufacturers to provide more high-quality, gluten-free foods that the truly intolerant would normally not have access to. In the past, many gluten-free foods have been based on nutrient-poor ingredients, such as potato and corn starches, with xanthan and guar gum to improve texture.
The bad news is that people who have diagnosed themselves as gluten intolerant are missing an exact diagnosis from a doctor and could be incorrectly treating symptoms related to another health issue. Unless carefully managed, gluten-free diets can be deficient in vitamins and minerals. Gluten-free foods can also be very expensive and some can have high values of fat and sugar added by manufacturers to make them more appealing. Dieticians are increasingly advising true gluten intolerant sufferers to follow a naturally gluten-free diet.
Be Informed, Be Balanced
There is one thing on which experts agree: regardless of the diet you choose, eat plenty of produce and maintain a balanced diet. National guidelines recommend eating a variety of fruits and vegetables to take advantage of their diverse nutritional benefits. A balanced diet is important, no matter what trend you may choose to follow.
Pamela Kelle, RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian/nutrition therapist located at 2 Northshore across from Greenlife Grocery and next door to North Shore Yoga. She counsels individuals and families toward better health through nutrition. Contact her at PamelaKelleNutrition.com or (423) 991-3422