Excerpted from our Manna Tree Breakfast Discussions vol. 02 hosted by David Rubenstein, an Exclusive Quarterly Webinar for our Limited Partners.
You probably know a vegan, a vegetarian, someone on the paleo plan and others, but do you know anyone who’s a flexitarian? Is being one better for the environment? Is it a diet?
There are a variety of diets that are considered health-conscious, but they’re often too restrictive. For some time, seemingly healthy diets required more carbohydrates and sugars but shunned certain fats and proteins. Later, certain diets cut out the carbs and focused on protein-heavy foods. In many cases, unless you were a vegetarian, fruits and vegetables didn’t get much attention. For a long time, many diets were fundamentally restrictive. “Diet” became synonymous with extreme restrictions instead of a broad array of better-for-you choices.
Choosing a healthy diet, preferably an all-encompassing healthier lifestyle versus a point in time diet, catered to your unique needs is often challenging due to an evolving, complex global food production system and the difficulty of conclusively correlating a health outcome to diet. At Manna Tree, we are actively addressing this challenge (and direct capital) to maximize human health in line with the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) strategic plan.
As studies on food and health have become more sophisticated, so have dietary guidelines. Research has shown the benefits of a diet that creates more inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. Flexitarianism has become one such lifestyle that is gaining considerable attention for a large consumer base.
What is flexitarianism?
The ideas behind flexitarianism are based on the following principles:
Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains
Focus on plant-based protein
Incorporate high-quality meat and animal products
Eat the least processed, most natural form of foods
Limit added sugar
Because it is inherently flexible, the flexitarian diet is accessible for everyone. It has become a choice for many to incorporate into a healthier lifestyle without feeling deprived of certain foods they enjoy and without relying on socioeconomic status to grant access to health.
It is also important to note that flexitarians pay closer attention to how the foods they eat impact animals and the environment, establishing a value system to their healthy lifestyle.
An excellent example of the intersection between health and ecology comes from Dana Ehrlich, CEO and founder of Verde Farms, a company that provides 100% grass-fed, pasture-raised beef and is part of the Manna Tree portfolio. He explains that grass-fed beef is more nutrient dense with a higher ratio of omega-3 to omega 6 fatty acids, which has been shown to be beneficial in mitigating various types of cardiovascular disease. By sourcing from farmers that have honored timeless traditions, the use of antibiotics, hormones and pesticides are avoided, benefiting the farmers and the environment they depend on.
When thinking ecologically, foods must also consider the human and ethical conditions of animals and how it directly ties into healthier eating. To maintain high standards, animal welfare also creates a leaner and healthier product because there are less stressors for the animals. Ehrlich explains that a low-stress environment creates a more tender product and Verde Farms follows the research provided by Temple Grandin, a well-known expert on animal behavior and welfare in the livestock industry. According to a 2019 peer reviewed publication from Frontiers on Nutrition,
“The health of livestock, humans, and environments is tied to plant diversity—and associated phytochemical richness—across landscapes…[and] phytochemical richness of herbivore diets enhances biochemical richness of meat and dairy, which is linked with human and environmental health.”
Reasons for its growing popularity
Flexitarianism is a diet heavy in whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits, with the intent of deriving the majority of the daily protein requirements from plant based sources – however, flexibility around the sporadic incorporation if animal protein is encouraged. Decreasing the consumption of over-processed and sugar-heavy foods is also critical, as in every healthy diet.
The benefits of flexitarianism are evidenced in today’s top food trends. These growing trends meet what is now being called the American Plate. Initially established by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), it showed the benefits of reducing meat consumption, replacing meat with other types of protein when available, and increasing whole grain and vegetable consumption. Consuming fresh, minimally processed foods further increases the health benefits.
Once the AICR published its findings, health professionals started studying its other possible benefits. What professionals found is the American Plate, which is fundamentally flexitarian in nature, it not only reduces the risk of cancer, but also heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and depression. Between a consensus within the medical community and the growing awareness of clean, organic foods by consumers, flexitarianism has become an increasing focus. It is even recognized as one of the easiest diets to follow because of its flexibility, affordability, and accessibility.
If leaner, grass-fed meats are not accessible, other protein-rich foods are.
Mike Spinelli, CIO, and co-founder of Nutriati, a company that aims to produce the “perfect plant-based protein” with chickpeas and also a part of Manna Tree’s portfolio, explains that the chickpea is also a good source of protein. This ancient legume can help flexitarianism become more accessible, especially for those looking to reduce their meat consumption or do not have access to more ethically produced meats.
How to transition to a more flexitarian diet
Following guidelines from the American Plate is a great way to transition from more substantial portions of meat to less without feeling deprived. The AICR explains that “The keys to the New American Plate are simple: portion and proportion.” This healthy eating approach is further corroborated by the Harvard Healthy Eating plate, which supports new USDA guidelines.
The now antiquated nutritional recommendations many people grew up with suggested 7 to 12 ounces of animal protein, accompanied by a starch (not focussed on the degree of processing) and a vegetable. Modern nutritional science has shown that a healthy diet, like the flexitarian diet, should focus on quality, nutrient dense sources of protein, whole grains (like brown rice, millet, or quinoa), and a variety of dark green, yellow, and red vegetables — the plate should be colorful.
A balanced diet should focus on minimizing processed foods, sugars, and excess sodium, because it saves calories for the essential nutrients that the body cannot produce (like proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals). Traditional processed meats and non-whole grain products pose a health risk and can easily be replaced with healthier products that are just as accessible and taste just as good. It is really all about making your food calories count toward your vitality instead of detracting from it.
Being mindful of the origin and quality of food is essential, and if you choose to eat animal protein, seek out foods that are raised naturally (100% grass-fed, 100% pasture raised, and wild-caught are some sample designations). Since these foods are growing in demand, they are also becoming easier to find at affordable price ranges.
Whether your plate is vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian, it is important to incorporate it into a larger healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, good sleep habits, and attention to mental health. It is the combination that produces a functional, healthy individual.
Peer reviewed article on Flexitarianism and the research available on health outcomes (status 2017): Derbyshire EJ. Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature. Front Nutr. 2017;3:55. Published 2017 Jan 6. doi:10.3389/fnut.2016.00055