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Flexible Dieting Pays Off

Improves Health & Is Planet Friendly

flexible dieting and nutrition

By John Salak –

Sometimes it pays to be a little flexible, especially when coming to dieting and nutrition. Most people probably want to improve their diets, making healthier choices that include eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed foods. Unfortunately, a lot of people fail, many before they even get started.

It is believed, for example, that 90 percent of Americans don’t consume the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. It is also widely reported that almost 85 percent of people who try to go vegetarian for nutritional or environmental reasons fail and revert back to eating meat on a regular basis. While discouraging, this level of failure shouldn’t be surprising. Some specialists believe this kind of nutritional breakdown is inevitable because fruits and vegetables lack the umami—delicious savory taste—that humans are programmed to crave.

The solution to getting people to eat better may rest in them embracing a more flexible approach to their diets, which is more adequately coined as a flexitarian diet. As the name suggests, this diet merges two concepts: flexible and vegetarian. The flexitarian approach isn’t as strict as a purely vegetarian diet and allows for the inclusion of a limited amount of meat and fish. The idea stems from dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner’s 2009 book, The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life.

The notion behind the approach is that by including meat at various levels and mostly avoiding processed foods, practitioners can more easily stay on a healthier nutrition track. By eating more plant foods and less meat, it is believed that they will not only lose weight, but it may also lower the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and various forms of cancer. It is little wonder that the diet’s flexibility makes it extremely popular.

New research, however, now suggests there may be an additional environmental benefit to embracing a plant-heavy flexitarian diet. Plant-based diets are more planet-friendly. In effect, this research maintains that a green transition in eating habits will be easier and more effective if vegetable dishes are enlivened with more umami—the basic, brothy taste typically associated with meat. After all, the study’s author Professor Emeritus Ole G. Mouritsen of the University of Copenhagen admits that vegetables just don’t taste all that good on their own.

Mouritsen thinks that answers to making a planet-friendly diet more attractive can be found in the sea. He notes the seafood is not only loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats but also adds the much-coveted umami.

“Most people don’t change the way they eat just for the sake of the climate. To really get things going, I think that every meal needs to be prepared to satisfy our sense of taste. And, when many people have a hard time eating enough vegetables, it’s because vegetables lack the sweetness and umami that we’ve been evolutionarily encoded to crave,” he explained.

“We overlook the most readily available, and in many cases, most sustainable food sources with umami taste in them—namely fish, seaweed, shellfish, mollusks and other seafood. If the right species are chosen, we can use them as climate and environmentally-friendly protein sources that are also effective umami flavorants for vegetables,” Mouritsen added.

The Danish researchers are just speculating on the umami impact of seafood. They actually used a mathematical equation to help calculate the power of umami in a wide range of seafood and demonstrate their taste potential.

“Umami can be plugged into a formula because we know exactly how the taste receptors in our taste buds pick up on umami at the molecular level. There is a synergistic effect when two substances, glutamate and nucleotides, are present in a food at the same time. Glutamate imparts the basic umami taste, which is then enhanced many times over by nucleotides. This synergy is reflected in the equation,” Mouritsen explained.

The team’s equation identified a long list of seafood that are high in umami concentrations. These include everything from fish like cod and mackerel to shellfish and mollusks like shrimp and octopus as well as roe from Alaskan pollock and blue mussel. Other types of seaweed and products like anchovy paste and fish sauce can help.

“There are many possibilities. And while some people will probably debate the formula’s accuracy, it doesn’t matter. Whether the umami concentration in shrimp, for example, is 9,000 or 13,000 mg/100 g is not critical, as each is much greater than 30 mg/100 g, which is the taste threshold for umami,” Mouritsen pointed out, adding that only a few drops or grams of these foods are usually enough to elevate vegetable dishes to satisfy umami cravings.

“I think we need to be more flexitarian,” he said. “We need to get used to having a lot more vegetables and much less animal-derived fare on our plates. But in terms of taste, nothing should be absent. Therefore, my vision is that we add something from the animal kingdom that really boosts taste so that we can make do with very small amounts — but enough to provide flavors that vegetables can’t.”





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