A plant-based diet is increasingly seen as a way to truly combat chronic diseases and improve overall health. What's the evidence behind these claims - and does eating a plant-based diet really lead to better health?January 14, 2021 10:52 am November 04, 2019 5:52 pm
Pitfalls of the Western lifestyle
Here in the West, we enjoy a quality of life which is among the best in the world. Our medical system treats many illnesses incredibly effectively, and we’ve managed to curb the effects of some of the world’s most dangerous diseases.
Public hospitals, the private health-care industry, and pharmaceutical companies centre around the treatment of infectious and acute diseases. These are usually caused by viruses or bacterial infections, and include strep throat, malaria and cholera, among many others. Acute diseases come on quickly and, with the right treatment, often end quickly, too.
However, there is another subset of disease to which we, in the West, are particularly vulnerable. These are chronic diseases, which come on slowly and can often affect people over a long period of time. Diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes fall into this category.
Although there is no one identifiable cause for chronic diseases, the answer may lie in ‘nurture’ rather than ‘nature’. While some people are vulnerable to certain diseases because of their genes, research has shown that only 10% to 20% of the risk of suffering from heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases is down to our genes.(1)
That means a lot of the factors which determine our overall health are under our own control.
Lifestyle choices and illness
Many believe that lifestyle and diet are the biggest contributors. of chronic diseases, a stance which is supported by scientific research.(2)
Unlike many cultures around the world, in the West we’re particularly prone to eating lots of processed foods, not exercising enough, and spending most of the day sitting down at a desk or watching television.
To deal with chronic disease, we can’t rely on the same treatments as we do for acute disease (such as vaccinations, courses of antibiotics etc.). Instead, we have to make changes to our lifestyle at a more fundamental level.
Using our diet as a way of combating chronic disease might seem novel, but actually the concept has been around for a very long time! The Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of Western medicine, sums it up best: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Hippocrates
Plant-based food as medicine
The scientist Dr. Michael Greger has taken up this concept in the modern day and has devoted his life to studying the use of food as medicine. He advises that a diet based around plant-based whole foods is the best available for preserving our health.
A ‘plant-based’ diet, as the name suggests, contains only foods which come from plants. Nothing that is made from, or comes from, animals is included. This means dairy, meat and eggs are all off the menu.
Meanwhile, the term ‘whole foods’ refers to foods which have been minimally processed, with the aim of leaving them as close as possible to their natural state. Whole foods include whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa, as well as fruits, vegetables and legumes. Eating whole foods can be beneficial because processing, such as cooking, pasteurising, preserving or curing foods often has the effect of diminishing their nutritional value.
There is some evidence that following this kind of diet can help protect you from lifestyle diseases, both before and after their onset.
In his popular book, “How Not to Die”, Greger cites a study which suggests that diet may be better than drugs at treating heart disease, even after signs of the disease are present. Doctors involved in this study put patients suffering from heart disease on a plant-based diet. Not only was the progression of disease delayed, but plaque in the patients’ arteries actually started to melt away!(3)
In another study, an impressive 82% of the patients suffering from heart disease who started following a plant-based diet reported improvement.(4) No other diet shows the same results.
Solutions to a health crisis
Dr. Greger is far from the only nutrition expert who recognises the potential of a plant-based diet. Alarming trends in lifestyle diseases in the West have alerted many people to the need to change the way we live.
In some parts of America 39% of the population is obese. It’s a figure that is rising rapidly and represents a trend which is spreading across the world.(5)
While many of us are becoming more aware of the effects our diet has on our health, unhealthy foods such as junk food, overly processed food and products high in fat, salt and sugar are still extremely popular. For most of us, they continue to make a regular appearance in the food we eat.
Switching to a diet which is more centred around plant-based foods helps to eliminate some of the more dangerous animal fats from our diet. Meanwhile, eating whole foods eliminates over-processing.
That said, diet alone isn’t enough to combat obesity and lifestyle diseases. As we all know, exercise is also a key part of any healthy lifestyle.
Which foods to eat…
It’s also important to recognise that following a vegetarian or vegan diet doesn’t necessarily mean you are eating healthily.
Processed peanut butter and jelly on white bread is a vegan meal, but it’s not a particularly nutritious one!
When choosing your food, try to ‘eat close to the earth’. That means choosing products which have undergone as little human interference as possible before reaching your plate.
If you need more specific advice, Dr. Michael Greger recommends a ‘daily dozen’ list of foods to get you started. It includes beans, berries, other fruits, flaxseeds, nuts, spices, and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli. Add leafy greens, other vegetables and whole grains, with a side dish of exercise, and you’ll be well on your way to eating well for your health.
Dr. Greger’s list isn’t prescriptive, but you might find it useful in the early stages of changing your diet. We’d encourage you to experiment and explore. You may find that some other balance of foods works best for your needs and lifestyle.
… and which to avoid
Which foods should you especially avoid? That’s easy – anything processed. But what exactly does that mean?
A few examples include fast food, white sugar, white grains like white rice and white bread, anything in a package like biscuits, crisps, and sugar-laden breakfast cereals. You should also keep an eye on your intake of processed meats like sandwich meats, sausages, and bacon.
Of course, it’s entirely up to you how prescriptively you stick to these guidelines. Some nutritionists advocate for a completely plant-based diet, and some think a more ‘omnivorous’ mix is fine. However, generally speaking, they all recommend eating more fruits, vegetables and whole foods, and avoiding processed foods.
You could also try transitioning into a more plant-based diet slowly, by making a few small changes over a period of time. You can decide how far you want to go, based on the balance of foods that works best for your own individual wellbeing.
What about protein?
There are some common preconceptions about a plant-based diet. Many people believe that animal protein is necessary for optimum health, especially for athletes and fitness buffs. Luckily, that’s a misconception.
Plant-based foods contain all the nine essential amino acids that our body cannot produce on its own. From these amino acids, our body can make protein.
There are also some misconceptions about the amount of protein we need to function properly. While protein bars and powders are popular with fitness buffs, most people don’t actually need to supplement their protein intake. In fact, we only need one gram of protein per kilogram of our body weight, rather the huge amount that you may have been led to believe.(6)
Is fat always bad?
Dietary fat has a terrible reputation, but some types of fat can be very good for you!
Fat earned its poor image mostly due to the effect of saturated animal fats on our health. These fats are hard for your heart and body to process.
On the other hand, a plant-based diet can also provide you with heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Nuts, avocados, and vegetable oils like olive oil all contain healthy fats. For example, if you want to increase your intake of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, you could dress your salads with chia seed oil, walnut oil, or hemp oil. No animals required!
The difference lies in how our bodies handle each type of fat. Animal fats are mainly saturated fats, which are much harder for your heart and body to process.
A Harvard University study reveals just how different these types of dietary fat are. The study suggested that taking in more plant-based fats lessened the risk of death by 16%, while eating more animal-based fats increased the risk by 21%.(7) So, clearly, not all fats are created equal.
… and carbs?
Carbohydrates have also acquired a bad reputation of late, but remember that they represent a key food group and an important part of a balanced diet.
As with most foods, it’s the processed versions which are bad for you. Simple carbs, which are processed carbohydrates like white rice and white bread, provide a lot of calories without much nutritional value.
A plant-based whole foods diet is full of complex carbs, which contain essential fibre. Vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, and whole grain bread are among the sources of complex carbs that are accessible to you on a plant-based whole food diet.
In short: there’s no reason to exclude carbohydrates from your diet. Simply make sure you’re choosing the least processed types you can find.
What about micronutrients?
‘Micronutrients’ refers to vitamins, minerals and other nutrients we need in small doses to live healthily. (Fibre, protein and carbs are known as ‘macronutrients’, as we need a lot of them to function.)
A plant-based diet can also provide the micronutrients that your body needs. Short on calcium? Eat almonds, leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds, or tahini among other possibilities. Or how about iron? Sprinkle your porridge with nuts and seeds, accompanying them with fresh strawberries, which contain vitamin C and will help your body absorb the iron.
The Association of UK Dietitians has a helpful guide to the plant-based whole foods which can provide you with the nutrients you need.(8)
If you needed more reasons…
Apart from its ramifications for your health, a plant-based diet has other benefits, too.
Research also suggests that a plant-based whole food diet can be an effective way to manage your weight.(9) Unlike other diets, which may help you lose weight in the short term but may leave you unsatisfied and without essential nutrients, eating plant-based whole foods is a satisfying, sustainable long-term lifestyle.
Scientists have also suggested that this type of diet may help prevent and care for hypertension and high cholesterol. It also lowers your risk of several types of cancer.(10)(11)
What’s more, a plant-based diet is much more environmentally-friendly than a diet which is rich in meat and dairy products. In most cases, plant-based foods require less land, water and resources to produce, and contribute less to global warming.
The best reason of all
The best reason of all to introduce more plant-based whole foods into your life? They are absolutely delicious!
If you’re changing your diet, our advice is to experiment with different balances and to give your taste buds time to adjust. If you have addressed any unhealthy eating habits in the past – reducing consumption of sugary drinks or milk chocolate, for example – and noticed how you perceived the same foods differently just a bit down the road, you will be familiar with how this process works.
Once you have become accustomed to your new diet, you’ll then discover a deeply subtle and nuanced palette of flavours and textures that can be mixed and matched much more freely than animal-based, processed foods can be.
It’s a whole new world of possibilities for your palate, your pantry and your health.
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