Did you take on Veganuary this year? Are you looking to go vegan or make plant-based eating a more permanent practice? Doctor Gemma Newman has some helpful tips

Low fat, high fat, low carb, high carb, vegan, paleo, keto – it’s easy to lose track of all the diets out there. But surely some of them work? And if so which one is best?

Veganuary is still in full swing and if last year’s calculations are anything to go by, it’s only growing in popularity.

In 2018 170,000 people signed up, which was an 183 per cent increase over 2017’s numbers. Then last year, over 250,000 people signed up to take on the challenge. This year the number is guaranteed to have risen again.

But is adopting a vegan diet healthy? What makes it any different to all the other diets we are told are good for our health?

There is a lot of confusion out there historically about nutrition – propagated by the media, food companies and even health professionals themselves.

But few can can argue with the benefits of eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, the superiority of whole unprocessed foods the need to limit or avoid processed meats,sugary cakes, sweets, fizzy sugary drinks, white flour and white bread where you can.

one thing nobody can argue with are the benefits of eating plenty of vegetables and fruits.

Often though, when people are confused about what is healthy and what isn’t, they may keep eating what they always have, and say ‘everything in moderation.’

But this is clearly untrue.

We don’t advise smokers to smoke in moderation. It’s the same with sugary drinks and processed meats. Why feed your child a hot dog or a chicken nugget when you would never dream of giving them a packet of cigarettes?

According to The World Health Organisation (WHO), processed meats are a class 1 carcinogen; a known cause of cancer. So moderation or not, processed meats aren’t goof for you. Fact.

How to cut through the confusion

Fortunately, Dr David Katz, one of the founders of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, got the world’s most eminent nutrition scientists from around the world together to create a general consensus they could all agree on as part of his ‘True Health Initiative’.

There was much they agreed on – that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and water remains the cornerstone to health.

If you look at a paleo plate and a whole food plant based plate, they will have far more in common with each other than they would with the plate of someone eating the average Western diet.

Let us consider what kind of dietary patterns seem to promote heart health. After all, heart disease still remains our biggest killer.

The only way of eating which has been proven to reverse coronary artery blockages within weeks (by comparing angiography before and after the diet change) is the whole food plant based approach.

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The Lifestyle Heart Trial findings were published in The Lancet in 1990, and impressive results with dietary intervention alone were achieved through the work of Dr Caldwell Esselstyn, and were also replicated most recently in the Mount Abu Heart Trial.

No other dietary pattern has been able to replicate these findings. Considering that heart disease is our number one killer, it seems sensible for a mostly whole food plant based diet to be the recommended choice until new evidence is found to suggest otherwise.

That’s all well and good, but for many of us who are used to eating a Western diet, making the change to a more plant-based focused diet can seem impossible. Hats off to the people who have stuck to Veganuary.

But fear not. That’s where I am here to help – if a plant-based diet is the healthiest option, here’s how you can get started..

Step #1 Read about it

If you are thinking of making a start with plant based eating but you’re unsure where to begin, I’d recommend these cookbooks to ease you into the transition.

so vegan in 5

So Vegan in 5  by Roxy Pope and Ben Pook, has over 100 simple recipes with just five ingredients that you will definitely be able to find in your local supermarket – hallelujah.

Click here for more information about their cook book and see 5 of their recipes in full: 5 easy vegan recipes with 5 ingredients from your supermarket

bosh cookbook

BOSH! by Henry Firth & Ian Theasby has over 80 healthy vegan recipes.

BOSH! is also  the biggest plant-based online channel in the world with their most popular recipe videos being viewed over 50 million times.

‘After cutting out animal products entirely, both of us felt fantastic,’ they say in the book. ‘But we had to re-learn how to cook and find food when we were out and about. We also found that the vegan food available in restaurants or in cookbooks was often, frankly, not very good.

‘Since then, it’s been our life’s mission to show people how to make delicious plant-based meals. However often they choose to do that’.

Plus, it won’t hurt to search #vegan hashtags on Instagram, there are some truly inspiring stories out there of the different journeys people have taken in their transition into plant-based eating.

Step #2 Swap some of your favourite foods first

How you go about this exciting journey will often depend on what you like to eat right now. Modifying certain favourite foods is a good place to start.

For example, if one of your favourite meals is a chicken curry, you could turn that into a chickpea curry, a beef Bolognese into a lentil Bolognese, a Mexican chilli could be a three-bean chilli.

If you love the vegan version of your favourite, then you’re winning.

Slowly start experimenting with new flavours and ideas so that your plant-based journey becomes a new voyage of discovery and fun – without the pressure.

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Step #3 Change your daily meals one at a time

Perhaps start with changing your breakfast to a totally plant-based one, start by changing this two to three times per week, (and that includes the milk in your morning tea or coffee).

Then start changing your lunch to plant-based two to three times during the week too. After you are used to this then start increasing the amount of meals you have that are plant-based until pretty soon you have four or five good rotating meal ideas that replace your old habits.

If you change to a completely whole food plant based diet straight away you are likely to reap the benefits more quickly, usually within around two to three weeks.

However, if it is a very new way of eating, your gut bacteria will not yet have caught up and so you may notice some initial bloating or flatulence as your gut bugs begin to adjust and respond to your healthy diet change.

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Step #4 Get the family involved to prevent future disease

The American Dietetic Association and the British Dietetic Association both agree that well planned plant based diets can sustain healthy living in all age groups and may also provide benefits for prevention of diseases.

Which diseases might they be referring to I hear you ask? Well heart disease and cancer – our biggest killers in the Western world.

Plant based diets are also associated with reduced risk of chronic respiratory disorders, allergies and recurrent infections in childhood, so not only are you improving their health for today, but also giving them the best chance of reducing disease risk in the future as well.

The British Dietetic Assocition (BDA) has also recently launched their Blue Dot Campaign, highlighting the importance of dieticians being able to offer plant based diet advice to people of all ages and incomes.

Step #5 Invest in some supplements

Unfortunately, we’re now living in a nutrient depleted world. This is due to the degradation of the soil that has come about as a result of mono-cropping, land mass degradation and the excessive use of pesticides.

A Western Diet will invariably be deficient in some of the most important nutrients we need including magnesium, folate and fibre. It is also much more strongly associated with obesity and a number of chronic lifestyle diseases that are improved by a whole food, plant based diet.

A Western Diet will invariably be deficient in some of the most important nutrients we need

In fact, a well planned whole food plant based approach is probably the most nutrient dense way to eat in many ways, especially the ‘nutritarian approach’ advocated by physicians such as Dr Joel Fuhrman. This is basically about avoiding processed foods and choosing nutrient dense food that are highest in vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants.

But there will be supplements that are especially relevant if you are eating a fully whole food plant based diet, excluding all animal products – as they are harder to routinely obtain.

Here are the supplements you’ll probably need to invest in:

#1 B12

There are many different types of vitamin B (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, biotin, folate) which are abundant in a whole food plant rich diet – but if you are completely plant based you will need vitamin B12 supplementation. This is essential.

Adults only need about 1.5mcg (micrograms) a day of Vitamin B12. However, I’d recommend taking either at least 10mcg daily or 2000mcg week.

This may seem like a lot compared to the daily intake of 1.5mcg suggested for adults, but these recommendations are safe, not only to prevent deficiency, but to also reliably break down a protein called homocysteine, which in excess, is implicated in heart attacks and strokes.

Your body absorbs vitamin B12 more efficiently in frequent small amounts, so the less often you have it, the more you need. You can obtain B12 from fortified foods such as soy milk, hemp milk, nutrition bars, nutritional yeast, marmite and cereals but you will have to check the amounts in each and make sure you have at least 3mcg over the course of a day.

Or you can take B12 as an easy supplement. There are many ways to do this. A higher dose once weekly oral supplement, a daily spray or indeed B12 contained within most multivitamins. I don’t have any affiliations but I favour methylcobalabin B12 supplementation as it is more bioavailable.

Even people who eat a lot of meat and eggs will potentially be B12 deficient after the age of 50

B12 is a vitamin made by micro-organisms. This is the reason it is in cow, pig and chicken meat, as they have eaten soil, drank untreated water with these micro-organisms, or eaten corn feed with B12 supplements added to it.

I don’t recommend eating soil, or drinking untreated water! That’s why supplementation is so important Even people who eat a lot of meat and eggs will potentially be B12 deficient after the age of 50, as their stomach can have problems absorbing it.

Also, other medical factors such as taking indigestion or diabetes drugs, having malabsorption issues and autoimmune disorders can reduce absorption of vitamin B12. So it’s a good idea to check your levels and supplement, especially for diabetics.

Don’t take the risk of avoiding supplementation or adequate amounts of fortified foods – far better to be safe than sorry.

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#2 Vitamin D

As most of us are deficient in this – as a rule of thumb you are able to make enough vitamin D through sunlight exposure if your shadow is shorter than your body. If you have no shadow or it is very long, chances are you are not making vitamin D.

I’d recommend at least 1000iu a day in those who have normal levels, and 2000iu a day if you have a tendency to run low. If you are already deficient you could need higher doses.

#3 Algae oil

EPA/DHA supplements are useful. These are the purest form of omega-3 fatty acids on the planet.

Made from algae (where fish get it from too) it means you can optimise heart health without having to eat fish or take cod liver oil (and so avoid the heavy metals and toxins within them, unfortunately the seas are so polluted it is almost impossible to avoid this now).

#4 FLAX seeds

These are a super food. One to two tablespoons of milled flax every day can help lower your blood pressure and boost heart health.

Mix into your morning porridge, sprinkle in a salad or main meal, even bake with them (one tablespoon in three of water can replace one egg).

Dr Gemma Newman

Dr Gemma Newman has worked in medicine for 15 years and is the Senior Partner at a family medical practice where she has worked for 10 years.

She studied at the University of Wales College of Medicine and has worked in many specialities as a doctor including elderly care, endocrinology, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, psychiatry, general surgery, urology, vascular surgery, rehabilitation medicine and General Practice.

More from Dr Gemma Newman:

What’s the best diet for diabetes? The doctor’s opinion

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