Put simply, most of us benefit greatly from making plants the basis of our diets. The science is pretty clear: that's irrespective of country, ethnicity or religious affiliation. Research like the BROAD study demonstrates that adopting a plant-based diet is good for health, and other studies show that plant-based diets (PBDs) dramatically improve your blood lipid profile, reduce your risk of heart attacks by 40% and strokes by 29% and can be instrumental in tackling the obesity and type 2 diabetes crisis that's sweeping the globe.

In a world where people’s diets are dominated by processed foods, many are struggling to eat even government recommended levels of fruit and vegetables each day. In the US, only 1 in 10 adults, and in the UK, 26% of adults and 16% of children are meeting expected recommendations for daily vegetable and fruit consumption. This is despite recent research that found that five portions a day are good, but ten are even better.

What exactly is a plant-based diet?

Whilst there is no precise definition of what a PBD is, at ANH-Intl, we use the term to describe a diet that includes at least 50% by weight of whole, unprocessed vegetables with minimal fruit. We know that that the term is open to many interpretations and understanding varies widely. These days in the UK or USA, if you say you follow a PBD, people tend to assume you’re either vegetarian or vegan - such is the power of media and trends. But there are many PBDs, including ovo-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian and just being a plain-old omnivore, probably like the majority of our ancestors. Despite their differences, common to all of these is that plants are the central focus of each meal. Animal foods, should you choose to eat them, play smaller, supporting roles.

Plants - from blueprint to Blue Zone

Like it or not, our bodies are designed to primarily derive energy and nutrients from plants – and the idea that our Palaeolithic ancestors spent most of their time hunting large game and gorging on huge quantities of meat doesn't seem to be supported by fact. Plant chemicals, or phytonutrients, act as co-factors, signalling molecules and active biochemical influencers that make our bodies function. Our health is dependent on them and the decline in population health should also be seen in the light of the declining plant food diversity in our diets.

Our evolutionary blueprint suggests plants have always been the basis of our diets and it’s only since the industrialisation of our food supply that things have changed for those in more wealthy, developed countries. Processed foods, meats and refined fats have become staple foods for too many people with a token gesture of something green on the side or in the burger bun.

Research into the world’s longest lived people is further confirmation that those eating PBDs not only experience the lowest levels of disease, they also live the longest. Five Blue Zones have been identified in different parts of the globe, these being characterised by the very high proportion of people living into their 100s, as well as very low rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease – all diseases that are now the main burden in modern societies.

Plant phytochemicals, are potent biologically active compounds naturally present in plants, along with vitamins, minerals and fibres. Above-ground vegetables are also low carb - most containing less than 10% carbohydrate by energy. The nutritional density of plant foods and their action on multiple parts of the 135 or so metabolic pathways in our body is the main reason why incorporating more plants into our diets is such an effective way of preventing and managing disease, in turn reducing pressure on overburdened healthcare systems and empowering a new generation of self-care.

If you need any more persuasion that eating a plant-based diet is good for you, then here’s some bedtime reading to help you lower your risk of:

Obesity

Diabetes

Cardiovascular disease

Cancer, and

Metabolic syndrome.

Is your diet sustainable?

What we choose to eat (both animal and plant-based) can impact the environment both positively and negatively. As responsible consumers we need to know where our food comes from and how it’s been produced.

As worldwide sales of meat and meat-based products continue to climb, so does inhumane, unhealthy factory farming because it’s the only way to keep up with demand. Reducing consumption of animal products in favour of plants presents us with the opportunity to choose ethically and sustainably raised meat and animal products that are kinder to animals and the environment.

However, as more and more people adopt PBDs the demand for meat alternatives is skyrocketing along with its own environmental impacts. Soy, often used as a meat substitute, and palm oil, used in many processed foods, are good examples of how intensive, mono-agricultural farming practices create damage to the environment when not handled responsibly. The introduction of genetically modified crops to ‘feed the world’ and the corresponding increase in pesticide and herbicide use is not only damaging the natural world, but also human health. Ideally, like most things in life, this is all about balance. We should aim for whole, unprocessed, largely unbarcoded, foods that don’t have laundry lists of ingredients. Eat organic where possible, or locally produced from the ‘farm gate’ if not.

The less healthy side of plant-based eating

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out that eating a PBD doesn't automatically mean a diet is healthy. People who chomp their way through packets of crisps and live off french fries cooked in vegetable oil don't do well.

Over-consumption of refined grains and cereals is a well known problem because such diets are energy dense and not nutrient dense. Many people have a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten and associated proteins in gluten-containing grains.

Beans, as in legumes or pulses, are plant protein alternatives to animal protein. However, these pulses are the plant storage vessels to ensure the plant’s survival. As such, they contain plant chemicals called lectins, which are powerful natural herbicides and pesticides, but can be powerful anti-nutrient factors for us. Lectins occur naturally in a wide range of plant foods to help growing plants combat herbivorous insects. In us, they can threaten and disrupt the uptake of certain nutrients, (hence they are often referred to as ‘anti-nutrients’), they can also irritate the gut lining or, worse, contribute to ‘leaky gut’ syndrome in sensitive individuals. If you can’t reduce the amount of lectins in your diet because these foods are main protein sources for you, ensure you soak and cook legumes for 4-6 hours to deactivate the lectins and reduce the potential for gastrointestinal discomfort (bloating, wind, pain).

Similar to legumes, gluten-containing grains are another dietary staple that can also contribute to the development of a ‘leaky gut’, which can lead to chronic inflammation (the basis of all chronic disease) and autoimmune disease.

Choose your fats carefully and despite government recommendations, avoid low fat foods. Furthermore, it’s advised to avoid significant consumption of refined vegetable oils rich in Omega-6 polyunsatured acids and processed foods containing trans fats.

The more diverse the better

Diversity and quality are key to making a PBD really work. The wider the range of foods we eat, the more nutrients we get and the more protection we have against developing chronic disease. Plants are complex organisms. By eating whole plants, rather than small segments, we benefit from a whole matrix of different nutrients - which ensures we reap the rewards of all. Change the way that plant grows, is fed or processed and you’ll fundamentally change the interaction of those naturally occurring nutrients completely.

Plants also feed our gut microbiome. As with all healthy ecosystems the healthier your microbiome, the healthier the individual.

 

Incorporating more plants into your diet

A PBD doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing diet. It should become an individually-tailored way of life.

Here are some of our top tips for adopting and staying on a healthful plant-based diet:

  • Aim to eat 7-10 portions of vegetables, with minimal fruit, a day as recommended by the ANH Food4Health Guidelines
  • Eat a rainbow every day to ensure you get a wide range of nutrients
  • Don’t forget to add fresh herbs and spices as often as you can, or choose good quality, non-irradiated dried versions to flavor your foods. Use home-made salsas and herb sauces such as chimichurri or pesto as regular condiments
  • It’s easy to replace most of your starchy carbs (from grains or root veg) with fibre-rich, complex vegetable carbs, e.g. swapping mashed potato for mashed cauliflower; having a choice of 3 or 4 different veggies on your dinner plate instead of 1 or 2
  • Choose a mix of raw and cooked veggies every day and add the protein source of your choosing
  • Increase sources of healthy plant proteins – fermented soy, legumes, nuts, seeds, chia seeds, quinoa and oats - and remember that vegetables contain protein too
  • Consider a good quality pea or rice protein powder to drink in a smoothie, eat in a protein bar or cook with. This becomes especially helpful to ensure sufficient essential amino acids, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and arginine which is necessary to complete the wound healing process and for cardiovascular health amongst other health benefits
  • Include a variety of healthy fats from natural sources such as virgin coconut oil (VCO), virgin avocado oil (VAO), extra virgin olive oil and sustainable (RSPO certified) palm kernel oil (PKO) for cooking and use in dressings. The fatty acids in VCO, VAO and PKO upregulate adiponectin helping to reduce insulin resistance, improve fat burning ability and manage weight
  • Don’t damage your plant foods through over-cooking, which causes a loss of nutrients, and excessive heat, like high temperature frying, deep frying etc, as this will damage the delicate proteins and can even create carcinogenic compounds like acrylamide.
  • Subscribe to a weekly organic veg box service to help you become more creative with your cooking choices
  • Challenge yourself to find new ways to prepare vegetables to help you fall back in love with veggies
  • Take everyday meals you make already and try adding one more vegetable to the mix
  • If you eat breakfast, try incorporating some veggies, e.g. avocado, kale, green leaves, tomatoes, or mushrooms
  • Raw vegetables can make a delicious, quick snack with a home-made veggie based dip!
  • And most of all have fun cooking and sharing your meals!

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