What are the benefits?
Plant based diets (PBD’s) are better for the environment and provide a more sustainable way of eating. There are also health benefits due to eating more plants altering the nutritional profile of your body.
PBD’s tend to be lower in saturated fat due to less meat. They usually contain higher amounts of fruit and vegetables which means higher fibre content for digestive health (those bowels) and a greater range of antioxidant plus phytochemicals.
The inclusion of wholegrains provides B vitamins and fibre, beans/pulses for soluble fibre and these help with blood sugar control, soy products provide phytoestrogens that can be helpful in the menopause plus nuts and and seeds that are packed with antioxidants and micronutrients.
Some specific health benefits:
Research shows us that PBDs can lead to lower levels of total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. This is going to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Also improvements can be seen in serum glucose levels which helps in overall health and in type 2 diabetes control.
There has been shown to be a lower level of overall inflammation in the body. These factors combines are thought to contribute to a reduced risk of chronic diseases.
Does this mean we should all go vegetarian/vegan? Well not necessarily. What I do think it means is that having a greater emphasis on eating plants sources of food is helpful and healthful. As with all ways of eating there are many ways to do it, so the benefits you see on paper will depend on how you actually approach this way of life. This in my mind is about adding in plant foods more than taking things away.
Will I be missing out nutrients?
It is perfectly possible to meet your nutritional needs on a PBD. However you will need to be more intentional about it. Planning and being thoughtful about some key nutrients plus a couple of supplements will ensure you get all your body needs.
Protein : It can be easier to get protein from animal sources. However this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be eating plant proteins! Most people in the UK are exceeding their protein needs, especially with the focus on protein in so many snack foods right now. When calorie needs are met it is more than possible to meet your protein requirements on a PBD. However it is a good idea to vary your protein sources through the week so that cover all those essential amino acids the body needs.
Iron : The recommended daily amount of iron for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher that for non-vegetarians, as iron which comes from plant sources (non-haem iron) is less efficiently utilised in our body than iron which comes from animal sources. Eat iron rich foods daily and all should be well.
Calcium: one of my hobby horses, as I like to look after my bones. Calcium can be lower on a plant based diet but there are plant foods that will help those bones stay strong. Check your plant based milk is supplemented and get on those leafy greens. Some studies show a lower bone mineral density in those not eating dairy, so this is definitely a nutrient to think about.
Vitamin B12: as this is mainly found in animal products it is one of the nutrients you may end up lacking. It is found in yeast extract and most multivitamins/minerals.
Omega 3 : mainly talked about as being in oily fish but also found in seaweed, linseeds and walnuts. If you know you won’t take in many of these foods you could take a supplement.
Iodine: highlighted in some studies as a nutrient that can be low on a PBD, but also on a meat eaters diet too!
Selenium: mainly found in Brazil nuts so not necessarily a problem on PBD but a good one to be aware of.
There has been so much talk about red meat over the last few years. The guidelines from the WHO told us not to eat too much red meat and showed the link between red meat and colorectal cancer. This risk was higher with processed red meat. Today it’s been more news about processed meat causing cancer, so as a population we are still eating our bacon it seems.
The problem this time is nitrates (NO3) and nitrites (NO2). These are often added to processed meats as they help it keep its pink colour and are important in food safety – protecting against botulism. Nitrates are metabolised to nitrites in the body, these are all fine until they combine with protein to form Nitrosamines. These can be carcinogenic. There lies the problem.
However nitrates themselves can be beneficial, they can relax blood vessels, being beneficial for blood pressure. They can improve the blood flow to muscles in exercise and they are a cofactor for reactions in the body.
Nitrates are found in processed meats such as bacon, ham, salami and chorizo. Interestingly they don’t seem to be added into UK made sausages, which is a slight win. They are also found added into higher amounts in smoked fish, cured fish and beer (especially German beer). The levels in your piece of ham are small. Nitrates are also found in vegetables however these naturally occuring forms do not appear to react in the body in the same way as those added into meats.
The take home – eating less meat is a good thing for the planet and for our bodies, but there is no need to cut it out entirely. In my opinion cutting things out is generally not a helpful approach. Processed meat is not something to be eating daily but it is ok to eat it occasionally. You can find some processed meats now that are nitrate free, check the labels nitrate/nitrites, but remember that does not mean you can eat it regularly. As a population we all should be eating less meat and more plant based proteins when we can. So keep that bacon sandwich for a now and again brekkie.
￼Black Tea : 40-70mg caffeine per cupCoffee: 80-115mg caffeine per cupGreen Tea: 25mg caffine per cup
The menopause is a time of life that can be distressing and cause symptoms that affect the quality of life significantly. However it is also a time of life that we neglect to talk about which makes it harder for women to know the evidence for treatments and where to get support.
When does the menopause occur?
The average age is 51yrs, but there is a wide range. The menopause is defined as 12 months after your last menstrual period. Women can be in the peri-menopausal stage where hormone levels are changing and symptoms are occuring for 4-5 years before the menopause occurs.
Symptoms can include hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, disrupted sleep, brain fog, poor concentration, vaginal dryness and joint pains. For some these are mild and for others these are severe causing day to day life to be altered and upsetting.
There are many supplements, pills and potions around that are said to help with the symptoms of the menopause. Sadly a lot of these have no real evidence behind them and end up being very expensive. Nutrition is something that plays a pivotal role in our health so it will come as no suprise that there are dietary changes that can be made to help offer some relief. There are also health issues that need ot be considered with the menopause approaching, which are covered below.
These are one of the most common symptoms and one reason why HRT is recommended. Other lifestyle changes that can help incllude reducing the intake of alcohol, spicy food and caffeine. Weight loss can also help, a study has shown an improvement of 30% with 5kg weight loss.
Countries that eat more soya foods seem to have a lower incidence of hot flushes. This is thought to be due to the phytoestogens. Research suggests 2 x 200ml glasses of soya milk a day of 80g soya mince will give you this benefit.
Bone loss is escalated in the menopause, so calcium is slowly lost from the bones. this is due to osteoclast cells that breakdown bone work harder than osteoblasts (cells that build bone). The recommended daily amount of calcium in the UK is 700mg/d if there is no risk of osteoporosis. However many women reach the menopause with low bone mineral density, in which case they will need to be having more like 1000-1200mg/d. Therefore it is important to focus on increasing calcium rich foods. Good examples include dairy, fortified plant milks, sesame seeds, dried figs, watercress and fortified bread. Weight bearing exercise will also help with bone health.
A note of caution is that excess vitamin A is associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis, so post-menopausal women should not exceed 600 micrograms a day.
Levels of total cholesterol can rise after the menopause whilst levels of HDL cholesterol tend to fall. This can, combined with weight gain and falling oestrogen (oestrogen is cardio-protective) can be a risk for heart health.
Metabolic rate slows down by about 10% after the menopause, this is why central weight gain can occur. Therefore staying active and eating a balanced diet is key. Resistance training using your body weight or light weights is a good alternative to high impact workouts.
This is going to be a hot topic. As a nation we have never had such access to food. Yet our diets are at their worst and the way we eat is unsustainable.
‘Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate , safe and healthy while optimizing natural and human resources.’ FAO, 201031
Our food system is responsible for 15-30% of Greenhouse gas emissions (GGE’s) in the UK. This is due to all stages of food production from farm to fork. From using farm machinery, processing and packing food, the transportation and storage of it to how we cook it, then the waste and recycling afterwards.
Foods that contribute the most to Greenhouse gas emissions are red meat, dairy and soft drinks, so consuming less of these will make a definite impact.
The production of food accounts for 70% of human water use, which is a huge amount. It is damaging our planet – through deforestation, pollution, a loss of biodiversity and damage to ecosystems.
In the UK we could make a huge difference to our planet just by focusing on not wasting as much food. An extra-ordinary 10 million tonnes of all food produced is spoiled or wasted in the UK every year. Whilst you may think restaurants and large scale catering is responsibly for this, actually the majority (71%) occurs in the home.
So what can we do to help? This week one blue dot – a toolkit on environmentally sustainable diets has been released by British Dietetic Association with guidance and research on how we can eat sustainably. Below I summarise the main points.
This imformation is undoubtedly going to raise the questions “So should we all go vegan?” My answer would be – Not unless you feel strongly about it or really want to. It’s about making swaps to some meals, eating less of some foods and having more plants in our diet. However also thinking about how and where we shop, what we do with food waste and packaging too.
A reduction in current UK consumption of total meat (108g per day)1 for adults to 50-99g would reduce our carbon foot print by around 22% whilst a further reduction to below 50g per day would result in a 39% reduction.
My children surprise me time and time again with their eating and their ability to hone in on their own needs and internal cues… if only I give them a chance.
With my oldest turning 8 this week she is exposed to different foods in places outside our home. Sweets at youth club, biscuits for sale at school (yes really in the playground), cake at groups. Totally a time for her to put into practise all her intuitive eating skills and experiement away from me.
With Miss K being my first child, she is also the one that I weaned first and did all the things wrong with first! Parenting is the hardest job for sure and there is no manual. So I was clear on limiting her biscuit intake and on keeping the sweets up high and on a pedestal. The sweet issue I had to totally back track on, explain I had dealt with this badly and it was time to try a new approach. The result is my kids eat sweets, regularly but they savour them and we have small amounts after a meal or as part of a snack. Today they have both had half an iced doughnut. I don’t see restriction as the answer, I don’t want my children to grow up sugar-free or feeling cake is only for special occasions, but to appreciate all foods and know some things we eat less of. I certainly don’t dish out cakes and sweets daily but I do have them around and part of life, Children need to learn how to eat and how to be around foods at home. Home is the training ground, the place to experiment, get things wrong and then try again.
This weekend I was on a course and my parents looked after my kids. They all did a fabulous job at looking after each other. One thing I noticed was how well the mealtimes went. My mum was worried the smallest one especially had not eaten well and recounted the day to me, she had eaten well just not in what we would percieve to be a normal meal pattern. That’s toddlers! The kids had also convinced my mum to buy them doughnuts (grandparents prerogative) and where I would have cut these in half they had a whole one each…. my boy ate part of it and then gave it back when he had enough. Now this is the boy who I think could pretty much eat a whole chocolate cake – turns out I am wrong, again 😉 and very happy to be.
So why am I writing all of this? To show other parents that there is hope. That your children can be trusted around food, that they have an intuitive sense of what to have and how much. It may be that like me, you haven’t been perfect in your approach to food, well it’s not too late to change that and have a conversation with your children.
Here are 3 of my top tips:
I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and problems. Do get in touch via social media, a blog comment or email.
Recently I was asked to speak on a panel at the Sugar Summit. This is a yearly meeting in Westminster aimed that brings together different stakeholders, from government, to charities, manufacturers, retailers, to talk about improving the the choices, policy and food environment around foods low in free sugars. This was an event organised by Sugar Wise who have a certification in place on processed foods. If you see this label on a food it is low in free sugars:
Being surrounded by food manufacturers one of the topics we discussed was processed foods.
1. Are all processed foods the same?
There seems to be a common misconception that processed foods are all bad and should all be avoided. Yet actually I don’t see that as true. Processed foods include frozen vegetables, fruit, tinned fish, cheese and bread. Food processing includes canning, freezing, baking and drying. So we really can’t get away from eating processed foods and we don’t actually need to. Food processing is something that has gone on since the start of the human race. There has always been a way of preserving foods. The issue now has become that some processed foods have become high fat, high sugar foods, foods to be eaten in smaller quantities and in moderation.
2. Should all processed foods be avoided?
Whilst the media/social media may give out the impression that processed foods are to be avoided at all costs, this is a very sweeping statement and pretty impossible to do. Tinned tomatoes, bread products, yoghurt and milk are all foods we eat regularly. Are they foods we need to avoid? Instead of avoiding processed foods, how about we see the processing of foods as essential and helpful. It makes food accessible and affordable. Suddenly vegetables can be kept in the freezer, out of season fruit is available all year round and a meal can be prepped in minutes out of the store cupboard. There are certainly some improvements that need to be made to some types of processed foods and this is where our focys needs to be. Working with food manufacturers, encouraging reformulation of sauces, biscuits, cereals and sweet foods is a great move.
3. Can processed foods actually be healthier?
Some processed foods are fortified with micronutrients that can improve their nutritional profile. Think breakfast cereals and plant based milks, margarines and flour. These foods can provide an important source of nutrients for people who may otherwise end up deficient. Frozen foods such as vegetables, fruit, beans and fish are processed and frozen fast, which means they can be better than the fresh versions which may have travelling large distances and be stored for some time.
All in all I think there is no way we can avoid all processed foods. Instead it is about being selective with the ones that we eat regularly. Check the label to see what has been added and compare to alternative brands. There are often reduced salt and sugar options that are better choices.
I’d love to hear your views.