…does not exist – sorry! But a gradual transition to a well-thought-out and possibly supplemented plant-based diet may be as close to the ideal as we can get
People constantly talk about the best diet for health and vitality – they preach that there is one magic diet that is best for everyone. There’s the ketogenic diet, low protein, high fat, or low carb. They are all the best in someone’s eyes.
In my experience, no one formula suits everybody. I found that different people thrive on different diets, depending on their genetic makeup and cultural, social and religious beliefs. Everyone is unique, and therefore needs a full assessment (there is no shortcut) to find their best diet.
A plant-based diet of fruit, vegetables, beans, seeds and nuts is a perfect option for many people. However, it is not a super diet that everyone should adopt without question. This could lead to disaster if someone combined it with refined carbohydrates to fuel for more energy.
CASE STUDY: he had a plant-based diet – and serious health problems
A patient of mine, Tony, was a 35-year-old gentleman, who thought his plant-based, high carbohydrate diet would give him energy. However, the diet resulted in recurrent migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome and inflammation of the gut and joints (IBS and arthritis.) He showed signs of TMJ (temporomandibular joint – the jaw) problems, and he ground his teeth at night.
The gentleman attended eight different hospital departments, seeking help regarding these and other symptoms. He attended the ENT clinic with mild jaw pain and ear infection. He visited the rheumatology department with multiple joint pain and stiffness. He attended the neurology department for migraine and peripheral neuropathy.
He saw the gastrointestinal medics for bloating, abdominal cramps, indigestion and heartburn, passing gas and alternating constipation and diarrhoea. With a history of pale skin over his face, chest and back, he also had an appointment at the dermatology clinic.
As Tony’s condition worsened, he shifted to a gluten-free diet, mainly corn products, for one month, but this did not help. His energy level was low in the morning at 5 out of 10, plummeting to 2 in mid-afternoon, improving in the evening. When he walked his children the half-mile to school, he felt as if he’d run a marathon.
A diet high in sugar and processed carbs will break down into sugar, but this may not pose a problem if you have a system that processes it efficiently. However, with such a diet, your body could struggle badly with inflammation, resulting in insulin resistance, the central element in obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. In Tony’s case, the inflammation could also explain migraine symptoms, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) and osteoarthritis.
In fact, Tony’s diet, high in processed carbs, resulted in a high level of oxidative stress, damaging the mitochondria (energy plants) and resulting in chronic fatigue syndrome. (A combination of high levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, together with the wrong pattern of blood fat (LDL – the bad guy), can ultimately result in heart disease and stroke.) And interestingly, in Tony’s case, the fluctuation of the blood sugar could cause the grinding and TMJ disorder.
I suggested a low-carbohydrate diet, rather than a ketogenic one, to help his condition, the low-carb diet providing adequate fibre to reverse the metabolic syndrome and nourish our beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Why go vegetarian?
Vegetarian diets come in all shapes and sizes, and you should choose the version that works best for you. Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian includes eggs, dairy foods, and occasionally meat, poultry, ﬁsh and seafood. Pescatarian contains eggs, dairy foods, ﬁsh and seafood, but no meat or poultry. Vegetarian (sometimes referred to as Lacto-Ovo vegetarian) includes eggs and dairy foods, but no meat, poultry, ﬁsh or seafood. Vegan consists of no animal foods.
Much nutritional research has examined plant-based eating patterns such as the Mediterranean diet and a vegetarian diet. The Mediterranean diet has a foundation of plant-based foods; it also includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese and yoghurt a few times a week, with meats and sweets less often.
It has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers (specifically colon, breast and prostate cancer), depression, and in older adults, a decreased risk of frailty, along with better mental and physical function.
Vegetarian diets have also been shown to support health, including a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, together with increased longevity.
“A third of premature deaths could be avoided if we all cut out meat”
That’s a dramatic claim by a Harvard study, but is it true? What does ‘plant-based’ mean here?
Actually, it seems there is no official definition. But, because vegetarians and vegans have claimed the term, many of us now believe ‘plant-based’ equals nothing but quinoa bowls and nut milk. But others – including this Harvard professor – use a more literal translation. To them, ‘plant-based’ means a varied diet based on plants.
The biggest concern about plant-based diets is that they don’t provide your body with enough protein. However, getting adequate amounts of protein is fairly easy. Despite what the meat industry wants you to believe, nearly everything we consume has a certain amount of protein in it – and beans, lentils and split peas, quinoa, soy products like tempeh, tofu, soybeans and soy milk, nuts and seeds are all packed with it.
You’ll also need to get adequate calcium and vitamin D in your diet to ensure healthy bones. This won’t be difficult if you drink a milk alternative, such as soy, almond or hemp milk, which contain both calcium and the vitamin D needed to absorb it. Eat plenty of dark green leafy lettuce and beans, which contain calcium. Eat mushrooms, and before you reach for a vitamin D supplement, Sunlight is, of course, another source of vitamin D.
You’ll also need enough zinc in your diet to support a healthy immune system, enough iron to maintain energy and immunity, and enough vitamin B12 to produce red blood cells and prevent anaemia. This means you’ll want to eat whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds for zinc and iron, and mushroom and soy products to get your vitamin B12. Nutritional yeast is also a great source of vitamins B12.
Only a handful of vegan-friendly products contain vitamin B12, so really the best option here is to find a supplement to ensure your supply.
What a plant-based diet can do
Such a diet is good for you because it is low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol, rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants, it lowers the risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, it lowers your body weight and reduces LDL cholesterol.
A plant-based diet does, however, require you to change your eating habits and adapting to your new diet may take some time. You will find that you’ll have to prepare most of your food by yourself. And you will probably need supplements.
But, looking at various studies, which have followed people for 20-30 years, there is evidence that people who eat about 85 per cent plant-based foods live longer and enjoy a healthy quality of life for that time, with less disease.
Even though meat is a rich source of some beneficial nutrients like iron, zinc and protein, it still contains huge amounts of saturated fat. In addition, most processed meats are really high in sodium. Some of America’s favourite meals, like hot dogs and hamburgers, have for decades now been linked to chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
“Eat up all your greens”
If you want to stay healthy on a plant-based diet, you have to consider certain things. The rules are fairly simple: you should try to maintain a nice balance of cooked and raw vegetables that will provide the nutrients that you need to function properly. Plus, you should avoid sugary foods and beverages along with processed foods.
If you’ve been a meat-eater all your life, making the transition may take some time. You can start by cutting just red meat out of your diet and eat fish every now and then.
So, my friends, I guess my mother was right all along – we really do need to eat up all of our greens! Please do share your thoughts and questions by commenting on this piece, and do subscribe to the newsletter so that you don’t miss further vital information. Thank you!
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