Forget the 5-a-day mantra, what about 7-a-day or…. more?
There is increasing interest in plant-based eating from many groups including animal rights and environmental campaigners alongside experts in nutrition. I went to an interesting research symposium on the topic last month and wanted to share it with you.
What is plant-based eating?
Simply, it means basing your diet around plant foods. Plant foods being vegetables, fruit, wholegrain starchy carbohydrates, pulses/legumes, nuts, seeds and plant-based dairy alternatives (such as soya, rice or oat milk).
You may be pleased to hear, this doesn’t mean excluding meat completely! Lynne Garton, an expert Dietitian in the area of plant-based eating described this well as ‘using meat as your garnish’.
I support any approach to diet that is moderate. And this surely means the odd sausage sarni is allowed?! Phew.
The plant-based eating pattern is represented visually by the “New American Plate” from the American Institute for Cancer Research. It was designed to help us build a plate that is plant-based and colourful at each meal to reduce our risk of cancer.
Why is it good?
- It’s cheaper (plant-based protein is cheaper than meat, albeit less concentrated)
- It’s greener (not just in colour, but also carbon footprint)
- It’s good for the animals (as we are not eating them!)
- Plants are high in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and fibre and low in saturated fat
- Plants, especially vegetables, are low in calories, so this may help you lose or maintain a healthy weight
The health benefits:
This style of eating ‘ticks’ many of our UK healthy eating targets:
- High in vegetables and fruit – 5/day
- Low in saturated fat
- High in fibre
- Low in red meat and processed meat
- Low in salt (provided you pick unprocessed products)
The evidence base is mostly epidemiological (which looks at trends in groups of people). While this isn’t the strongest form of evidence, in diet it is often all we have to go by. It consistently shows that people who eat more plant-based foods have better health outcomes in terms of mortality (whether they die) and in chronic disease risk (such as cancer and heart disease). I can’t summarise it all here (it would take me hours, no days, no months – and, hey, it’s sunny out today) but I’ve picked a few interesting studies which I think represent the evidence base well.
One large study in the UK1 found that increased fruit and vegetable consumption was linked to decreased risk of overall death as well as death from cancer or cardiovascular disease. This study followed 65,000 people aged over 35 for a period of 8 years and found that those who ate 7 portions of fruit and vegetables per day were 43% less likely to die during this period than those who ate less than 1 portion per day.
Interestingly, they found that vegetables appeared superior to fruit in terms of these health benefits.
In Australia the current advice is to go for 2+5 (2 portions of fruit and 5 of vegetables), which is supported by the evidence from this study.
If 7-a-day seems too much to aim for, health benefits are found with every increased serving, so start by increasing your intake by 1 or even 2 servings per day.
What about weight loss?
A recent meta-analysis2 (a study which groups the results of multiple smaller studies) found that following a vegetarian diet for greater than 4 weeks can lead to weight loss of around 4kg. As plant-based eating allows more flexibility and is not strictly vegetarian, perhaps it is more achievable to stick to in the long term? As far as I am aware there are no studies looking at this exact style of eating – hopefully in the future there will be.
New achievable health revolution or too much rabbit food? What are your thoughts on plant-based eating? Please share with us in the comments section below.