As rates of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes continue to soar, “What should I eat?” has become one of the most important questions of the 21st century.
As a doctor whose speciality is gastroenterology – the diagnosis and treatment of digestive health problems – I find that, faced with a new illness, every patient soon asks me about food: “Is there anything that I should or shouldn’t eat?” We each know intuitively that food can play a vital role in helping us to improve our health, optimise our quality of life and even help us to heal and recover from illness.
The scientific evidence shows that this is absolutely true. Food is medicine. To maximise your chances of health right now and into the future, to reduce your risk of chronic illness and to add healthy years to your life, you must start with the food on your plate.
After years spent examining the research on diet, nutrition and health, I am convinced that the more plants and the fewer processed foods on our plates the better. The logical conclusion? A wholefood, plant-based diet.
A diet that is built from the nutritious foods that humans have thrived on for centuries – fruits, vegetables, beans, wholegrains, nuts and seeds – can produce incredible benefits in both preventing chronic disease and restoring true health.
Whether we are aiming to prevent or treat heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, digestive cancers, or any of the diseases that have become so common in the 21st century, a plant-based diet has something to offer.
I now start conversations with my patients by asking about the foods they eat each day. By putting more plants on their plates, I have seen individuals of all ages improve both their gut health and overall health, lose weight, improve their mood and even reverse long-term illness.
More than just a label
There is no dietary change that can make a person disease-proof, and if you have ongoing symptoms or suspect you have an underlying health problem it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor. This has been consistently rated as one of most nutrient-rich dietary patterns available to humans, meaning that most of the common deficiencies that drive poor health are far less likely to occur.
A healthy plant-based diet contains more fibre, folate, vitamins A, C and E, thiamin, riboflavin, magnesium, healthy oils, copper and iron than a diet that includes meat and dairy.
Joining the plant-based diet revolution isn’t about becoming “vegan” or applying any other label to your diet or lifestyle. It’s about simply choosing to build most of your meals (or all of them) from the foods that have consistently been shown to benefit human health. The weight of scientific evidence overwhelmingly favours a wholefood, plant-based diet as the optimal choice for human health and longevity.
Diversity is key
There are more microorganisms living within each of our digestive systems than there are trees on planet Earth or stars in the Milky Way. These microscopic bacteria, archaea, viruses and yeasts make up your gut microbiome, which contains 10 times more cells and 100 times more genetic material than the rest of your body combined. As you embark on your plant-based diet revolution, the friendly microbes will become your crucial allies.
Between 2012 and 2017 a team of US-based researchers set out to discover the factors that influence the health of the human gut microbiome in the industrialised world. They completed a detailed analysis of more than 11,000 volunteers, most of whom lived in the UK, the USA and Australia.
The results of what became known as the American Gut Project reveal that when it comes to food, the number one predictor of a healthy gut microbiome is the diversity of plants in your diet. Participants who ate more than 30 different plants per week had unique fibre-loving bacteria that just weren’t found in people on a plant-deprived diet.
Among the 11,000 volunteers who took part, fewer than 1 in 250 were hitting that magic number of 30 different plants per week.
I’m not asking you to eat thousands of different fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains, but I am strongly suggesting that we can all benefit from increasing the diversity of plants in our diets. Try it for a week.
Keep a running total for each meal and snack to find out how many plants your microbes are getting to ferment. Can you reach more than 30?
Reasons to be cheerful
It’s difficult to feel optimistic in the era of coronavirus, and the events of 2020 placed a grim spotlight on just how common poor underlying health has become. In the US, heart disease now affects more than one in 12 working adults, while in the UK over 4 million people are living with type 2 diabetes, a condition that barely existed 50 years ago.
But hidden among these sobering statistics is a message of hope: many of the chronic health conditions that reduce our quality of life can be prevented, halted, and even reversed by a healthy lifestyle and by a healthier plant-based approach to food. The future looks brighter already.
The questions I ask every patient:
- How many pieces of fruit do you eat each day?
- How many servings of vegetables do you eat each day?
- How many servings of wholegrains do you eat each day?
I’m hoping that they’ll answer “at least three” to each question.
What do three servings of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains look like?
Fruits: 1 small apple + 1 large banana + 1 large orange
Vegetables: 1 cereal bowl of leafy greens + 3 heaped tablespoons of any veg + 3 heaped tablespoons of beans
Wholegrains: 3 tablespoons of cooked porridge + 1 slice of wholegrain bread + 3 tablespoons of cooked brown rice
How did you do on these three questions? Do your numbers add up to nine or more? If not, we have identified your first target for healthy dietary change!