November is World Vegan Month, coinciding with Cancer Research UK’s Veg Pledge initiative. This fundraising event challenges participants to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet for at least a week, raising money via sponsorship. Whether your plant-based adventure is for detox purposes or the beginning of a long-term lifestyle change, it’s an opportunity to shake things up a bit, experiment in the kitchen with new ingredients and see how you feel in your mind and body as a result.
Whilst globally, meat consumption is increasing as modern farming methods produce greater quantities at lower prices, in the UK it is now declining, with the economic downturn, animal welfare concerns, various health scares and impact on the environment all contributing to this move away from our traditional carnivorous diet.
An additional factor may be how much more available and sexy plant-based food has become. When I stopped eating meat in the 80s, aged 14, the best I could hope for in our local restaurants was an omelette. These days most eateries have myriad options, often more enticing than meat and two veg. We’ve come a long way!
In terms of our health, the fact that a cancer charity is advocating a meat-free diet begs the question, is it bad for us? Meat has, after all, been part of the human diet for more than two million years, and is rich in many vital nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc, selenium, phosphorus and vitamins A and B complex. Offal is even more nutritious than the skeletal muscles that our modern palates prefer.
So how could it be anything but good for us?
Well, there are two aspects to consider; quantity and quality. One of the concerns about red meat in particular, is its saturated fat content. Demonised for raising cholesterol levels for several decades, the evidence suggests it may not be quite so villainous. Indeed, saturated fats are now believed to be healthier for deep frying than polyunsaturated oils, due to their stability at high temperatures.
Seed oils, such as sunflower and canola, tend break down into toxic trans-fats. But while saturated fats are not inherently unhealthy, too much of them can be. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease and large bowel disorders, including colorectal cancer, are associated with diets rich in red meat, especially that which has been processed (burgers, sausages, smoked meats etc.). Too much poultry seems to predispose to problems higher up in the gut and diabetes is a risk for high meat consumption in general.
The level of processing seems to be an independent risk factor, but even the way animals are reared affects the impact on our bodies. Current industrial farming methods often involve feeding grains and soy to animals which were evolved to be grass-fed, and antibiotics are routinely added to their feed. These increase the growth and therefore value of the livestock. Unfortunately, when we then eat these animals, our gut microbiome and hormonal status may be negatively impacted, and indeed this is one of the proposed mechanisms participating to our current obesity epidemic. On average, plant-based eaters are less likely to be obese than carnivores, although there are factors other than just the exclusion of meat which contribute.
One additional advantage to reducing or excluding meat from your diet is that there is room for more plants. The amount and diversity of plants we consume is linked to many benefits for our physical and mental health. For example most of our body’s serotonin (aka the happy hormone) is produced by our gut, facilitated by the “good” bacteria that live there. By crunching our way through lots of fibre-rich plants we are eating ourselves happy. Gut bacteria differ in which micronutrients help them to thrive, so the more variety the better. Professor Tim Spector of the Zoe programme suggests 30 different plants per week as the number we should aspire. But don’t panic, this includes tea, coffee, herbs and spices in addition to fruits and veggies. The deeper the colour, the higher the antioxidant content, so try to “eat the rainbow”.
But what about protein? We seem to have become so obsessed with the idea that we are not getting enough, that even the most unlikely products are posturing themselves to be the answer to our perceived protein “deficiency” (including Mars bars for goodness sake!). In reality, few of us are deficient and we don’t need to guzzle protein shakes to remain healthy. Conversely, too much protein places us at risk of obesity, and diseases of the heart, liver and kidneys.
So for those of you going plant based for the first time, I recommend trying out recipes containing pulses such as beans, peas and lentils, which will be warming and satiating. Also nuts and seeds - great on your breakfast bagel or sprinkling onto salads - plenty of leafy greens (the darker the better), and wholegrain carbs wherever possible. Do try to avoid ultra-processed food and for vegans it’s also important to supplement with vitamin B12, since there are no reliable plant sources.
With this in mind, for my Recipe of the Month I'm sharing my wholesome and hearty Autumnal Pretox Minestrone Soup. Click here for the recipe.