On World Nutrition Day in May more than 200 NHS doctors and other health professionals wrote an open letter to NHS leaders and the UK Government urging them to make radical changes to the current unsustainable and unhealthy food system. The letter received considerable attention on social media and was also published in The Metro.
The letter was produced by Plant Based Health Professionals UK, a rapidly growing organisation of doctors and health professionals whose aims are:
to promote plant based nutrition for the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases
to education health professionals and the public on wholefood plant based nutrition and
to provide evidence-based recommendations for public policy on nutrition.
The letter stresses the need for rapid, nationwide changes to the obesogenic and unsustainable food environment in the UK, which has added to the UK’S COVID-19 death toll.
Three in four of the world’s new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic and are mainly transmitted through wildlife trade and factory farming. This combined with the increasing demand for cheap meat and dairy is contributing to environmental degradation and the rise of antibiotic resistance. The letter also stresses that 90% of global wild fish stocks have been over-fished or fished at capacity and farmed fish are contaminated with antibiotics and chemicals that pose a risk to human health.
Poor nutrition is of particular importance to communities of lower socio-economic means and is disproportionately affecting minority ethnic communities which makes them particularly vulnerable to disease.
The letter proposes changes such as the banning of subsidies and introduction of taxes for junk food, soft drinks and animal farming; banning of advertising which increases the consumption of unhealthy foods and importantly the introduction of subsidies to move towards a predominantly whole food plant based diet in order to improve human and planetary health.
Today we’re in the middle of a pandemic. A new coronavirus has passed from animals into humans and countries worldwide are fighting to limit the number of people infected with the virus which causes COVID-19. It goes without saying that the most important aspect of fighting infections such as COVID-19 is to maintain strict hygiene and to reduce the chance of the virus entering the body. The fewer viruses enter your body the better chance your immune system has.
A healthy lifestyle is the second most important aspect of preventing or reducing the impact of infections. A healthy lifestyle reduces your risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer and the evidence shows us that people with chronic diseases are more at risk of dying when they develop infections such as COVID-19.
What is a whole plant food diet?
A varied diet with a strong emphasis on whole plant foods is important and it’s the overall quality of the diet that matters rather than individual components. Try to emphasise whole plant foods such as lots of brightly coloured and green vegetables and fruit (aim for up to 10 portions a day), whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. A whole food diet helps us to maintain a healthy weight but also provides the essential nutrients we need to reduce our risk of both long term diseases and short term infections. See the Vegan Approach for more information about a balanced vegan diet.
A healthy diet gives us a healthy microbiome which means keeping all those gut bacteria happy. The most important thing is to eat plenty of fibre, which is found only in plant foods as this feeds the gut bacteria. A healthy microbiome is important for a healthy immune system but we still don’t know exactly how this works. We do know that most people in the UK don’t eat enough fibre so increase your whole plant foods, such as legumes, vegetables and flax.
What lifestyle choices affect the immune system?
Not smoking is vital for a healthy immune system. Smoking compromises the immune response because of the chemicals associated with it, such as cadmium, carbon monoxide, nicotine, and nitrogen. It also aggravates bacterial and viral pulmonary infections and rheumatoid arthritis.
Good hydration keeps the body functioning properly. Water is great but different types of teas and some coffee are also healthy. Try to limit alcohol as despite being a depressant (which isn’t good for stress) it’s also linked to some chronic diseases such as cancer.
Exercise has been shown to improve the immune system and to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Exercise also boosts the presence of endorphins (the pleasure hormone) which makes it a good way of managing stress. Try to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week and strength building exercises twice a week.
Sleep is the time when your immune system kicks into action fighting infections and when we’re ill we tend to sleep more – it’s the body’s way of telling us what we need to do. If we lack sleep we’re more likely to become susceptible to viruses. Try to get at least seven hours a night of good quality sleep. Turn off electronic devices at least an hour before going to bed and sleep in a cool and dark room. Try not to eat for a couple of hours before going to bed.
What about society and the environment?
Stress promotes inflammation and reduces a body’s defence against infection. Long term stress can lead to high levels of cortisol which impairs the immune system. Stress reduction is easier said than done but there are ways of reducing stress such as breathing exercises, journalling, mindfulness, yoga or other ways that work for you.
Maintaining social contacts even if you can’t meet up with people is important as part of a healthy lifestyle. The Blue Zones are areas in the world where people live longer and healthier lives than elsewhere in the world. They differ in many ways but they all have in common having a purpose, living amongst people they are happy with and having social contacts with other people they like.
Reducing our exposure to environmental toxins could affect our immune system but the jury’s still out on this one. There are indications that the increasing amount of pollutants we’re exposed to both in and outside our homes could impair both our own and our children’s immune system. Cutting down on chemicals in the home and garden is easy. It’s not quite so easy to avoid air pollution but simply follow some of the tips from the BBC to cut your exposure.
What specific nutrients can help?
Once you’ve considered the guidance above and thought about how you can improve your general health, there is some evidence that points to specific nutrients that can help to support a healthy immune system.
Vitamin D has been shown to reduce the risk of acute respiratory tract infections and everyone in the UK is advised to supplement in the winter. It’s also a good idea to supplement if you stay indoors a lot, are older or cover up your body. Veg1 from The Vegan Society provides a vegan source of this vitamin.
Antioxidants may help to boost the immune system and some that have been found to be beneficial are:
Flavonoids found in many plant foods are shown to help the immune system and have been found to significantly reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infections. Eat and drink plenty of the following: apples, green tea, grapes, berries and dark chocolate (more than 70% cocoa content).
Vitamin C is easily provided by the diet but lots of people don’t get enough. Eat plenty of fruits such as citrus (oranges, grapefruit), pepper, kiwi fruit and broccoli.
Beta carotene which is also used to form vitamin A, and is found in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables such as carrots, red peppers, dark greens such as kale and apricots.
Zinc is important for the immune system and can be found in nuts, seeds and pulses. Sprouting pulses and nuts helps to improve the amount of zinc available to the body.
Selenium can be lacking in the UK diet but a day’s supply is found in one or two brazil nuts. Don’t overdo selenium though as it can be toxic in large doses.
Curcumin is anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-infective and some laboratory studies have shown it can fight viruses. It’s found in turmeric which is one of many healthy spices. It’s easy to incorporate it in all sorts of foods such as tagine, curry, scrambled tofu, even in pasta.
It’s important to remember that all of the above are best eaten in the form of food rather than as supplements (apart from vitamin D) as there is so much we don’t know about how food works synergistically. Again, it’s the quality of the overall diet that’s important.
From time to time, we will be interviewing people in the upper Calder Valley, asking them to share their experiences about becoming fully or partly vegan. This time, we spoke to Sally Wilkinson.
What inspired you to take up a healthy, plant-based diet?
My name’s Sally Wilkinson, and I’m a Registered Nutritional Therapist, working from Physio & Therapies in Todmorden. I became a whole-food, plant-based vegan five years ago after watching the documentary Vegucated on Netflix, and though most of my clients aren’t vegan, people are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impacts of a diet high in animal products, and the effects of industrial farming on animals and the planet. It’s rewarding to help individuals work towards a more plant-based way of eating, and see how surprised they are by the power of fruits and vegetables on their health. Personally, I think it’s important to focus on a nutrient dense vegan diet, because the healthier we are, the more likely we are to remain vegan in the long term and promote a good image to others.
Why did you become a nutritional therapist?
I became a nutritional therapist because of health experiences with both myself and my daughter, who was born with a genetic condition, Pallister-Killian Syndrome, and has since developed an auto-immune condition, Hidradenitis Suppurativa. Before I had my daughter, I was interested in health, but after she was born and I saw how it could improve her quality of life, it became a passion. There’s a saying that you take good health for granted until it’s gone, and this is absolutely true. I’m a prime example, as I spent so many years worrying about and looking after my daughter, I neglected myself, and eventually became exhausted and ill.
So why don’t we notice until it’s too late? Is it that we purposely ignore our bodies’ help signals?
Sometimes we do, but mainly it’s to do with the way we are designed. Our bodily systems naturally try to keep everything in balance no matter what pressures we put on them (stress, insufficient sleep, eating a lot of high salt/high fat/high sugar foods, drinking large quantities of alcohol, living a sedentary lifestyle). This process of keeping balance is called ‘homeostasis’. Homeostasis means we often don’t realise our health is buckling under the sheer weight of our lifestyle until it reaches a tipping point; many times the result of a really stressful event or an infection. With the increase in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and arthritis, autoimmune conditions and cancers, it is evident that greater numbers in our population are reaching the tipping point.
Thankfully, for most people, a simple change in diet leads to an improvement in their symptoms and conditions. There’s nothing complicated in this – it simply means including more high fibre foods, especially eating 5 or more portions of fruits and vegetables a day (something that many of the population rarely achieve).
If something so simple can have such a high rate of success, why do so many of us find it difficult or don’t want to do it?
The reasons are complex, but my belief is that the main reason people neglect good eating habits is because the link between good nutrition and health and wellbeing is never fully understood. Food isn’t just fuel that’s burned for energy. Our bodies need the right combination of vitamins, minerals, fibre, phytochemicals (special chemicals in plants that help our bodies to fight off inflammation and thrive), complex carbohydrates, amino acids (proteins) and healthy fats to function properly. Without these we can’t make sufficient energy; fight off infections; repair damage; digest food; eliminate toxins; balance mood; reproduce; develop and grow or even sleep properly. It’s like trying to drive a car with very little oil and threadbare tyres. You can do it, but eventually, the car will let you down.
I find a little education is all that people need to eat a healthier diet. When clients come to see me, and I explain the science behind why their bodies are behaving as they are, and what they need to do exactly to relieve their symptoms, their focus on a healthier way of eating is astounding.
What other reasons might there be?
There’s also the fear factor. As I explained, food isn’t just fuel for energy. It’s also a source of comfort, and often, there’s a deeply social aspect to it. I find people worry that in order to eat more healthily, they have to give up every single thing they love, or not be able to do the things they enjoy. It’s not true. Recent science show that it is not just what we eat, but what we DON’T eat that is having the most negative impact on our health. This means eating cake or chips is possible (but please not every day!), but you have to make sure you also eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (plus wholegrains and legumes) too, or your you might find your car breaking down when you’re in full throttle on the motorway.
I’m glad that treats are still okay! Do you have a recipe for something healthy yet still a bit naughty?
To prove you can ‘have your cake and eat it’, I’ve provided a healthy version of a traditional blondie recipe. It’s proven very popular with my clients and members of the public, and takes very little cooking skill. It’s a good source of fibre, protein, omega-3, folate, iron, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, and many other nutrients.
How can people find out more?
If you want any more information about nutritional therapy, you can contact me through my website, through my Facebook page, or contact me by phone on 07935 599449. I am available not only for one-to-one consultations but also for talks and workshops.
Vegan nutrition isn’t difficult to manoeuvre, but there are a couple of worrisome vitamins we must pay attention to.
Today’s podcast explores those bothersome vitamins and the role of vitamin and mineral supplements in a plant-based diet.
You will learn: How easy it is to obtain healthy vegan nutrition How your body is designed to get nutrients How supplements do not improve health, unless one has a proven deficiency What supplements you need on a vegan diet The truth about Vitamin D and cow’s milk The best way to absorb Vitamin D What foods have Vitamin B12 How to maintain healthy levels of B12
We will prepare: One of Ordinary Vegan’s most popular recipes called Twice Baked Sweet Potato with Cashew Cream. **Did you know the people of Okinawa have a life expectancy among the highest in the world and 27% of their diet consists of sweet potatoes!**
We will discuss: Emotional Sobriety and how not to rely on other people to make you feel valued.