Veganuary: Enjoy the health benefits of a whole food plant-based diet

PHOTO: Instagram/Happyplantarian

Whether for ethical, cultural or health reasons, more people are choosing to eliminate animal foods and switching to a vegan diet.

'Going vegan' is especially popular in January, as we look for ways to make positive changes in our lives.

Dubbed "Veganuary", this is the month to try plant-based snacks and experiment with the latest meat alternatives. But if you want to improve your health and lose weight, a whole food plant-based (WFPB) lifestyle is more effective than a standard vegan one.

A WFPB lifestyle focuses on whole plant foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, keeping the intake of processed foods to a minimum. As you’ll soon see, the WFPB lifestyle offers a host of health benefits, including the following seven, all of which are supported by science.

Heart disease is the world’s leading cause of death, according to the World Health Organisation. One of the best ways to lower your risk of heart disease is to adopt a WFPB lifestyle, which, unlike an animal-based diet, is low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

Plant foods contain soluble fibre. As this fibre makes its way through your colon, it binds to cholesterol particles and prevents them from entering your bloodstream; the cholesterol is later excreted by the body.

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“Plant foods are also rich in plant stanols and plant sterols, naturally occurring compounds found in plant cell membranes,” says Michelle Lau, a Hong Kong-based dietitian at nutrition consultancy Nutrilicious. “These compounds help to ‘block’ the absorption of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, thereby lowering our risk of heart disease and stroke.”

A recent review found that a plant-based diet reduces the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 40 per cent; reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 40 per cent; reduces the risk of hypertension by 34 per cent; and is associated with lower total cholesterol levels compared with non-vegetarian diets. Researchers at the US Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine conducted the review, published in 2018 in the journal, Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases.

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, you may be wondering how to strengthen your immune response and protect yourself from infection.

One way is to eat more plant foods. A study published in 2021 in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health found that plant-based diets were associated with a 73 per cent reduction in the incidence of moderate to severe disease from Covid-19.

This correlation could be explained by the fact that plant foods are rich in nutrients, say the researchers. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds are loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants like zinc and vitamins C, D and E, which help boost our immune function.

Generally, the more colourful the food, the better it is, since the colour signals the presence of beta-carotene, anthocyanins and flavonoids ­— phytochemicals that may help keep the immune system strong.

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“Carbohydrates like beans, lentils, pasta, sweet potatoes and most fruits keep your blood sugar levels stable, which helps you feel more energetic, rather than sluggish, throughout the day,” says Althea Hutchinson Tan, a founding partner of the Happy Plantarian, a WFPB cooking school and nutrition consultancy in Hong Kong.

“Plant foods have almost no saturated fat. Meat, eggs and other animal foods, however, contain saturated fat, a thick, waxy fat that can slow you down.

“When you eat foods without this saturated fat, your blood is less viscous, meaning that your blood becomes less like grease and more like water. This translates to better blood flow and an increased oxygenation of body tissues, leaving you with more energy.”

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Dietary fibre — found only in plant foods — is important for our digestive system as it feeds the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut, says Catherine Van Den Broek Hermant, a kinesiologist and nutrition coach at Balance Health in Hong Kong.

These microbes play many roles: they help our body absorb nutrients from food, are crucial to our metabolic and immune health, synthesise certain vitamins, protect our immune system, and target disease-causing bacteria.

“A lack of dietary fibre can alter our gut microbiome,” Hermant points out. “An unhealthy gut is related to many of the health conditions we see today, like chronic inflammation, immune dysfunction and even depression. It’s also linked to food intolerances and allergies, autoimmune conditions and leaky gut syndrome.”

“Without starving themselves, people who follow a WFPB diet consume less calories,” says Tan. “Whole grains, vegetables and fruits are less energy-dense than animal foods, meaning that, gram for gram, they have fewer calories.”

As well as being naturally low in calories and fat, plant foods keep you feeling full for longer, thanks to their high fibre and water content.

“Thermogenesis is also constantly at work for WFPB eaters,” Tan adds. “This is the process of heat production in the body. Compared to animal eaters, WFPB eaters have a slightly higher metabolic rate during rest — this means that they burn more of their ingested calories as body heat rather than store them as body fat.”

Cancer is a leading global killer, with the World Cancer Research Fund estimating that by 2030, there will be 21.7 million cases around the world, up from 14.1 million in 2012.

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Fortunately, we can prevent many cancers, and even improve cancer survival rates, with a plant-based lifestyle. Plant foods contain cancer-fighting antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, plus they’re high in fibre and mostly low in fat, which may reduce cancer risk.

A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that people who consumed the most plant foods and the least animal foods reduced their cancer risk by 15 per cent.

Another study published in 2020 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that eating a low-fat diet rich in vegetables, fruits and grains may reduce the risk of death as a result of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

Type 2 diabetes is a global epidemic. The International Diabetes Federation estimates that there are 537 million people living with the condition. By 2030 this figure is projected to grow to 643 million cases, and by 2045, to 783 million.

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Diet and lifestyle play a major role in its development; modifying these may help prevent and manage the condition.

Researchers at the New York University School of Medicine in the United States reviewed multiple studies and noted that there was “a general consensus that the elements of a (WFPB) diet — legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts, with limited or no intake of refined foods and animal products — are highly beneficial for preventing and treating type 2 diabetes”. The review was published in 2017 in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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