Plant-Based Pause No 7: Eating Plant-Based Prevents Disease

In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.

‘There are, in effect, two things: to know and to believe one knows. To know is science. To believe one knows is ignorance.’ – Hippocrates

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Every year, we spend billions on treating diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. As a species, we seem to have grown to accept this as our fate. We assume that a certain percentage of us will fall victim to these terrible conditions, and there is nothing we can do about it. Rather than simply treating the symptoms of such diseases as a bandaid measure, however, I believe that they can be tackled from the source.

The doctors and other healthcare professionals who pioneered the plant-based movement did so after realising that people who lived in rural areas of the world, where animal products were not eaten due to lack of availability, were much less likely to develop cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses. City dwellers who ate a typical western diet, however, suffered more from these diseases of affluence.

Handily, in the early 1970s, Chou EnLai, the then premier of China, conducted a nationwide survey that would prove this theory. After discovering that he himself was dying of cancer, Chou EnLai wanted to understand more about the disease and how it affected his country. They compared death rates for different types of cancer over 2,400 counties and inlcuding 880 million (96%) of China’s citizens. The China Study provided T. Colin Campbell and his scientific team with vital information about how eating plant-based can help us all to lead longer, healthier lives.

Every day, more and more evidence emerges to prove that living plant-based is better for us. Apart from a few exceptions, animal-based foods contain a lot more fat than plant-based foods, and higher fat intake increases the chances of developing cancers such as breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Just as animal protein contains things that we don’t need, plant protein contains things that we do. Antioxidants, for example, protect our bodies and are exclusively found in plants.

You only need to browse the Forks Over Knives website to find lots of testimonials from plant-based vegetarians who have used their diet to overcome diseases, leading healthier lives and coming off their conventional modern medication. Unfortunately, though, that is not enough evidence for a lot of people. My mum has Type 2 diabetes. She argues with me every time she sees me that eating plant-based is not a solution. I’ve challenged her to prove me wrong. All it will take is 5 weeks. After that time, if she’s not feeling better and off her medication then I’ll admit defeat. So far, she hasn’t taken me up on the challenge.

Plant-Based Pause No 6: Want to Lose Weight?

In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.

‘Let food be thy medicine.’ – Hippocrates

January/February is what I call ‘Weightwatchers Season’. It’s the time of year that people are most likely to start a weight-loss diet. All day long, whether it’s in my office or spin class, I hear a running commentary of what everyone has eaten that day and how many points they have left. And who can blame them? Every day, in all western countries, we hear more and more horrific statistics and personal stories about obesity. According to NHS data, there were 8,087 weight-loss stomach operations performed in English hospitals during 2010/11. In 2000/01 there were only 261. And that’s just the people who have gone to the extreme of having such surgery. There are many more people around the globe who struggle with their weight. We even have TV shows now where people compete to see who can shed the most.

One of the happy side-effects of living plant-based is that you lose weight. You don’t even have to try. Just take a look at my before and after photos (above) for proof.

Plant-Based Pause No 5: Why Eggs Aren’t Good and How to Replace Them

In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.

‘There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them.’ – Denis Waitley

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My cousin used to keep chickens as pets. She had about two dozen of them, and they would all happily run around the yard all day clucking and pecking. Then, one day, she bought some ex-battery hens to add to the group. I remember the day that the new members arrived. My uncle released them from their cage, and immediately you could tell the difference. Unlike the healthy hens that had been bred as farm pets, the ex-battery hens were skinny, scrawny, sorry-looking creatures with few feathers and sores all over their poor little bodies. For their first few minutes of freedom, they all just stood still in the middle of the yard whilst the other hens ran around them and looked at them like they were crazy. They were so used to living in a small, cramped cage that they didn’t realise they could actually move around. As soon as they started moving, however, they didn’t stop. I’ve never seen hens that looked so excited, making the most of their new life. For me, that was the day that I questioned whether humans should really eat eggs.

DSC_0602As a vegetarian, eating eggs had always been a bit of a grey area. Some vegetarians eat them, some don’t. Personally, I always did because I believed that as the egg wasn’t fertilised, it never would have become a chicken whether I ate it or not. Since progressing to becoming a plant-based vegetarian, I’ve learnt a lot more about the farming of eggs and why they are not suitable for humans to eat.

Humans get nothing nutritional from eggs. They have zero dietary fibre, about 70% of their calories are from fat (of which most is saturated) and the only thing they give you is cholesterol. Whilst we need cholesterol to survive, our bodies produce enough and we do not need any extra from food. In fact, eggs are loaded with cholesterol, about 213 milligrams for an average-sized egg. To give you an idea of how high this is, people with diabetes, cardiovascular disease or high cholesterol are advised to consume no more than 200 milligrams of cholesterol each day.

DSC_0420Even if eggs were healthy for us to eat, the way that hens are exploited and mistreated to produce them should shame us all into becoming vegan. Just like most modern farm animals, hens have been selectively bred to produce more food for humans and are far from their natural, wild origins. If left to their own devices and natural evolution, chickens would produce 10-20 eggs in their lifetime, which is 5-10 years. Modern hen-laying eggs lay 300 eggs a year. They are kept in tiny, wire battery cages that are stacked row upon row. The end of their beaks are cut off to prevent them for pecking each other, the equivalent of cutting through the quick of a human fingernail, but it doesn’t work. They lose their feathers after rubbing up against the bars of the cage, and the little light that they see is artificial. Their feet literally grow over the bars of the cages and they become trapped. By the time they are slaughtered, most hens have broken bones. A lot of eggs are laid next to dead hens because diseases such as salmonella spread so quickly in the stressful, overcrowded conditions. Being forced to lay so many eggs drains calcium from the hens’ bodies and leads to osteoporosis and brittle bones. After 72 weeks, their egg production begins to decrease and they are no longer useful to the industry. They are then slaughtered and made into cheap meat products. In some ways, the females are the lucky ones. At least they get to live for 72 weeks, even if it is in cramped and squalid conditions. Male chicks, which have no value, are gassed or minced alive shortly after hatching. The machines can mince up to 500 chicks per minute, and the resulting mush is used in animal feed and fertiliser. In the meat industry, unlaid eggs are removed from the dead bodies of hens and used in the manufacture of cakes, biscuits and pasta.

Eggs are not the easiest ingredient to replace in cooking and baking, and it does take a bit of experimenting, but you can do without them. Fruit and veggies purees, tofu, non-dairy yoghurts and eggless mayo can all be used, depending on the recipe. Vinegar and baking soda combined creates a chemical reaction that is useful in baking, especially for yummy buttermilk-style pancakes (my favourite J ). My personal fallback, however, is xantham gum, especially as it is difficult to buy other processed egg replacements in the UK.  I’ve learnt to be careful with xantham gum since I first started using it, though. I only use about ¼ of a teaspoon for every equivalent egg, and I make sure to add it to the mixture at the very end, otherwise it’s like trying to cook with chewing gum!

Plant-Based Pause No 4: The Problems With Dairy

In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.

‘The human body has no more need for cow’s milk than it does for dog’s milk, horse’s milk, or giraffe’s milk.’ – Michael Klaper, MD

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I was born covered head to toe in eczema, and it is a condition that has affected me my whole life. Unfortunately, I was born in the early 80s when health professionals knew very little about nutrition, and parents listened to their GPs without question. Even though there was evidence back then that dairy was highly unsuitable for eczema sufferers, my doctor told my parents to feed it to me, because it was ‘natural to have allergies’. My doctor didn’t have allergies himself. All he saw was the inflamed skin all over my body, he couldn’t feel the intense pain that I felt when anything touched me, or the sickness I felt when my open sores led to blood poisoning and battered my immune system, making me open to other illnesses and infections. Had my doctor advised my parents not to give me dairy when I was a child, my condition would have been a lot easier to manage.

As well as eczema and other skin complaints, dairy has also been proven to be dangerous for people with asthma and respiratory problems. Chef Chad Sarno cites asthma as one of his reasons for switching to a vegan diet.

And what about everyone else? Dairy is a vital source of calcium, right? You’re told as a child to drink milk, eat cheese and have yoghurt for dessert because it helps you grow strong bones and teeth. Then, as an adult you pass this information down to your own children.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERADairy is not the only source of calcium, nor is it the best. It is true to say that dairy contains a lot of calcium, but it also contains a lot of acid. The only way our bodies can neutralise the acid is by taking more calcium from our bones, so the more dairy we eat the less calcium we end up with. That’s why in western countries, where we consume the most dairy, we have the most cases of osteoporosis (brittle bones). There are much healthier, plant-based sources of calcium such as green leafy vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, bok choy, watercress, romaine lettuce), pulses (soya, kidney beans, chick peas, broad beans, baked beans), lentils, parsnips, swede, turnips, some nuts such as almonds, Brazils, hazelnuts, pistachio and some fruits (dried figs, currants, lemons, oranges) and olives – and exceptionally high are sesame seeds.

DSC_0499Aside from anything else, when you think about it, it’s just weird that we drink milk from a cow. Cows’ milk is meant for baby cows. Apart from pets like cats that we control, we are the only species who continue to drink milk after we’re weaned. Naturally, cows produce just enough milk for their calves, the same as any other species (Please bear in mind here that a ‘natural’ cow is nothing like the cows we see in fields today which were specially bred during the agricultural revolution to produce more food). In the dairy industry, cows are artificially inseminated to keep them constantly pregnant and therefore constantly producing a flow of milk. About 50% of the calves born are male, and therefore no use to the farmers, and are shot in the head shortly after birth apart from a few that are reared for veal. Just like any animal, having their babies taken away from them is extremely distressing for the cows and they have been known to bellow for days, calling for their baby. On top of that, they have to suffer infected and swollen udders that are a result of producing too much milk.

There are many, vegan alternatives to dairy that are much kinder to other beings and do not leave you feeling sick. Butter, cheese, ice cream and yoghurt all have dairy-free alternatives. Just look for the ‘Free From’ section in your local supermarket. There are now lots of different varieties of vegan milk. Personally, I prefer unsweetened soya milk, but you can also choose from sweetened soya, almond and rice milk to name just a few. Soya milk does curdle in hot drinks, so make sure you either heat the milk or allow the drink to cool a little before you add the milk. Almonds and cashews make a great cream substitute, just soak them in water for a couple of hours and then blend them. Doing this with cashews makes a great melted cheese replacement.

All this talk about food is making me feel hungry, but before I go, next time you’re about to drink a glass of cows’ milk, please consider how it got there and if you really need it.

Plant-Based Pause No 3: B12

In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.

‘One of the secrets of life is to make stepping stones out of stumbling blocks.’ – Jack Penn

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A common concern for vegans and plant-based vegetarians is that we don’t get enough nutrients. People sometimes look at me like they expect me just to keel over in front of them, they can’t believe that I can not eat animals and yet look so healthy.

There are four nutrients that can only be found in animal-based foods: cholesterol and vitamins A, D and B12. Cholesterol is made naturally in our bodies, and omnivores do not need the extra that they get from meat and eggs. Vitamin A is also made in our bodies, as is vitamin D if we have a few minutes exposure to the sun every day. Interestingly, vitamins A and D are both toxic if too much is consumed.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAIf you eat a healthy, plant-based diet, the only thing you can’t get is B12. This isn’t because we need to eat red meat, however. Some B12 is made in the intestine, but it is not enough so we are advised to consume more in food. Historically, our ancestors would have got enough B12 from the soil, where it is made by micro-organisms. When vegetables are grown in healthy, organic soil, they soak up nutrients through their roots. Also, people in the past wouldn’t have washed their vegetables as well as we have to and would have drunk dirty water, so would have literally been eating the soil. Modern mass-farming techniques, with all it’s technology and chemicals, has stripped the soil of it’s natural nutrients, including B12.

There’s no need to panic, though. Modern technology has also brought us other sources of B12, including fortified vegan milks and margarine, fortified breakfast cereals and B12 supplements (my personal choice because it’s easier to monitor my intake). Yeast extracts such as Marmite also contain B12, but be careful if you have problems with gluten. Until the day that we return to organic farming and the soil is given the chance to repair itself, these alternatives are more than adequate.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Renewal

The word renewal conjures up many images. The rebirth of flowers in spring, snakes shedding their skin, the regeneration of a town centre, renewing your library books to avoid a fine (which I have a terrible habit of forgetting), the list goes on.

For this week’s photo challenge, I’ve decided to document my personal renewal. Four years ago, I consciously made a lot of big changes in my life. At 28 years old, after six years working abroad, I moved back to the UK.

I made a base in Cardiff, the place that has felt most like home to me out of all the places I’ve lived.

I learnt to speak Welsh.

After years of partying and abusing my body, I promised myself that I would look after myself in my thirties. This has led to me converting to a plant-based lifestyle, eating fresh, seasonal whole food …

…cooking my food from scratch…

…improving my fitness levels…

…and taking up lots of new sports.

To celebrate my 30th birthday I took a trip of a lifetime to the USA and visited the Grand Canyon, a long-held ambition of mine.

I’ve continued to travel and experience as many adventures as possible.

My renewal is still taking place. Maybe it will never end. I hope not, because I’m loving life and I’m happier than ever.

Educating Myself

I’m not going to lie, converting to a plant-based lifestyle has not been easy. And I’m not completely there yet. Maybe I’ll never be totally plant-based, but what’s important to me is that I’m heading in the right direction.

One of the biggest surprises for me during this whole journey has been how much I have educated myself about our food and where it comes from. People often ask me if I miss eating meat or dairy, but once I found out how most of that meat and dairy gets onto your plate, I lost any desire to put it into my body. If someone can honestly say to me that they know where their meal comes, what it consists of and the impact that it has on the environment and other humans and they still feel comfortable eating it, I say good on them. For me, though, there are just too many problems here in the western world that could easily be solved if we all went a little bit more plant-based.

The issue of food running out is already becoming a public issue here in the UK. Supermarkets and markets have been fighting over the price of milk and celebrity chefs are doing their best to get people to use the bits of meat that are usually thrown away. In an interesting article published by the BBC, solutions to the problem of food shortages are discussed, including growing meat in a test tube and farming insects, all of which scientists are currently wasting thousands of pounds to test. An add-on to the article is a debate about whether a vegetarian could eat a test-tube burger. Not only am I horrified that the BBC would pose such a question, which to me only has one answer (no, of course a vegetarian could not eat a test-tube burger), I also wasn’t impressed with their assumption that people only turn vegetarian for two reasons, religion and animal cruelty. The argument for vegetarians eating this processed mutant food is that, although the initial sample still has to come from a live animal, the animal doesn’t die therefore it’s OK.

In the same article Dr Elizabeth Weichselbaum, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, talks about the importance of eating meat for a healthy diet. OK, so let’s have a quick look at where the western ideal of a nutritional diet has left us. On Friday 24th February 2012, The Metro newspaper published an article about the rising numbers of hospital admissions due to obesity. The statistics they quote are scary:

‘The number of weight-loss stomach operations has risen 12 per cent in one year as fatter people try to reverse the rising tide of obesity.
There were 8,087 operations in England’s hospitals in 2010/11, up from 7,214 the previous year, according to NHS data.’
The Metro 24/02/2012

One in four people in the UK are now classed as obese. What is even scarier is that in the child population, the figure is three in ten. We are teaching our children how to live unhealthy lives and become overweight. Only 25% of the population eat the recommended 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables, which by the way is supposed to be a recommended minimum. What shocked me the most in the data was that 20% of people said they walk less than 20 minutes a year. I can’t even comprehend how that can be possible. Reading the article reminded of when I worked with children about ten years ago. Serving dinner to a group of young boys one night, I asked them if they wanted carrots and one of the boys asked me what a carrot was. I was stunned that a child could not recognise what is a very common vegetable in the UK. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. The boy tried the carrots and liked them so much that the next night he asked for just a plate of carrots. Unfortunately, though, there are a lot of children out there who do not get the right advice.

My hope is that we won’t start regularly breeding insects or growing burgers in a test tube to feed the planet, and that in twenty years time eating a plant-based diet will be the norm and not the exception. Twenty years ago, when I was a child, we faced a very similar crisis. The hole in the ozone layer was a very real threat to our existence. The answer was right in front of our noses, to stop using CFCs, but the use of these chemicals was so ingrained in our daily rituals that most people couldn’t comprehend life without them. The best way to make change is to educate, and that’s exactly what happened. My peers and I were taught about the dangers of CFCs from a young age, and as a result we have grown into a generation that don’t use them. In particular, there is a film called ‘Two Seconds to Midnight’ that we were shown at my high school and that had a profound affect on me. If you think of the entire history of Earth as a 24 hour clock, with the Big Bang at midnight on the first night and present day at midnight on the second night, then humans only arrived on the planet at two seconds to midnight. However, we have had more impact than any other inhabitants. This was the film that led me to think about my place on this planet and the footprints that I leave behind. We have the opportunity to teach today’s children about the benefits of leading a plant-based lifestyle, to stop them becoming a generation of morbidly obese adults and to prevent food shortages. I don’t think we can afford not to educate them.

Vegan Body Builders

One of my biggest pet hates is people who stereotype and make assumptions, but I must admit that as much as I try I am sometimes guilty of it myself. Whilst browsing through the Meatless Mondays website I was pleasantly surprised to find an article which provides advice for vegan bodybuilders. Apparently there are over 5,000 bodybuilders who use fruit, vegetables, beans and wholegrains to aid their training. What I find even more interesting is that they manage to consume the same amount of protein (what you need to make your muscles look really big) as their omnivore competitors, but consume less fat and toxins.

Personally, I don’t think I could physically eat the 4,000 calories a day needed by bodybuilders, wherever it came from, but it’s interesting to know that a plant-based diet is an option for different groups of people.

Do we lack nutrients?

Ever since I became a vegetarian, people have told me that I’m unhealthy. Usually while they’re munching on some incredibly unhealthy meat-based snack, I might add. The common misperception is that if you don’t eat meat or dairy products, you lack protein, iron and calcium. They literally look at you like they expect you to drop dead in front of them. People are quite often surprised when I say I’m a vegetarian, as I don’t look permanently ill. Believe it or not, I have survived without meat now for almost twenty years, and I intend to do it for a lot more years to come.

Spinach, mushrooms, beans, oatmeal, wholewheat pasta, corn and potatoes are all healthy sources of protein. Iron can be found in lentils, beans, leafy vegetables, pistachios and tofu. Green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, kale, bok choy and romaine lettuce are great for calcium, as well as nuts, oranges, kidney beans, lima beans, whole grains, lentils, raisins, broccoli and brussel sprouts.

On his website , Rip Esselstyn explains that the only nutrient that you may develop a deficiency in on a plant-based diet is vitamin B12. If this is a concern, you can get your daily supply from two tablespoons of nutritional yeast, a glass of fortified soya milk, a bowl of fortified cereal or a 500 milligram B12 supplement. That’s not bad compared to the number of omnivores who can eat anything they want, but choose to eat only the bad stuff and therefore develop lots of deficiencies.

Deficiencies are sometimes unavoidable, no matter what you eat. Both my father and I have problems giving blood due to our iron count being ‘at the lower end of the normal scale’ (the story of my life!). I eat an iron-rich plant-based diet, and he eats meat.

Before I stopped eating dairy I was told by a dentist that I had a calcium deficiency. One of the solutions was to drink more cows milk. No matter how much milk I drank, it didn’t seem to make any difference. Since converting to a plant-based diet, my calcium levels are fine.

So, next time you meet a vegetarian, please don’t look so surprised that they’re still able to stand.

Taking a step towards a plant-based future

If you’re thinking about converting to a plant-based lifestyle, the whole thing can be very daunting. Radically changing your diet and starving your body of food types that it is used to overnight is almost impossible, not to mention the fact that it would make you miserable. The way to make a big change is to take small, manageable steps in the right direction. Just look at me. A year ago, after watching Planeat, I decided to make a change and switch from cow’s milk to soya milk. Now, I eat an almost completely plant-based diet, I avoid all the foods that I’m allergic to, I don’t drink caffeine, I exercise regularly and I’m feeling healthier and fitter than I ever have in my life. 400m hurdler Ruben Tabares wrote a great article about the training benefits of a whole food diet. In the article, he explains “It’s a matter of changing one thing at a time until it becomes the norm. It takes about 100 days of doing something before it becomes ‘natural'”. Someone also once told me that if you taste a food 30 times, you will grow to accept it. Whilst there are some foods that I don’t think I’ll ever grow to like, nor do I want to (marmite springs to mind – I’m definitely in the Hate camp), I do find this fact to be true.

The Planeat and Forks Over Knives websites both have great ideas for making small changes in your diet and the way you think about for, like Meat Free Mondays. Look for ways that you can make vegan choices in your local area as well. Here in South Wales there is a really good booklet that you can pick up in vegan-friendly cafes and restaurants all over the city. ‘Vegan South Wales’ lists loads of vegan options in South Wales, from restaurants to health food shops, all categorised by area, so wherever you are you know where you can find something to eat. I carry mine with me whenever I’m out, and it’s so handy. It saves so much time, especially when I’m eating with people who aren’t vegan and I don’t want to appear fussy. Other areas of Wales are covered in separate booklets, and all the information is available on their website.