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The basics of plant-based eating to get you through Veganuary

The basics of plant-based eating to get you through Veganuary

Veganuary is a charity campaign encouraging people to try being vegan for January and, if possible, throughout the rest of the year.  Last year (2019) saw the greatest number of people involved in the Veganuary campaign as over 250K from 190 countries embarked on the month-long pledge.

What were the key findings from last year’s Veganuary campaign?

  • For the first time since the campaign began, health became the main driver (46%).
  • 34% of participants stated animal welfare and 12% environmental concerns as drivers for involvement in the campaign.
  • Most participants were women (87%).
  • The majority of participants were aged between 25 and 34 years old (28%).
  • 47% said they plan to remain vegan after Veganuary.
  • 77% said that while not planning to remain vegan after the campaign, they will try vegan again in the future.

How can you make a smooth transition to veganism?

Findings from last years Veganuary campaign showed that 60% found the challenge easier than anticipated.  The rise of vegan food on the high street (including both take-out and restaurant options) as well as the wide range of meat-free alternatives and snacks now available is likely to have helped many people switch to eating plant-based.

Cooking from scratch is always going to be a healthier option and while this may seem daunting it’s not difficult to ‘veganise’ many of your favourite home-cooked meals using these alternatives.

Seek out your preferred dairy alternative

Oat and soya milk have a richness which is similar to cow’s milk while those made from nuts, seeds and rice tend to be waterier.  Each alternative has its own unique flavour and out of all of them, soya has the highest amount of protein which may be an important factor for some people.

What you choose is a matter of personal preference so try all of them to see which one you prefer but always look for fortified varieties to help maintain good intakes of calcium and vitamin B12.

Soya is a good alternative to dairy yoghurt.  Other options include coconut milk and nut varieties including cashew, but they do come with a higher price tag.

Meat alternatives

There are a number of meat alternatives to choose from which include tofu and tempeh (made from soya), seitan (made from wheat gluten) and Quorn.  These foods are all high in protein and also contain a variety of other nutrients including magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium.

These options are available in many forms including mince, pieces and shredded which can be used to replace minced beef, chicken, pork and duck in many common home-cooked dishes.

You can find marinated varieties of tofu which are easier to use for beginners.  Tofu can also be scrambled as a good alternative to egg for breakfast.

Other interesting alternatives include jackfruit, palm hearts and banana blossom which have been used to emulate the look and texture of dishes such as pulled pork, scallops and breaded or battered fish.  While these options make a convincing alternative, they do lack the same protein content.

Fruits and vegetables

It sounds counter-intuitive to talk about fruit and vegetable consumption given the nature of a vegan diet but given only 30% of the population eat five-a-day (1), it’s worth flagging up for those going vegan for January.

This groups of foods are a key source of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that help to protect the body from disease.  Including above and beyond five daily servings is important on a vegan diet to glean as many of these nutrients as possible.

Given the availability of vegan processed and ready-made meal options as well as the rise in vegan ‘junk’ food it is easy to exist on this type of diet without eating enough vegetables.

Keep it in mind to always add more vegetables to the dishes you cook.  You can boost your intake with smoothies and dishes such as soups, casseroles, stews and stir-fry’s which can be bulked out with plenty of vegetables.   Varieties such as spinach and peas are really easy to throw into many dishes.

Explore different flavours

The absolute key to great tasting vegan dishes lies in the spices and marinades used to make them. Meat alternatives, beans, pulses and grains can be a little bland so make use of dried spices and spice blends, sauces (e.g. cook-in sauces, soy sauce, sriracha, harissa), fresh herbs, flavoured oils and dried fruit to add flavour.

You can create a strong savoury flavour (umami) by incorporating ingredients such as nutritional yeast, mushrooms (especially dried made into a stock), seaweed, miso paste, tomato puree, sundried tomatoes, soy sauce and nuts into dishes.   Vegetables such as onions, garlic, beetroot, asparagus and tomatoes also help to create umami which is often enhanced when they’re cooked.

Shop-bought dressings are great, but you should explore recipes from cookbooks and on the web for homemade options which are bursting with flavour and include additional ingredients such as tahini, miso, citrus juices, pomegranate molasses and umeboshi paste.

Don’t be put-off by unusual ingredients that seem a bit ‘fancy’ as they are all now widely available  in supermarkets and not too expensive.  Many of these ingredients keep for a while and dressings can be made in bulk and kept in the fridge.

Beans, pulses and lentils

No vegan diet is complete without these highly nutritious ingredients which supply protein, fibre, magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium.

This group of foods are available canned or in ambient packs which is more convenient than soaking overnight and then boiling to cook. They’re really versatile and can be used to make vegan dishes such chilli, curries, soups, stews and salads to bulk them out and increase their nutrient content.  Chickpeas and soya beans make a good snack when roasted with spices.

Grains

All grains are vegan and can be used as a base for many dishes.  These foods are a useful source of protein as well as zinc, magnesium and B vits.  Grains such as rice, barley and spelt as well as pseudo-grains such as quinoa can be used to make salads to which you can add anything to and make in bulk to use across the week. You can also add cooked grains to soups or sprinkle over vegetable salads.

Snacks

Some people may find they need to supplement their diet with snacks across the day if they need to eat more food to meet the demands of their lifestyle.

Easy vegan snacks include dips with pitta or chopped veggies,  dried fruit and nut bars, dairy-free yoghurt (topped with nuts, seeds or dried fruits), rice cakes (topped with nut butter, guacamole or mashed banana), edamame beans, nuts, seeds or roasted chickpeas.  Smoothies and shakes are also good and can be made to be high in protein.

Fortified foods and supplements

There’s no reason why you can’t get everything you need on a vegan diet, but it can be tricky to start with for some people.  Seek out fortified varieties of foods, especially those containing vitamin B12 which is difficult to obtain on a vegan diet.Food should always come first but if you’re worried that your diet may not very well balanced then a basic vegan multivitamin and mineral supplement is a cost-effective way to bridge any gaps.  Young children, particularly fussy eaters and also teenage girls are groups that will probably benefit from a supplement especially when going vegan.

It’s not that difficult to switch to a vegan diet once you know what’s available and how to modify your favourite everyday meals.  Don’t rely solely on ready-prepared vegan dishes and stick to the basic principles of healthy eating (it’s just as easy to eat an unhealthy diet when going vegan).

Try and use Veganuary as an opportunity to explore recipes that use ingredients which may be new to you.  This campaign is also a great opportunity for you to commit to new eating habits that can extend beyond January and help you to improve your overall long-term health.

 

Try this simple one week vegan menu plan to kick start your Veganuary.

 

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined

Whats the deal with free radicals and antioxidants?

Whats the deal with free radicals and antioxidants?

The world of nutrition has evolved hugely over the last few decades as interest in the topic has grown.  Basic dietary advice is no longer enough for many people as they seek out other ways to optimise their health, combat ageing, lose weight and maximise exercise performance.

The desire to learn more has helped drive this evolution but has also exposed us to information that may be lacking in reliable science.

One topic that has always been popular is that of free radicals and antioxidants.  These terms are frequently chucked around and often oversimplified as being either good or bad for us but is it really that simple?

A little too much knowledge can be dangerous

One of my old bosses many years ago once said to me that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing and this is something that always rings true when I listen to people talk about nutrition.

How has dietary advice evolved over the last couple of decades?

Not long after I started out as a nutritionist the Department of Health had just launched the five-a-day campaign (2003) to promote the health benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables in the diet.  This campaign was driven by the science which proved fruits and vegetables had a key role to play in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, cancers and diabetes.

The conversation around diet and nutrition at this time was heavily focused on key public health messaging to help tackle obesity and heart disease.

In 2007 the Food Standards Agency launched the ‘Eatwell Plate’ to help people to understand how the five key food groups form the basis of a balanced diet. This has since been replaced with the updated ‘Eatwell Guide’ (1).

When did the conversation start to change?

After this is when the conversation began to change as more people took an interest in the topic of nutrition.

Reporting in the media began to focus more on research findings linking diet to disease (many of which were contradictory), food companies started to coin phrases such as ‘superfoods’ and many books and TV shows on the topic became hugely popular.

During this time the quality of advice given out was questioned by qualified health professionals and authors such as Ben Goldachre putting much of it down to bad science.  This also saw the demise of well-known ‘health experts’ who dominated our screens at this time.

Around this time was also when the food industry became more regulated as they had to provide evidence to support any health claims made on their products (2008).

In 2007 the UK regulator Ofcom introduced regulations banning the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar on children’s TV channels.  Bans were also introduced on the advertising of these foods on non-children’s channels during, before and after programmes aimed at those aged between four and fifteen.

The UK was the first country to introduce statutory scheduling restrictions of food advertisements to children.

The birth of social media

Around the same time came the social media explosion with the birth of Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010.

These social media platforms are now home to many health and wellness ambassadors who churn out advice and represent food and wellness brands in the media.  This has raised many issues as to the quality of nutrition and diet advice as people turn to unqualified influencers for information over experts (although there are now many trusted voices on these platforms).

The topic of free radicals and antioxidants

As our interest in the nitty gritty of nutrition has grown one of the topics that has continued to come up is that of free radicals and antioxidants.  The terms are chucked around willy nilly and while most people may be familiar with them, very few actually know what they are.

The problem of oversimplification

The science behind free radicals and antioxidants is actually quite complex.  One problem with delivering these concepts to people has been an oversimplification of the science which has led them to be classed as either being good or bad for you.

The idea that free radicals are bad and antioxidants are good is one that is used to sell myriad of products in the wellness market, but the science is not that straight forward.  Antioxidants are normally depicted as the superhero defending our body against ageing and chronic disease risk caused by free radical damage.

There is of course truth in this depiction but unfortunately biology is never that simple.

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are very reactive chemicals, which are created when an atom or molecule (chemical that has two or more atoms) either gains or loses an electron.  The most common type of free radicals produced in living tissue are called reactive oxygen species or ROS for short and these contain oxygen.

We produce free radicals naturally through chemical processes that occur in the body such as the breakdown of food and its transformation into energy used by cells.

We are perfectly equipped to deal with free radicals but they may become an issue when they build up in high concentrations.  This can put the body in a state of oxidative stress (when free radicals outweigh antioxidants), which has the potential to damage every major component of cells when it occurs over a prolonged period of time. The most significant damage is that caused to DNA, which is thought to play a role in the development of many health conditions including heart disease and cancer (2).

The most likely cause of excess free radicals in the body are due to a combination of environmental, lifestyle and dietary factors which include pollution, stress, smoking, alcohol, sun exposure, infection and overconsumption of foods high in bad fats and sugar.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are essential for the survival of all living things.  These chemicals are able to interact with free radicals and neutralising them without getting damaged or becoming a free radical themselves. Whilst the body relies on external source of antioxidants, which are gleaned from the diet, it’s also able to make some such as the cellular antioxidant glutathione.

Dietary antioxidants are found in fruits, vegetables and grains, which are all a rich source.  Examples of dietary antioxidants include lycopene and beta carotene found in red, orange and green vegetables as well as vitamins A, C, E and minerals such as selenium.  Plants also contain compounds such as polyphenols, which act as antioxidants and are found in foods such as berries and raw cacao.

Are free radicals always bad for us?

Most people equate free radicals to poor health but there is more to the story as they also play an important role in many normal cellular responses.

The immune system uses free radicals to help kill foreign invaders (phagocytes) in the body, which are just one of many ingredients in a cocktail of chemicals released in this defence mechanism, which is known as an oxidative burst.

Another interesting example of where free radicals may be beneficial is linked to exercise, particularly amongst athletes. Free radicals may play a key role in the benefits gained from exercise, which goes against much of the information provided on this topic.

One of the benefits of exercise is that it helps to improve insulin sensitivity, which is a good thing as the body becomes more attuned to maintaining blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance has the opposite effect resulting in higher insulin and blood sugar levels, which form part of the aetiology of diseases such as diabetes.

Research has shown that the oxidative stress (excess free radicals vs antioxidants) induced by exercise actually promotes insulin sensitivity and triggers an internal mechanism to protect the body against the potential damage from free radicals (3).  Interestingly, the same research has also shown that flooding the body with antioxidants (mostly in the form of supplements) may inhibit this health benefit from occurring.

These and similar findings have prompted experts in the field of sports nutrition to question the use of antioxidant supplements as part of their prescribed diet regime.

Are antioxidants always good?

The reputation of antioxidants has evolved over the decades into something of a panacea for good health.  Early research many decades ago identified their role in the ageing process and their association with health has stuck.

There is no doubt that antioxidants have a key role to play in the aetiology of disease and cell ageing, but this doesn’t mean that overdosing on them will help you to live longer, stop you getting sick or prevent wrinkles.

Antioxidant supplements

Supplements containing antioxidants have always been popular but the evidence to support their use in the reduction of disease risk is often lacking and often contradictory.

Supplements have their place and as the name suggests this is to supplement the diet to make up for any shortfalls that may exist when your diet may be compromised for whatever reason.  Public Health England currently recommend we supplement our diet with vitamin D during the winter months in the absence of sunlight and it has long been advised that women take folic acid during the early stages of pregnancy.

Supplements are also useful for young children, older adults and those following strict diets such as veganism.  In such cases there may be a greater risk of deficiency.

In some cases, supplements could do more harm than good and especially high doses of antioxidants.

One example is the link between beta carotene supplements and lung cancer as shown in the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research Third Expert Report Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. This report found that there was strong evidence to show that taking high-dose beta carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer in both current and former smokers (4).

It’s all about balance  

Adopting a healthy diet which includes plenty of plant-based foods, especially brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, will ensure a good intake of antioxidants. Leading a healthy lifestyle which involves being active, maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking and addressing stress and sleep issues can help to reduce excess free radicals.

I get that this may be easier said than done and behaviour change is a tricky thing that often challenges our ability maintain a healthy way of living.  However, focusing on the information and advice which is supported by science is always going to be a better long-term option than seeking out quick-fix fads.  A faddy approach to your health is  not only likely to be short-lived but may in fact be more detrimental to your health.

References  

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2231253611110048
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2680430/
  4. https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer