National diet and nutrition survey

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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

A natural approach to reducing cholesterol

A natural approach to reducing cholesterol

A natural approach to reducing cholesterol

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is an umbrella term for a group of conditions that comprise all heart and circulatory diseases which includes coronary heart diseases (CHD), angina, heart attack, congenital heart disease, hypertension, stroke and vascular dementia.  This collection of conditions contributes to the most common cause of death. The risk of developing CVD is closely linked to lifestyle and dietary habits and the foods you choose to eat can have a big impact both on blood fats and body weight.

A poor diet is characterised by foods which are high in sugar and unhealthy fats.   The impact of this type of diet on your health is amplified by the amount of food you eat, which dictates your body weight (a risk factor for CVD).  High cholesterol is a risk factor for CVD and according to statistics from the charity organisation Heart UK, more than half of all adults have raised cholesterol levels. Adopting a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise can help to lower your cholesterol and as such reduce your risk of disease.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood and in your cells. Your liver makes most of the cholesterol in your body and the rest comes from foods you eat. Cholesterol itself isn’t bad and your body needs it to make hormones, vitamin D, digestive fluids and for your organs to function properly.

There are two forms of cholesterol:

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the unhealthy kind of cholesterol often referred to as ‘bad’.  LDL cholesterol can build up in your arteries and form fatty, waxy deposits called plaques.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the healthy kind of cholesterol often referred to as ‘good’. It transports excess cholesterol out of your arteries to your liver, which removes it from your body.

What happens if you have high cholesterol?

High cholesterol itself doesn’t usually cause any symptoms, but it does increase your risk of serious health conditions.  Over time, high levels of LDL cholesterol, especially when oxidised, can damage your arteries, contribute to heart disease, and increase your risk of stroke. Oxidised LDL cholesterol is more likely to stick to the walls of your arteries to form plaques that clog blood vessels.  Smaller LDL particles are more likely to become oxidised by way of excess free radicles, which can build up as a result of smoking, poorly controlled diabetes, excess sugar, excess trans fats and stress.  Oxidised LDL cholesterol can increase inflammation, which over time has the potential to damage tissues and organs in the body.

What can increase your risk of having raised cholesterol?

Many factors can increase your chances of having heart problems or a stroke if you have high cholesterol.

  • An unhealthy diet– especially if rich in saturated fat and sugar, whilst lacking in vegetables
  • Smoking- one particular chemical found in cigarettes called acrolein stops HDL from functioning properly, which can lead to narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • Diagnosed with diabetesor high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • A family history of heart disease

Exercise also plays an important role

Being overweight and not exercising affects the fats circulating within the bloodstream.  Carrying excess weight can increase levels of LDL cholesterol, whilst being inactive can depress protective HDL cholesterol. Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising can help to reverse these effects on cholesterol.

Where does diet fit into the equation?

Certain foods have been shown to reduce cholesterol and can be used alongside medication or as a natural approach to tackling raised cholesterol.  Certain foods work in different ways to lower cholesterol through the effect of soluble fibre (removes LDL cholesterol from the body), unsaturated fats (rebalances cholesterol levels) and plant sterols, which block the body from absorbing cholesterol.

There’s a misconception that foods naturally high in dietary cholesterol such as eggs and shellfish are harmful, but the effect of these foods has little impact.  Cholesterol production is tightly regulated and most of what circulates in the body is made ‘in-house’.  It’s the overconsumption of foods high in sat fats and sugar, and not dietary cholesterol that prompts the body to create excess.

Foods that help to lower and maintain healthy cholesterol levels

Certain foods have been shown to have a beneficial role in lowering and maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol including:

  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Beans, pulses and lentils
  • Nuts
  • Foods fortified with plant sterols
  • Oily fish
  • Soy foods

Ideas for food swaps that can help you to reduce your cholesterol levels

These food swaps encompass the foods that have been shown to help lower and maintain healthy levels of cholesterol.

Breakfast cereal for oats

UK dietary guidelines suggest that we aim to eat 30g of fibre per day but findings from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey have shown that most people only manage to achieve two thirds of this target and that only 9% of men and 4% of women meet the guidance (1).

As far as cholesterol is concerned, it’s soluble fibre that has the greatest impact.  These fibres dissolve in the gut to form a thick paste that binds with cholesterol and cholesterol like substances preventing them from being absorbed.  Oats contain a type of fibre known as oat beta glucan. To get the greatest benefit, research has suggested aiming to eat 3g of oat beta glucan per day (2-4 portions of oat-based foods) and shown that this may help to reduce LDL cholesterol by up to 10% over 4 weeks (2).

Swap you usual cereal for something oat based.  Oats can be used to make porridge or soaked oats, and granola is a tasty option to top yoghurt.  You can also add oats to breakfast smoothies.

Cow’s milk for soy alternative

The protein found in soy-based foods such as tofu, edamame beans and soy milk have been shown to help reduce levels of LDL cholesterol and form a key part of the Portfolio diet. Research has suggested that a 25g daily intake of soy protein can help to lower LDL cholesterol by up to six percent (3).

Food Average serving size Soy protein per serving
Soya milk alternative 250ml 7.5g
Soya yoghurt alternative 125g 5g
Edamame beans 80g 9.3g
Soya nuts (roasted) 30g 15g
Soya mince 100g 16.4g
Tofu 75g 12g
Soya dessert 125g 3.8g

Switching cow’s milk with a soy alternative is a useful way to increase your intake of soy protein.  This alternative can be used in the same way as milk but look for a brand that’s fortified with calcium.

Chocolate bar for dried fruit and nut bar

Processed foods such as chocolate bars are not just high in saturated fat but also added sugars, which can increase levels of LDL cholesterol if eaten in excess.  Dried fruit and nut bars contain less saturated and more monounsaturated fats, which are found in nuts.  Monounsaturated fats help to lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol. Various studies have shown how nuts including almonds, peanuts and walnuts in your diet (50g per day) can slightly lower LDL cholesterol by up to five percent (4).

Dried fruits also have heart healthy properties as they contain resveratrol, which is a polyphenol antioxidant thought to be associated with good heart health.  Sultanas and raisins are particularly high in resveratrol.

Cream for low fat yoghurt

Cream is another food that is high in saturated fat, which can increase your levels of LDL cholesterol.  Saturated fat is not all bad and it does also help to lower triglycerides and nudge up levels of HDL cholesterol when eat in moderation.

Switching to low fat yoghurt over cream is a simple food swap that can be used in the same way when cooking.  You can flavour yoghurt with spices such as cinnamon, vanilla or lemon juice, which makes a nice accompaniment to fruit or fruit-based puddings.

The topic of saturated fat and its role in heart disease is one that continues to cause debate. Regardless of opinion, limiting your saturated fat intake, especially from processed foods will help to maintain a healthy body weight and balance out cholesterol levels.

Butter for low fat spread fortified with plant sterols such as Benacol

The market for functional foods has grown in recent years and at the forefront are plant sterols, which have been shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol.  Plant sterols are extracted from plant gums and help to lower LDL cholesterol by inhibiting it from being absorbed in the body.  Foods with added plant sterols include spreads, milk, orange juice and yoghurt, which can all easily be incorporated into the diet.

Research has shown that consuming 2g of plant sterols per day can lower LDL cholesterol by around ten percent (5).  Try swapping butter for a lower fat spread fortified with plant sterols.

Red meat for oily fish

Red meat, especially fatty varieties, are rich in saturated fat, which can raise levels of LDL cholesterol.  There are many benefits associated with limiting your intake of red meat, which include reducing the risk of colorectal cancer.  Opting for alternative source of protein can be beneficial and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and trout not only help to regulate cholesterol levels but contain omega 3 fatty acids that have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Omega 3 fatty acids increase HDL cholesterol and reduce LDL cholesterol as well as reducing triglycerides in the bloodstream.  Swapping red meat for oily fish can reduce your overall intake of saturated fat and offer the benefits associated with omega 3 fatty acids.

White rice for barley

Like oats, barley contains beta glucans that have been shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol.  Beta glucan binds to bile acids in the gut which increases their excretion from the body. This reduced level of bile acids stimulates its production in the liver. In order for the liver to synthesise bile acids it requires LDL cholesterol, which is drawn from circulation in the body. The net effect is a reduction in circulating LDL cholesterol.

Barley can be used in place of rice and works really well in risottos.

Raised cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease but is easily reversed by the adoption of healthy diet and lifestyle habits, which also influence many other areas of health. If you have high cholesterol and want to approach it from a diet perspective, then including the foods above can help you to achieve the greatest impact.

If you liked this blog and want to learn more about diet and cholesterol then try reading these:

How easy is it to get your ten-a-day?

Turmeric chicken with Asian slaw recipe

Mexican prawn and black bean salad recipe

Super green stir-fry with smoked tofu recipe 

Avocado and white bean smash recipe 

Nutty couscous and veggie salad recipe 

Oat Bircher muesli recipe 

Edamame bean salad recipe

 

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21631511
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5409663/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16140880
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24468148