Updated: Feb 23
Dr Gemma Newman, a GP based in Surrey, discusses Plant based diets.
Plant Based Diets – Myth Busting with Gemma Newman
What is all the fuss about plant based diets? Why are there so many signs around for ‘vegan burgers’ and vegan friendly food? How can I support my patients who might ask me questions about it all? I am here to help navigate you through these important questions and more! My name is Dr Gemma Newman and I am a GP with a specialist interest in women’s health and plant based nutrition. And I have a confession. I used to think vegans were extreme. Who could enjoy food when not eating meat, eggs and dairy? But I have come to learn that a healthy whole foods plant based lifestyle, done sensibly, can have myriad benefits. And it does not equate to veganism.
Why are plant based diets an important consideration?
Why are we having this conversation now? Because we are in a time of unprecedented change. The Anthropocene – with human activity the dominant influence on the planet - is upon us, as is the time for us to facilitate healing - for our patients, for the planet and for future generations (1). A whole foods plant based diet has been shown to be effective at preventing and potentially even in some cases reversing some of the modern lifestyle diseases we face (2,3,4,5,6). The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) tells us we are on the brink of climate catastrophe – and many environmental scientists and institutions agree that a shift to a more plant based diet is one of the biggest things we can do to combat land mass degradation and mass species extinction (7).
Planetary health goes hand in hand with human health. Plastics pollution, the death of the bees and the destruction of habitats mean our kids will have to face some hard choices unless we take action. The BDA’s (British Dietetics Association) Blue Dot Campaign (8), the ACC (American College of Cardiology) guidelines for 2019 (9), the Eat Lancet’s Planetary Health Diet (10) as well as the new Canadian Food Guidelines (11) have all begun to recognise the critical importance of a ‘flexitarian’ dietary shift. So – in this context, what is a whole foods plant based diet exactly?
What is a Whole Food Plant Based Diet?
Whole food plant based eating is defined by the consumption of whole foods that are minimally processed and from nature. This includes as many whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes as you want. Veganism on the other hand is a way of life defined by causing the least harm practically possible, and so is more about what is not used – meat, eggs and dairy for food, and avoidance of clothing and personal care products that harm animals.
One thing must be clear in terms of food choices – chips, crisps, Oreos, cupcakes and non-dairy ice cream ARE vegan, but are NOT whole food plant based. Meat substitutes are useful for someone who is used to pizza and pepperoni, or as a ‘sometimes’ food to enjoy. But they are not whole foods.
The good news is that the American Dietetic Association (12) and the British Dietetic Association (13) both agree that well planned vegan diets can sustain healthy living in all age groups – and may also provide benefits for prevention of heart disease and cancer, which as you know are our biggest killers in the Western world. Predominantly plant based eating is important for us all – and a flexitarian approach to reducing meat consumption can fit with almost any dietary preference. The well-known summary of journalist Michael Pollan sums it up nicely – ‘Eat (real) food, mostly plants and not too much.’
So – what do you do if someone comes to you curious about whole food plant based diets? And what do you do if you see a vegan in your clinic and you want to make sure they are enjoying a well-balanced diet? Well - do not alienate them by suggesting they need meat for muscles and milk for bones (I know this will be tempting, but they really don’t!). Instead, inspire them by telling them about the vegan Adventists who are the healthiest and longest lived (and probably the most well studied) population of people on the planet (14). This will help them avoid the health risks of a Western Style diet (meat replacements and excess sugar). Aim to get them on board with nutrition by directing them to resources such as Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) (15), Forks Over Knives (16) or Nutritionstudies.org (17). You could also download the plant-based Eatwell guide from the Plant Based Health Professionals UK website (18).
Supplementation is important. Ask them about whether they are taking a multi vitamin which includes Vitamin B12 - like VEG1, which is a vitamin developed by The Vegan Society charity. It is a huge bargain at around 8p daily. It also contains iodine and selenium and Vitamin D (which as you know is also a problem of lack of sun exposure for so many of us). My personal preference is also to encourage EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid )/DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) algae oil supplementation – there is evidence that vegetarians or vegans fare better for heart health (19) and epidemiological data supports this too (20). Nonetheless, pure algae oil supplements provide long chain omega threes ready-made which are important for heart and brain health. Many of us are inefficient at converting the short chain omega 3s from flax, chia, hemp seeds and walnuts into EPA/DHA. The advantage of algae oil is that it is a vegetarian choice which doesn’t deplete fish stocks or expose the consumer to the heavy metals, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that have accumulated in the fish we eat, especially farmed fish.
What to recommend?
Help them to imagine a simple power plate aiming to incorporate four main food groups – fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. This provides an abundance of whole plant foods and limits sugary cakes, sweets, fizzy sugary drinks, white flour and white bread. And it’s easier than you think – for example a breakfast could include porridge, pancakes, healthy granola, muesli, tofu scramble, chia puddings, nut milks, then main meals could be curry, one pot lentil spaghetti bolognaise, bean chilli, roast vegetables, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, marmite on wholemeal toast, tex mex, thai food, Buddha bowls, fruit salad - to name a few examples! The world’s cuisine is your oyster (mushroom!) on a whole foods plant based diet.
Dr Gemma Newman
BIO – DR GEMMA NEWMAN
Dr Gemma Newman has worked in medicine for 15 years and is the Senior Partner at a family medical practice where she has worked for 11 years. She gained additional qualifications in gynaecology and family planning. She is a graduate of the Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice course, and is a member of British Society of Lifestyle Medicine.
She has a specialist interest in plant based nutrition and lifestyle medicine, and is an advisory board member of Plant Based Health Professionals UK. She has contributed content on the topic of Diabetes for the Winchester University Plant Based Nutrition Course and on the topic of Mental Health and Nutrition for The Diploma of Culinary Medicine by The Medicinal Chef. She gives nutrition and lifestyle advice to her patients, who have gained tremendous results using the power of their plate.
As a broadcaster and writer, she has been featured on ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky News Sunrise. She has contributed to articles for magazines including Glamour, Zest and Health magazine.
Her family lead a fully plant based lifestyle, following the research she had done of the scientific literature on the health benefits associated with whole-food plant based nutrition. She is regularly invited to teach other doctors and the general public via training programmes, podcasts and conferences about the benefits of plant-based nutrition.
Conflicts of Interest: None
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