Will going vegan make you healthier?

The popularity of veganism has really taken off. More than four times as many people are now opting to cut animal products out of their diet than they were four years ago. Across Britain, people are spending more money on vegan products, and plant-based diets are trending online. With major supermarkets catching on and stocking up on vegan-friendly food – and even restaurants starting to offer vegan dishes and menus for their customers, we were wondering how easy is it to go vegan and stay healthy?

A recent episode of the BBC TV programme “Trust Me I’m a Doctor” posed this very same question, and set Cambridge Neuroscience Research Associate Dr Giles Yeo the task of going vegan for one month.

Specific aspects of Giles’s health were assessed by Dr Mellor, a dietitian and senior lecturer in human nutrition at Coventry University before and after his month of being vegan. We measured his cholesterol, body fat, weight, and his levels of iron, folate, zinc and vitamins A, E, D and B12. Dr Mellor also gave Giles a list of foods to eat to stay healthy and avoid becoming deficient in key nutrients.

The results

After one month on a vegan diet, Dr Yeo lost 4 kg and his body fat dropped by 2%. His BMI improved by 6% and his cholesterol fell by 12%. Thanks to Dr Mellor’s food suggestions, he didn’t become deficient in any key nutrients. However it’s more difficult to be so nutritionally diligent in the longer term and vegans can become deficient in nutrients you’d normally get from animal-based foods, such as iron and vitamin B12.

Essential nutrients for vegans

There are certain essential nutrients that we normally get from animal-based foods that vegans need to replace with alternative foods or supplements.

  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D is important for our bone health. It is produced in our body when sunlight hits our skin and is also present in a few animal products. Vegans might want to consider taking a supplement, but beware that not all of them are vegan-friendly. Vitamin D2 is always suitable for vegans, whereas some sources of vitamin D3 derive from sheep’s wool.
  • Vitamin B12 – We need vitamin B12 to keep our blood healthy. It is not produced by plants, but there are plenty of vegan products on the market, such as milks, spreads and yeast products, which are fortified with it.
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids – These are essential for brain function and are found in oily fish. Other good sources are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and soy beans.
  • Calcium – While calcium is synonymous with dairy, there are plenty of vegan sources too. Tofu commonly contains calcium and there are calcium-fortified alternatives to cow’s milk available. Other good sources include green vegetables such as kale, pak choi, okra and spring greens, as well as almonds, chia seeds and dried figs.
  • Iodine – Iodine deficiency is not uncommon in the UK, even in non-vegans, particularly amongst young women. In the UK, cow’s milk is our main source of iodine, and the non-dairy alternatives, like almond drinks, have much lower levels. You can get iodine from seaweed (though the amounts are unpredictable) but you may need to take a supplement.
  • Protein – Some vegans worry that they aren’t getting enough protein, a nutrient people tend to associate with meat. However, eating a balanced diet with plenty of plant-based protein sources should provide all that you need. Particular foods to try and include are tofu, soy, beans and pulses.
  • Iron – Cutting out meat can also affect your iron levels – red meat contains a form of iron that is easy for our body to absorb, whereas the iron that you get in fruit and veg is less readily available. One solution is to accompany iron-rich vegan foods with a rich source of vitamin C, like orange juice, which helps to make the iron more absorbable.

And what does my favourite chef say about veganism?

Many argue that we should all be making a conscious effort to reduce consumption of animals and animal products for the sake of our health and for the planet. Vegan or not, a diet high in fruit and veg and plant-based food is a good starting point for a healthy lifestyle.

You can find out more about this experiment on the Trust Me I’m a Doctor website here >>

True or false? Busting 9 of the biggest nutrition myths

Nutrition is an essential part of a healthy life, and something we should all have a good understanding of. But with so many nutritional trends and fads doing the rounds, thrown in with a good dose of misinformation, it’s now more confusing than ever to know what we should really be eating.

The other day I came across this article written by one of the nutritionists on Jamie Oliver’s team (who else?!) and thought I simply have to share this! 

Myth 1: A gluten-free diet is healthier

In a word, no. It’s not. Unless you have a legitimate reason to be avoiding gluten – if you have coeliac disease, for example – there is no reason to remove gluten from your diet. Due to its presence in wheat, barley and rye, gluten is present in many carbohydrate-based foods, some of which can be unhealthy (think biscuits, cakes, pies, and pastries). This may be the reason it’s gained such a reputation, but gluten itself isn’t unhealthy.

Myth 2: No sugar has a place in my diet

Sugar is sugar and, ultimately, all sugar is broken down in our bodies into glucose, which our cells use for energy. However, the difference between that teaspoon of sugar you add to your tea and the natural sugar in a piece of fruit is the presence of vitamins and minerals.

The same can be said of lactose, the sugar found in milk and dairy products. Although it’s still a form of sugar, lactose comes with a healthy dose of the vitamins and minerals that dairy has to offer, such as calcium.

Honey, maple syrup, and agave syrup are all still natural forms of sugar – however, they are similar to refined sugar, in that their actual nutrient content is quite poor.

Myth 3: Low fat = healthy

Low-fat products are only useful when they are helping you to reduce your intake of saturated fat, the type of fat associated with high cholesterol and heart disease risk. If you do choose these kind of products, make sure you read the label to make sure they’re free from added sugar.

Myth 4: Eating carbs will make me fat

No. Apply the same theory here as you do with fat and focus on the type of carbohydrate you are eating, rather than cutting it out completely. Starchy carbohydrates come in two forms: refined and whole. The latter are the ones to go for – higher in fibre and full of other essential vitamins and minerals. In fact, far from making you gain weight, eating high-fibre foods will help to keep you feeling full, which means you are less likely to overeat.

We need starchy carbohydrates to give us energy, and they should make up one third of our diet. Instead of cutting them out, make some smart switches and cut down on the more unhealthy carbs, like highly refined flour products.

Myth 5: Fresh produce is healthier than frozen

On the contrary – frozen foods can sometimes be healthier than fresh! As fruits and vegetables ripen, their sugar content rises and their nutrient content deteriorates. Often, fruits and vegetables are frozen quickly after harvest, which prevents all of this, and actively preserves the nutrients. Fresh fruit and vegetables are great and when eaten at their freshest and most nutritious, but using frozen instead will do you no harm. And it can also be a super-easy and reliable way of getting more veg into your cooking!

Myth 6: Coconut oil is good for me

Sadly, coconut oil is a saturated fat – the type of fat associated with high cholesterol. Recent research has suggested, however, that the type of saturated fat present in coconut oil may be metabolised differently to other saturated fats, meaning it may not have the same adverse effect on blood cholesterol and general cardiovascular health. What is missed out by eating coconut oil, though, is the essential fatty acids found in unsaturated fats. These are the fats that help to keep our cholesterol healthy, as well as the fats that our bodies generally need, so while research is showing that the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil may not be as bad as we think, we may as well be eating the fat that we know is good for us!

Myth 7: If I exercise I need to take a protein shake or supplement

It’s true that if you are exercising you need protein. Our muscles need protein to grow and repair, and if you are undertaking exercise – particularly anything of high intensity – then you do need to make sure your protein intake is sufficient.

What is more important, though, is the timing of that protein intake, which should ideally be within an hour of exercising. Your body can only metabolise a certain amount of protein at a time, so overloading on the protein shakes is completely pointless. In the UK, most of us actually get more than enough protein through our regular diets. The goal should be to limit our protein intake to shortly after exercise so that our bodies can use it to help our muscles build and repair, rather than overdoing it on the protein shakes!

Myth 8: Snacking is bad!

If understood properly, it’s also a myth that we shouldn’t snack. Eating little and often is actually much better than eating three huge meals every day. Snacking is a good way to achieve this, and also helps to prevent energy crashes between meals.

The key is what you are snacking on – and here you can utilise all that info about fats and sugars. If your 4pm-slump go-to is a slice of cake or a sugar-packed processed number then the health benefits of snacking will be lost on you. Choose wisely, and go for something dense in nutrients that will help to fill you up – think a handful of granola, a slice of apple and peanut butter, or a natural yoghurt with some fruit.

Myth 9: Vegetarian and vegan diets are healthier

A vegetarian or vegan diet being healthy completely depends on what vegetarian or vegan foods are being eaten. For example, a diet of ready-salted crisps would technically be vegan, and a diet of cheese and chocolate would technically be vegetarian, but neither could ever be called healthy!

Avoiding meat and dairy products means avoiding the saturated fat and adverse health effects that come with the over-consumption of fatty cuts of meat and high-fat dairy products. However, vegan and vegetarian diets are only healthier if you replace these foods with worthwhile alternatives. Replacing the meat and dairy in your diet with refined carbohydrates and sweets will not make the switch to vegetarianism or veganism a healthy one.

Something that is generally true of vegetarian and vegan diets, though, is that they’re very environmentally friendly, and a lot more sustainable than a meat-heavy diet. If you can get it right, or even stick to it for a day or two each week, then it really will make a difference – both for the planet and for you!

Thanks to jamieoliver.com. You can read the full article by Rozzie Batchelar here.

See also:

How does the body turn “carbs” into “sugar”?

The secret of resistant starch

How does the body turn “carbs” into “sugar”?

We hear this all the time, but what does it actually mean? I decided to look into this process and find out more …

Carbohydrates are commonly classified as being either simple or complex. The difference between a simple and complex carbohydrate is in how quickly it is digested and absorbed – as well as its chemical structure.

Simple carbohydrates

  • Often referred to as simple sugars, these carbohydrates are composed of sugars such as fructose, glucose and galactose which have simple chemical structures composed of only one sugar – monosaccharides, or double sugars – disaccharides, which include sucrose (table sugar), lactose and maltose.
  • Sugars are found in a variety of natural food sources including fruit, vegetables and milk, and give food a naturally sweet taste.
  • Simple carbohydrates are easily and quickly utilised for energy by the body because of their simple chemical structure. But they also raise blood glucose levels quickly.

Complex carbohydrates

  • These carbohydrates have more complex chemical structures, with three or more sugars linked together, known as oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.
  • Many complex carbohydrate foods contain fibre, vitamins and minerals, and they take longer to digest – which means they have less of an immediate impact on blood sugar, causing it to rise more slowly.
  • However other so called complex carbohydrate foods such as white bread and white potatoes contain mostly starch but little fibre or other beneficial nutrients.

Dividing carbohydrates into simple and complex does not account for the effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar and chronic diseases. To explain how different kinds of carbohydrate-rich foods directly affect blood sugar, the Glycaemic Index (GI) is considered a better way of categorising carbohydrates, especially starchy foods.

NOTE: the term complex carbohydrate refers to any starches, including the highly refined starches found in white bread, cakes, most pastries and many other food sources. However, when dietitians and nutritionists advise having complex carbohydrates, they are usually referring to whole grain foods and starchy vegetables which are more slowly absorbed than refined carbohydrate.

What is the Glycaemic Index?

The glycaemic index ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 based on how quickly and how much they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high glycaemic index, like white bread, are rapidly digested and cause substantial fluctuations in blood sugar. Foods with a low glycemic index, like whole oats, are digested more slowly, prompting a more gradual rise in blood sugar.

  • Low-glycaemic foods have a rating of 55 or less, and foods rated 70-100 are considered high-glycaemic foods. Medium-level foods have a glycaemic index of 56-69.
  • Eating many high-glycaemic-index foods can cause powerful spikes in blood sugar. This can lead to an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.
  • Foods with a low glycaemic index have been shown to help control type 2 diabetes and improve weight loss.
Many factors can affect a food’s glycaemic index, including the following:

Processing: Grains that have been milled and refined (removing the bran and the germ) have a higher glycaemic index than minimally processed whole grains.

Physical form: Finely ground grain is more rapidly digested than coarsely ground grain. This is why eating whole grains in their whole form like brown rice or oats can be healthier than eating highly processed whole grain bread.

Fibre content: High-fibre foods don’t contain as much digestible carbohydrate, so it slows the rate of digestion and causes a more gradual and lower rise in blood sugar.

Ripeness: Ripe fruits and vegetables tend to have a higher glycaemic index than un-ripened fruit.

Fat content and acid content: Meals with fat or acid are converted more slowly into sugar.

You can find out more about the Glycaemic Index at Diabetes UK >>

These look rather tasty!

Carbohydrates and blood sugar

When we eat food containing carbohydrates, the digestive system breaks down the digestible ones into sugar, which then enters the blood.

  • As blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas secretes insulin, the hormone that enables you to digest starches and sugars. This release of insulin is sometimes called an insulin spike.
  • As cells absorb blood sugar, levels in the bloodstream begin to fall.
    When this happens, the pancreas starts making glucagon, a hormone that signals the liver to start releasing stored sugar.
  • This interplay of insulin and glucagon ensure that cells throughout the body, and especially in the brain, have a steady supply of blood sugar.
  • If you have a metabolic disorder such as diabetes that keeps you from producing enough insulin, you must be careful not to take in more carbs than you can digest.

The NHS advises that added sugars shouldn’t make up more than 5% of the energy (calorie intake) you get from food and drink each day. This is about 30g of sugar a day for those aged 11 and over.

See more about how much sugar is good for you at NHS Choices >>

Eat sensibly and enjoy good carbohydrates!

It’s important to remember that the somewhat much maligned carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy and in fact your muscles and brain cells prefer carbs more than other sources of energy, such as triglycerides and fat, for example.  If you’re active and eating appropriately for your activity level, most of the carbs you consume are more or less burned immediately. However, if you’re eating a lot more calories per day than you are burning, then your liver will convert excess calories from carbohydrate into fats. If you consume too many calories from simple sugars like sucrose and fructose, then your body will more readily take some of those sugars and turn them into triglycerides (fat) in your liver.

  • Thanks to diabetes.co.uk
  • The Harvard School of Public Health
  • NHS Choices

The secret of resistant starch

“Resistant starch?” I hear you ask, “what’s that?”

If you just happened to be watching that rather interesting programme the other night – “The Truth about Carbs” on BBC1 – you would have discovered that there is a little-known type of carbohydrate called resistant starch. And, just like fibre, resistant starch can help keep bowel cancer at bay.

Most of us love starchy carbohydrate foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes but they’re not always good for our health. Although starch is an important part of a healthy diet, it’s easily broken down. As soon as we consume starch the body very quickly starts to digest it, releasing sugars into the blood which in turn causes our bodies to release the hormone insulin. 

Starchy foods such as bread, pasta and potatoes break down easily once eaten and release sugars into the blood.

WHAT IS IT?
Resistant starch is a form of starch that cannot be digested in the small intestine.  Most starch is usually quickly broken down into glucose (which is used for energy) and if we eat too much, the glucose can then be stored as fat. Due to its molecular make up however, resistant starch doesn’t get broken down like normal starch, and instead it passes through the stomach and the small intestine intact until it reaches the large intestine. Resistant starch is then fermented in the large intestine, producing short chain fatty acids which serve as an energy source for colonic cells and our gut microflora. Foods that increase the amount of short chain fatty acids in the colon are thought to be beneficial to health by helping to prevent the development of abnormal cells in the gut.

Resistant starch is naturally present in some foods such as bananas, potatoes, grains, pulses and seeds and is also produced or modified commercially and incorporated into some food products.

Eat green! Unripe bananas contain lots of resistant starch but this becomes digestible as the bananas ripen. Cooking will also destroy the resistant starch.

There are several different types of resistant starch:

  • RS1: This is inaccessible to digestive enzymes due to the physical barriers formed by cell walls and protein matrices. Present in bread, seeds and pulses.
  • RS2: This type of resistant starch is protected from digestion due to its crystalline structure. Present in potatoes (higher amounts in raw versus cooked), bananas (higher amounts in unripe fruits).
  • RS3: This is retrograded starch which is formed when starchy foods such as potatoes and pasta are cooked and then cooled.
  • RS4: This is a chemically modified starch. Present in foods containing modified starches such as some bread and cakes.

Note: In addition, two different components have been proposed as RS5. Either amylose–lipid complexes, which either form during processing or are created artificially; or resistant maltodextrin which is processed to purposefully rearrange starch molecules.

Researchers have known about resistant starch for over twenty years now, so why the sudden excitement?

RS3 – Why we are getting excited!

Back in 2014, the BBC’s “Trust me I’m a doctor” programme conducted an experiment with Dr Denise Robertson, from the University of Surrey and ten volunteers. The team were well aware that if you cook and cool down starchy foods, your body will treat it much more like fibre, creating a smaller glucose peak and helping feed the good bacteria that reside down in your gut. You will also absorb fewer calories. However what no-one knew was what would happen to the resistant starch if you reheated the cold food up again.

The volunteers had to undergo three days of testing in all, spread out over several weeks. On each occasion they had to eat their pasta on an empty stomach. The volunteers were randomised to eating either hot, cold or reheated pasta on different days.

On one day they got to eat the pasta, freshly cooked, nice and hot with a plain but delicious sauce of tomatoes and garlic. On another day they had to eat it cold, with the same sauce, but after it had been chilled overnight. And on a third day they got to eat the pasta with sauce after it had been chilled and then reheated.

On each of the days they also had to give blood samples every 15 minutes for two hours, to see what happened to their blood glucose as the pasta was slowly digested.

THE RESULTS
Just as expected, eating cold pasta led to a smaller spike in blood glucose and insulin than eating the freshly boiled pasta had. But unexpectedly, the team found that cooking, cooling and then reheating the pasta had an even more dramatic effect. Or, to be precise, an even smaller effect on blood glucose, reducing the rise in blood glucose by 50%. This certainly suggests that reheating the pasta made it into an even more “resistant starch”. It’s an extraordinary result and one never measured before.

The health benefits of resistant starch

  • When regular starch becomes resistant starch, most of the sugars it contains aren’t released in your gut and so your body will take in fewer calories from the same food.
  • Because less sugar is released into the blood stream from this resistance starch, there’s less of a blood sugar spike. In turn, this reduces the levels of insulin in the blood.
  • Resistant starch is indigestible and so shares many properties with fibre, helping food pass through the gut and generally improving digestion.
  • Once it reaches the lower gut, resistant starch feeds our beneficial bacteria, which in turn produce chemicals which can help our immune systems, cardiovascular health and many other benefits.

Freeze first then toast: make your bread work for you!

We love our bread. And it can be hard to give that up. But maybe we don’t need to. If you can’t stop eating bread, you can make the bread healthier for you by simply freezing it then toasting it. This turns some of the easily digestible starch into resistant starch. The act of freezing and then toasting means that your body gets far fewer calories from the bread. In effect, the resistant starch feeds your gut bacteria rather than feeding you. It really is that simple!

Thanks to:
BBC Trust me I’m a Doctor
BBC The truth about carbs
British Nutrition Foundation