The big idea: Is going vegan enough to make you — and the planet — healthier? | Books

Ddid you change what you ate or drank in January? The start of the year is an annual signal for the release of a Pandora’s box of food fiends; from meal replacements and super keto diets to slimming teas. Alongside these trends live the regular and more ethical health-conscious posts of Dry January and Veganuary, both of which have grown in popularity and have a much cleaner public image. Despite this, they are still not perfect. So this year, I’d like to come up with another idea that I hope will last longer: call it the “real food revolution.”

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The premise of Veganuary is simple: use the pivotal month of January to make a big change in your diet, your health, and the health of the planet by eliminating animal products. Veganuary is a non-profit charity that provides recipes and motivational emails to help you quit meat and dairy for just one month, ideally with positive effects on your waistline and your body. carbon footprint. Overall, they do a great job, and there is plenty of evidence to support the effectiveness of reducing animal foods for our health and the survival of our planet. We now know that agriculture is responsible for around 25% of global warming and the most important action we can take as individuals to help tackle the climate crisis is not to abandon cars, but to eat less meat.

That said, I have two issues with Veganuary. First, dietary change should aim for long-term, sustainable change rather than a month-long quick fix. Second, there is no clear evidence that strict veganism is healthier than vegetarianism, pescatarianism, or flexitarianism (a diet where you are allowed to eat meat or fish occasionally).

Second, it fuels the perception that all plant-based foods are healthier than all animal foods, which isn’t always true. If people replace fish, meat, eggs, and cheese with ultra-processed, plant-based foods, it could actually do us — and the planet — more harm than good.

What do I mean by ultra-processed foods? These are things that have changed so dramatically that you couldn’t replicate them at home. An easy way to identify them is from the long list of ingredients, many of which are unrecognizable; or their aggressive marketing; or their high fat, sugar and salt content. For the average person in the UK, 56% of their diet comes from these ultra-processed foods, which are known to harm people’s physical and mental health, as well as our environment.

The ultra-processed food industry is astute at seizing trends in order to profit from them. The ethical impulse to be kinder to animals and the planet is one such trend. Bloomberg Intelligence forecasts a 451% growth in the plant-based foods market by 2030 (worth $29 billion in 2020). Processed food companies get a slice of it by mass-producing large quantities of plant-based burgers, ground meats, nuggets, pies, quiches, cheeses and more, all assembled in industrial factories. energy guzzlers. Products often use extracted or isolated vegetable proteins (often from peas or soy), which produce waste products. Although the average carbon footprint of plant-based flours remains much lower than that of their animal-based equivalents, there is something else that has an even lower environmental impact and is much better for our health: this is what are called ‘whole, unprocessed foods’.

This means fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts bought as whole as possible. And there are important scientific reasons why they are better for us. Much depends on the gut: We know that having a thriving and diverse microbiome – the community of trillions of gut microbes in your small intestine – is important for all aspects of health. Unprocessed foods contain two key ingredients that help support this.

The first comes in the form of polyphenols: chemicals used naturally by plants as defenses against pests. The second is fiber, which gives plants their structure. Microbes in the gut find both of these things delicious, feeding on them and in turn producing a range of important chemicals the body needs to stay healthy.

Variety is also important: the more different plants you can get your hands on with different polyphenols, the greater the variety of beneficial microorganisms in your gut that you will support. In processed foods, fibers or polyphenols are usually extracted, pressurized or heated. The strange vitamin that might be added so that the product could be marketed as “healthy” cannot make up for the loss.

Next January (finally nothing prevents you from starting this February, in fact), instead of eating artificial meat substitutes and vegan cupcakes for a month, why not add a new type of plant to your diet every day? Instead of obsessing over cutting calories and losing pounds or inches, how about cutting down on the number of ultra-processed, factory-made foods in your home on every weekly shopping trip? Instead of demonizing all animal products, you can try reducing your meat consumption while focusing on quality products from companies that practice regenerative agriculture and fish responsibly. Instead of buying ready meals, consider cutting foods into packets and teaching children to peel an orange or banana instead. Eating more “real” food is the most scientifically proven way to live a longer, healthier life.

Big change requires bold thinking, of course, but transformation requires consistent, lasting change – to be implemented every day, one step at a time, keeping in mind our circumstances and personal limitations. A month of change is not enough to break the habits accumulated over a lifetime. But it is enough to open up new possibilities. Every revolution, including this one, has to start somewhere.

Tim Spector is Professor of epidemiology at King’s College Londonand the author of Spoon fed: why almost all we have has been said On Food East Wrong.

Further reading:

Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders (Scribe, £12.99)

Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets by Joanna Blythman (Fourth Estate, £8.99)

The Clever Guts Diet: How to Revolutionize Your Body from the Inside Out by Michael Mosley (Short Books, £8.99)

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