Vegan food expert Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of Stem & Glory, contributed this piece.
It’s hardly news that being overweight increases your vulnerability to ill health, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney and liver disease to name but a few. But addressing obesity is now a top government priority in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, now that we know even being a few pounds overweight, increases your risk of complications due to the virus.
The question now is how do we help people to lose weight and learn better eating habits?
Could a vegan diet help?
Recent research by Dr Katarina Kos, senior lecturer in diabetes and obesity at the University of Exeter, showed that vegan or plant-based diets are effective in assisting weight loss. The side product of which is an improvement in diabetes and in diabetes and weight-related complications.
And, according to Peta, meat-eaters have three times the obesity rate of vegetarians and nine times the obesity rate of vegans. So it seems just cutting meat and dairy will immediately improve your chances of weight loss.
This isn’t new information either, a Swedish study back in 2005 showed that self-identified semi-vegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women have a lower risk of obesity than omnivorous women. The advice of that report 15 years ago when veganism was hardly known was to ‘consume more plant foods and less animal products to help control your weight’.
So, whether you go fully vegan, or remain flexitarian, eating fewer animal products and more plants will help you lose weight, and in turn improve your health outcomes.
What about the obstacles in moving to a vegan diet?
Switching to a plant-based diet means a move from high fat, calorie dense foods such as meat and dairy, so the body takes a while to adjust and many people report that they are always hungry, as was certainly the case for me.
The solution is either; 1. eat more calories, or 2. eat a greater proportion, and a wider variety of proteins. Number 2 being the better option in supporting weight loss. For example, legumes such as chickpeas, combined with tofu, quinoa and a sprinkling of nuts and seeds will combine to give a greater protein content than just eating chickpeas alone. As with any dietary change, the body does get used to it, but give yourself a month to adapt.
Note from Tabby: Of course, the other obstacles in moving to a vegan diet tend to be accessibility and cost. Just as it’s often difficult for people on a tight budget to afford healthy food options when junk food tends to be so much more affordable, we should recognise that not everyone has the luxury of time needed to prepare fresh meals each day for a balanced diet – and vegan convenience foods are expensive. There are also still plenty of areas in the UK where healthy vegan alternatives, like tofu, are not easy to come by.
It’s hugely important to make sure you’re getting enough protein, fat, vitamins and so on when you make the switch to veganism – but I would love to hear from anyone reading this who would be interested in further discussion on the main obstacles in switching to a vegan diet.
Now, back to Louise!
I am a believer in sticking mainly to natural whole foods – fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains – and avoiding processed foods where possible. With the explosion in plant-based meat replacements currently it’s easy to lose sight of this. I do think meat replacements play a part in the conversion to eating more plant-based foods and less animal products, BUT I don’t believe they are a sustainable solution for health and weight loss.
For example, take the explosion in vegan junk food, known as ‘dirty vegan’. Dirty vegan is huge on the plant-based scene right now. Huge, stacked plant-based burgers, deep fried seitan (basically wheat gluten), chips, mayo, mac and cheese, all comfort foods, which are, no doubt, delicious BUT very high in calories and low in natural unprocessed ingredients.
Here lies the caution: Don’t be fooled into thinking that just eating plant-based food without attention to nutrition and calories will lead to better health and weight loss. The first vegan I ever met was very large and overweight. He lived on a diet mostly of potato chips!
The vegan cheese explosion is also a red flag for me. A high fat and highly processed product which can never be healthy in my view. And if real dairy products are a problem for health and weight loss, then when we do eventually have an engineered cow milk product with all the same nutrients as real dairy, then unfortunately that will carry all the same health and weight loss risk as real dairy.
Note from Tabby: Everything in moderation, as they say! I definitely eat a lot of delicious vegan junk food, but I know if I ate it three meals a day every day I’d be a lot less healthy than I currently am. I believe there’s room in our diets for comfort food and treats, including seitan and vegan cheese, and that burger above is a favourite of mine… But I know if I ate it daily, my body wouldn’t thank me.
So how do you make vegan food delicious and interesting?
I believe that gut friendly food, low in refined carbs, is the way to go. We focus on natural vegetables accompanied by nutrient dense components such as nuts and seeds. There is a big focus on layering umami flavours and flavour combining to get that explosion of deliciousness which overrides any need to eat huge portions to feel satisfied.
We use fermented and pickled foods too which are really good for your microbiome and overall health. In terms of the future of food, we believe this is where it lies. Fermented foods can play a huge part in strengthening the immune system, they are naturally probiotic, improving your digestive system and natural gut flora, which support all bodily functions and helps with weight loss.
Plant-based food can play a huge part in tackling obesity, and if you do just one thing to help with weight loss, then simply turning vegan is moving in the right direction. But moving away from vegan junk and meat replacements, towards natural unprocessed food is the right way to achieve optimum health and healthy weight.
The messaging has to a be move away from junk across the board, if it is wrapped in plastic and in the supermarket deli fridge, it’s probably best avoided – whether it’s vegan or not!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Louise Palmer-Masterton is founder of multiple award-winning restaurants Stem & Glory; trendy but accessible plant-based restaurants, serving delicious gourmet vegan food from locally sourced ingredients, 100% made on site. Stem & Glory also offers click-and-collect and local delivery in London and Cambridge. www.stemandglory.uk