Could a wholefood plant-based diet be the key to better health?
GP Dr Gemma Newman is convinced a wholefoods-rich diet could benefit all of us. Lisa Salmon finds out more
WE ALL know fruit and veg are good for us – but GP Gemma Newman believes most people have no idea how transformative a plant-based diet can really be.
This means ditching processed foods in favour of a daily diet full of a variety of wholefoods, which not only helps prevent a number of lifestyle-related diseases but may also effectively manage and even cure certain health problems.
Having seen the benefits of a wholefood plant-based (WFPB) diet for patients as well as herself and her family, Newman has now written The Plant Power Doctor to spread the word about the huge healing powers of this approach to eating.
“I look after thousands of patients and I want nothing more than to help people to get to grips with their health,” says Newman. “In countless cases, eating a wholefood plant-based diet has helped them do this.
“From young women suffering from hormone issues such as fibroids and endometriosis, to older men with issues such as chronic pain, kidney disease, diabetes and depression, I continue to witness the transformative effects of a wholefoods plant-based lifestyle.”
Here, Newman explains what a WFPB diet is, its health benefits, and how it's not the same as simply being vegan or vegetarian…
:: What is a WFPB diet?
A WFPB diet doesn't include foods from animal sources such as meat, dairy and eggs – but it goes beyond that, as the real emphasis is on what you do eat. Plant-based foods include fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, says Newman. Wholefoods means consuming them in their natural form, not in heavily processed versions, like pre-prepared meals, foods and sauces.
:: How does a WFPB diet benefit health?
Newman says a WFPB diet can help in a range of ways. This includes reducing in?ammation, as it can lower oxidative stress in the body and thus reduce inflammatory markers. It can also help slow the ageing process, help maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of heart disease, a number of cancers and type 2 diabetes. Benefits can also be seen in mental health, gut health, hormone balance, skin health and sexual function, and people with certain auto-immune conditions may see improvements in their symptoms.
“A WFPB diet can provide lots of fibre for gut health and maximise the healthy protein, vitamin, mineral and phytonutrient content of our foods,” explains Newman. “This translates into advantages like reduced risk of bowel cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and autoimmune conditions, to name a few. These eating patterns can also improve our chances of reaching a healthy weight without dieting, and even improve our mental health.
“Imagine all those health benefits in just one pill – it'd be worth billions,” she adds. “Many of my patients say there's no point giving up something they enjoy, unless they get something back that they enjoy even more. The ability to walk down the street pain-free, run after their grandchildren, be intimate with their partner. These things are priceless.
“It's not just about how long we live, it's how well we live. A WFPB lifestyle can potentially improve quality of life very quickly.”
:: Why is a WFPB diet so healthy?
Fruit and vegetables are full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals, which work together to keep us well, says Newman, who explains that while tens of thousands of phytochemicals have been discovered, there are still many that haven't and scientists are only just beginning to understand what these abundant veggie chemicals can do for human health.
One well-known phytochemical is carotenoids – found in brightly coloured fruit and veg like tomatoes, carrots and peppers – which have anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits.
Inflammation is linked to many diseases, infections and even ageing, says Newman, who points out that the Dietary Inflammatory Index, which looked at 1,943 studies, found fruit, veg and fibre were consistently anti-inflammatory. Excess calories, trans fats and saturated fats – often found in processed foods – had the opposite effect.
:: How did you realise a WFPB diet was so beneficial?
“Having read through a lot of different data, I began to realise the pattern of eating which consistently showed benefit for humans was a lifestyle rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and pulses,” says Newman.
She had raised cholesterol and aching knees herself, and a family history of heart disease, and admits: “I'd resigned myself to thinking this was my genetic destiny. Thankfully, after switching to a WFPB diet, my cholesterol normalised and my knee aches resolved. I've seen similar patterns of improvement for my patients – people with high blood pressure and inflammatory arthritis improving dramatically having made the switch. It's not the entire solution, but a dietary change made more of a difference to my patient's symptoms than I could have imagined.”
:: What's the difference between a WFPB diet and veganism?
Veganism and vegetarianism often focuses on what ‘not' to eat, but people following these diets may still eat processed foods, or not actually consume that many wholefoods. A WFPB diet focuses on maximising fruits, veggies, pulses and grains, with an emphasis on variety.
“A vegan may not eat a WFPB diet, and a person eating a WFPB diet may still wear leather,” she explains. “Historically, populations that are ethical vegans benefited from reduced rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. With vegan junk food on the rise though, veganism doesn't have to always be healthy.”
:: Can you eat any meat, fish and dairy in a WFPB diet?
“Generally speaking, no,” says Newman. “But if you do decide to include it, then meat is very much a ‘condimeat' rather than the main attraction.”
She points out that previous generations ate far less meat than people today, and that it's recommended we eat no more than 70g of red meat a day – less than one sausage.
:: What about processed food?
“My family all eat a plant-based diet, including some processed foods, because I think it's useful not to have a mindset where you feel restricted in what you eat,” she says. “For general health, eating whole foods and mostly plants is a great principle, but your underlying health goals will help you decide how often you want to eat foods higher in energy and lower in nutrients.”
:: It's hard for people to change their diet permanently – will just adding more WFPB foods gradually still help?
“Absolutely,” says Newman. “It's useful to focus on incorporating more veggies and pulses, rather than worrying about what's missing. When making the switch, my patients tell me their tastes and preferences shift, and they begin to crave more delicious whole foods, as their gut microbes also make healthy changes too.”
:: The Plant Power Doctor by Dr Gemma Newman is published by Ebury, priced £16.99.