Dr Shireen Kassam
Consultant Haematologist, King’s College Hospital London and Visiting Professor of Plant-Based Nutrition, Winchester University
Founder, Plant-Based Health Professionals UK
Unhealthy diets are now the top cause of chronic disease globally. These unhealthy diets are commonly characterised by an inadequate consumption of whole-plant foods.
We are in the midst of a global epidemic of chronic disease. The incidence of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and dementia continues to rise despite the availability of better and more sophisticated medications and procedures.
Leading cause of disease is unhealthy diets
Unhealthy diets are now the top cause of chronic disease globally, characterised by the overconsumption of processed foods and meat and the under consumption of whole-plant foods; fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. A recent study concluded that unhealthy diets cause 20% of all deaths globally (1).
Plant-based diets prevent chronic disease
Decades of scientific research has demonstrated that eating a predominately plant-based diet, whilst minimising animal-derived foods, is the best way to prevent chronic disease and can lead to a healthier, longer life (2). Vegans and vegetarians have the lowest rates of overweight and obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer (3). A healthy vegan diet, termed a whole food plant-based diet, is one of the best ways to eat. This type of diet is able to address the root cause of chronic disease as it is high in antioxidants and phytonutrients that act to counteract inflammation, the main driver of chronic disease.
The fibre in plants feed our healthy gut bacteria, which are crucial for promoting health, and along side the low fat content maintains favorable blood lipid levels, preventing fat from depositing in organs where it leads to malfunction (4).
Plant-based diets can reverse chronic disease
A low fat whole food plant-based diet is the only diet that has been shown to arrest and reverse artherosclerotic plaques in the heart arteries, responsible for causing heart attacks (5,6,7).
This way of eating can also reverse diabetes (8), fatty liver disease (9) and early stages of prostate cancer (10). The more plant-based the diet after a diagnosis of breast (11) and colon cancer (12), the better the chance of remission and survival.
Plant-based diets recommended by leading health organisations
Dietetic associations around the world have confirmed that a plant-based diet (vegan/vegetarian) is nutritionally optimal for all stages of human life (13).
International health organisations also recommend plant-based diets for disease prevention, including the American College of Cardiology (14) and the World Cancer Research Fund. Earlier this year, the EAT-Lancet commission published a large review of diet and its impact on health. It described the ‘planetary health diet’ as being optimal and it is one that is more than 85% plant-based with less than 15% of calories recommended from meat and dairy (15).
Saving millions of lives
The commission estimates that a global shift to this type of diet could save 11 million lives per year. This change in diet pattern is not only necessary for human health but for the health and sustainability of the planet.
Best for human and planetary health
The World Organisation of Family Doctors has called health professionals to action to act upon planetary health because the effects of climate change are detrimental to human health. It’s declaration calls family physicians to help patients transition to a sustainable plant-based diet ‘rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes’. We can no longer ignore the impact of our diet choices on human and planetary health and the only sustainable solution is a whole food plant-based diet.
1) GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators (2019) ‘ Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017’, Lancet. Published Online April 3, 2019 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30041-8. 2) Li, Y. et al. (2018) ‘Impact of Healthy Lifestyle Factors on Life Expectancies in the US Population’, Circulation. doi: 10.1007/s00402-002-0412-9. 3) Dinu, M. et al. (2017) ‘Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies’, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447. 4) Bodai, B. (2017) ‘Lifestyle Medicine: A Brief Review of Its Dramatic Impact on Health and Survival’, The Permanente Journal. doi: 10.7812/TPP/17-025. 5) Ornish, D. et al. (1990) ‘Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease?. The Lifestyle Heart Trial’, The Lancet. doi: 10.1016/0140-6736(90)91656-U. 6) Gupta, S. K. et al. (2011) ‘Regression of Coronary Atherosclerosis through Healthy Lifestyle in Coronary Artery Disease Patients – Mount Abu Open Heart Trial’, Indian Heart Journal, 63, pp. 461–469. 7) Esselstyn, C. B. et al. (2014) ‘A way to reverse CAD?’, The Journal of family practice. doi: 10.1109/APUSNCURSINRSM.2017.8072476. 8) Barnard, N. D. et al. (2009) ‘A low-fat vegan diet and a conventional diabetes diet in the treatment of type 2 diabetes: A randomized, controlled, 74-wk clinical trial’, in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736H. 9) Rasavi Zade, M. et al. (2016) ‘The effects of DASH diet on weight loss and metabolic status in adults with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: a randomized clinical trial’. Liver Int. 36: 563–571. DOI: 10.1111/liv.12990. 10) Ornish, D., Weidner, G., Fair, W.R., Marlin, R., Pettengill, E.B., Raisin, C.J., et al. (2005) Intensive lifestyle changes may affect the progression of prostate cancer. J Urol. 174(3):1065-9; discussion 9-70. 11) Chlebowski, R.T., Aragaki, A.K., Anderson, G.L., et al. (2018) Association of Low-Fat Dietary Pattern With Breast Cancer Overall Survival: A Secondary Analysis of the Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Oncol 2018 Oct 1;4(10):e181212. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2018.1212. Epub 2018 Oct 11. 12) Guinter, M.A., McCullough, M.L., Gapstur, S.M., and Campbell, P.T. (2018) Associations of Pre- and Postdiagnosis Diet Quality With Risk of Mortality Among Men and Women With Colorectal Cancer DOI: 10.1200/JCO.18.00714 Journal of Clinical Oncology 36, no. 34 (December 1 2018) 3404-3410. 13) Melina, V., Craig, W. and Levin, S. (2016) ‘Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets’, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025. 14) 2019 ACC/AHA guideline on the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. 2019; DOI: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000000678. 15) Willett, W. et al. (2019) ‘Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems’,Lancet, 6736, pp. 3–49. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4.