OPINION: Plant-based food could be something we're all asked to eat more of
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About 14 years ago, I read an article in a health journal about low-level, chronic inflammation in the body.
To be honest, I thought it was a rather flaky notion.
But just a couple of years later, when I was writing my positive ageing book Too Young to Get Old, more and more medical experts were talking about inflammation, so the subject did find its way into my manuscript, though I was still finding it hard to get my head around it.
We all know what inflammation is if we can see it.
If you have a red, angry looking spot on your chin, or a bad cut that won’t heal, or an abscess under a tooth, you have visible evidence that the area is inflamed.
And if you’re unlucky enough to have rheumatoid arthritis, you know that you are prone to flare ups of inflammation in your joints and you may see some swelling as well as feel a lot of pain.
But inflammation deep inside our bodies is hidden from view so is harder to understand.
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However, these days it’s generally accepted as something that we have, and also that initial symptoms tend to be aches in the muscles and joints, fatigue, lack of energy, digestive problems and skin rashes.
The big question then is what, if anything, can we do to combat it?
Well, though inflammation is believed to be partially attributable to genetics, scientists say that unwise lifestyle choices – such as a diet rich in refined carbohydrates but low in fresh fruit and vegetables, insufficient exercise and smoking – are also to blame.
Now, you may say, this is nothing new; we’ve known for ages that a poor diet, inactivity and smoking are bad for us. That’s true.
But in the recent research, the focus is on the role of inflammation in a wide range of serious conditions which include macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, diabetes, heart problems, kidney failure and various cancers.
What is not as yet clear, is whether inflammation causes these diseases, or just partly contributes to them, or is an effect of having them.
But wherever future medical thinking takes us, I certainly feel there’s enough evidence that hidden inflammation exists and is damaging for us, and I am therefore adjusting my diet and lifestyle accordingly.
None of the changes I’m making can possibly harm me, and they may end up extending my active life. And as you know, that’s what my passion, positive ageing, is all about.
So basically, the current health advice to decrease inflammation is not to smoke, to do 150 minutes or so of active exercise a week and to eat healthily, preferably by adopting the Mediterranean diet.
But there is also a growing body of opinion which suggests we should add into that mix more plant-based foods than we consume at present.
You may well have noticed that we’re hearing a lot now about how good it is for us to increase plant-foods in our diets.
Veganuary was very big this year for example and gained a lot of followers as well as press coverage.
Clearly, the future of the planet is part of the agenda, but medical specialists of all kinds are embracing this trend as they feel it’s a benefit to health.
Since 2003, we’ve been urged to get our ‘five a day’ – a mixture of five fruits and vegetables.
Well, don’t be surprised if that message is replaced sometime soon by one that asks us to eat at least 30 different plant-based foods a week – because various studies show that the wider range of plants we eat, the healthier our guts are.
Now, I know 30 seems rather a lot, but think about it.
This plan is not just about fruit and veg. It includes grains, seeds, nuts of all kinds, herbs and so on.
So, if for example, you have porridge for breakfast with some blueberries on it, and for lunch a vegetable risotto combining rice with peas, peppers and onions plus a couple of herbs, you’ve already clocked up eight different plant-foods in just two meals.
We’re moving now into the time of year when fruit and vegetables become more plentiful and cheaper, and we have less need of stodgy, warming dishes, so this is the ideal moment to experiment with consuming more plants of all kinds in a bid to curb inflammation, improve the health of the gut, and avoid a wide range of illnesses.
You may also find this way of eating helps you control your weight better and makes you feel lighter, more energetic and fitter too. So, it’s definitely worth a go.
Finally, I’ve been reading Spoonfed, a book on the myths and truths about food. It’s written by Tim Spector, who is professor of Epidemiology at Kings College London, and is a fascinating read.
You’ve doubtless heard the saying ‘You are what you eat.’ This was first coined way back in the early 19th century, but I’m sure it’s never been more true than it is today.