There’s a nutrition war going on out there online on the blogosphere, on twitter and other social media between the overall ethos of the best diet for optimal health and weight loss. There’s a particular surreptitious battle going on between the vegans, vegetarians and organisations such as Vegfest UK (who advocate more vegetables and plant based foods) and the ex Atkins Paleo diet fanatics and extremists who advocate mainly meat and cheese. So which diet is best for health?
Leading London Nutrition Therapist Yvonne Bishop-Weston helps people make sense of the conflicting evidence.
Nutritionist Yvonne Bishop-Weston is quick to point out that firstly it should be made clear that a diet designed solely to lose weight is unlikely to be a good, optimally healthy maintenance diet, in fact often they can be dangerous especially with Atkins style meat rich diets that can damage the kidneys and trigger diabetes and heart problems.
Secondly that the real reason why most off the shelf Fad diets don’t work is that people are all different and what works for one person could be emotionally and physically catastrophic for another.
Vegan style 5 a day diets
Tim Barford at Vegfest UK who runs festivals in Brighton, Bristol and London to showcase a vegan lifestyle says “We’ve seen interest in vegan diets more than double in the last 2 years”. The Vegan Society is now over 70 years old and it is now well proven that vegans can thrive at any stage of life and are typically leaner and healthier than average. Vegans particularly suffer less risk of stroke , heart related illnesses and cancers of the colon.
Main advantages of a vegan diet
On a vegan diet to avoid increasing one's intake of fruit and vegetables takes much more effort than on meat based diets. Oxford University who assisted with the massive European EPIC study confirm that most effective health insurance one can have to reduce risk of preventable chronic disease is to eat more fruit and vegetables (at least 8 portions a day). Typically unhealthy foods such as fast food, doughnuts, sugary snacks are laced with dairy, egg and gelatine which helps reduce intake of these nutritionally depleted ‘junk’ foods and thus reduce unnecessary calories in the diet.
Drawbacks of a Vegan Diet
The wholefood vegan diet used by Bill Clinton to repair his heart is a long way from what many vegans call food. It is increasingly possible to load up on nutritionally empty calories as manufacturers cut dairy and egg allergens out of junk foods and make vegan versions of ice cream, cakes and sugary simple carbohydrate rich foods – even Oreos are now vegan. It is also much easier now to buy vegan beer and wine and alcoholic or sugary drinks which in any language have a negative impact on health.
The Nutritionist says
With a healthy focus on a low GL vegan diet (diet with low Glycaemic Load ) avoid alcohol, exercise regularly and focus on whole foods not processed half foods such as white bread and sugar rich junk foods it’s easily possible to both lose weight and be optimally healthy on a vegan diet. If extra calories are needed one needs to eat more nuts and seeds or to eat treat foods such as coconut / cashew nut ice cream. There are of course environmental and ethical advantages with a vegan diet too.
The problem with many diets is that they are based on low calorie intake so your body recalibrates into a famine mode to compensate for lack of calories and conserves energy. Often one can thus end up with a body that puts on weight more easily than before and is a very effective at fat storing rather than fat burning. A feast or famine approach was devised to avoid triggering a body’s fat storage emergency mode – starving yourself some days and then pigging out the next .
The Nutritionist Says
Whilst encouraging your body to fat burn rather than fat store is a good idea in principle it easy to put pressure on the body's hormonal system if one routinely expects it to draw energy from a hormone response rather than available nutrients. Guided exercise combined with a balanced nutritious diet is a far more practical approach.
Meat and Cheese Based Animal Fat Paleo Style Diets
Following the health professional backlash against The Atkins diet (revealing it’s risks to kidney function, increased risk of some cancers and various other health risks) meat lovers everywhere have rallied around the Paleo Diet and other copycat nutritional regimes. Eating like cavemen seems more palatable to newspapers and TV than a specialist emergency short term diet for the super obese. There is no doubt that eating more like Gorillas and Chimpanzees has a lot to be said for it but there is often very little natural or wild about most people’s practical interpretation of the paleo diet.
Main advantages of a Paleo Diet
Cutting out processed sugar laden foods is a great idea – they are not just calorific they are nutrient depleted foods leaving your body struggling to survive in a nutritional void of anti-oxidants, essential fats, fibre vitamins and minerals. A body can struggle with what to make of a twinkie, a big mac, a KrispyKreme Doughnut, a chemical laced fizzy soda drink or a tub of hydrogenated fat laden ice cream so it is likely to class it as either a 'don’t know' or a 'toxin' and stashed away in a quarantined fat cell like anti virus software on your computer. Avoiding fat by replacing it with sugar was one of the biggest cons of the last century and an obesity epidemic was the cost and the food industry has lots to answer for. Avoiding white bread, white rice, white pasta and any foods with lots of added sugar or artificial sweeteners is a great idea – one should always aim for natural whole foods with natural levels of essential fats vitamins minerals and anti-oxidants.
Disadvantages of a Paleo Diet
Most available modern meat is nothing like the wild essential fat rich blubber eaten by the Alaskan Inuits or the reptiles and insects traditionally eaten by Aboriginal cultures. Some people resort to eating cheese but a dairy based diet is implicated in all sorts of detrimental health risks. A modern meat based diet is irrefutably linked to higher risk of bowel cancer and heart disease. Blaming carbohydrates rather than sugar for health problems is over simplistic. Many whole food carbohydrates come with a wealth of health advantages such as fibre, B vitamins and a host of minerals lost when they are processed into white sugary versions and vegetables are carbohydrates. A diet focussed on meat and dairy rather than fresh fruit and vegetables is delusional and pure wishful thinking. It's possible to lose weight but long term health is sure to suffer.
The Nutritionist says
It’s true that it is possible to eat small amounts of naturally reared meat and fish and to be as healthy as a vegan but the key ubiquitous factor in health studies is the predominance of fresh fruit and vegetables in the diet. Fat vs Sugar is a food industry smokescreen, what matters more is what type of fat and sugar it is and whether in comes with copious amounts of naturally occurring soluble fibre, antioxidants vitamins and minerals. A meat / dairy based diet also ignores moral, ethical and sustainability issues.
Yvonne Bishop-Weston will be appearing at VegfestUK Brighton in March 2015 with a host of other distinguished speakers on health, politics, the environment, fitness, diet and animal welfare. Author chefs will also be demonstrating dishes and recipes from their new cookbooks.
Yvonne Bishop-Weston is a leading Nutrition Therapist in London. Trained as a nutritionist at The Institute of Optimum Nutrition Yvonne had a successful career in health food retail and catering before becoming a nutritionist and setting up The Foods For Life Health and Nutrition Consultancy. She provides TV , Radio, newspapers and magazines, restaurants, PR companies and Food manufacturers with independent Nuytrition expertise. Her busy clinics in London, Surrey and Hampshire helps people deal with a wide range of conditions from digestive issues such as IBS to a range of energy and hormonal problems through to infertility and healthy pregnancy. Yvonne also offers individualised diet programs for both loosing and gaining weight.