Sensible Middle Ground: Nature Knows Best by Tom Sheehy
by Guest
in Blogs

As a yoga instructor and natural health coach, people are often surprised to find that I don’t follow a vegan diet, but rather a ‘predominantly plant-based' approach to eating a broad range of naturally occurring, seasonally variable, whole foods from all the major food groups.

Veganism means abstaining from animal products, particularly in diet; but distinctions can be made between dietary vegans who refrain from eating animal-derived products but might wear clothing from animals (e.g. leather or wool), and ethical vegans who look beyond diet, refraining from the use of animals for any purpose.

Aside from dietary health, veganism is adopted for a myriad of reasons, including ethical concerns and animal rights plus cultural, economic and environmental interests. Statistically, vegans experience less heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure) and bowel cancers than meat eaters.

Despite this, concerns arise around the possibility of nutritional deficiencies, specifically related to calcium and iron, plus vitamins D and K, which are largely found in animal-derived foods. Furthermore, a poorly implemented vegan diet can be high in refined carbohydrates if meat-based fats and protein are replaced with breads, crisps, sweets and confectionaries.

On the opposite end of the dietary spectrum, we see the meat-based, low-carb high-fat (LCHF) or 'Banting' diet endorsed by the likes of Prof. Tim Noakes, who explains as part of his work in The Real Meal Revolution that:

“Fat is the body’s preferred fuel. Carbs are unnecessary (…)” and a vegetarian/vegan diet is “(…) a very unsuccessful way of attempting to lose weight while building muscle and attaining excellent health.”

From a purely nutritional perspective, we might agree that well-sourced meat can form part of a healthy balanced nutrition regime, and that consuming animal products may be more 'natural' to our evolution as a species than veganism. A concern, however, is the blanket labelling of carbs as 'bad' when sheer logic positions them as fundamental to being human. The membrane of human cells, for example, is composed of lipids, proteins and carbohydrates.

Blood sugar, or glucose, can be obtained from either dietary sugar or dietary starch; but starch will be digested and absorbed into the bloodstream at a much slower rate than sugar. Excess carbohydrate that is ingested, but not immediately required by the body, is stored in the liver and skeletal muscles in the form of glycogen. If a person consumes more carbohydrate than their body is using, a portion will also be converted by the liver and stored in the body as fat.

Carbohydrates can be divided into two groups: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates, also known as simple sugars, include fructose (from fruit), sucrose (table sugar) and lactose (from milk). However, simple sugars are not all equal in form or function. Fresh fruits, for example, are one of the richest sources of simple carbohydrate but with the addition of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals; making them valuable for short-term, quick release energy needs. Refined sugars are also taken up rapidly by the body and thus promoted as 'providing energy', yet they are bereft of any true nutritional value and more likely to disrupt homeostasis; these are best avoided where possible.

Complex carbohydrates are also made of sugars, but their molecules are strung together to form longer, more complex chains. Complex carbohydrates, such as vegetables and whole grains, include dietary fibre, making them slower to digest and releasing sugar into the bloodstream at a steadier rate. When assessing the pros and cons of carbs as a food group, it is worth considering that green leafy vegetables, which are carbohydrates, are among the most fundamentally important of all human food sources.

Refined foods contain little or no fibre. Foods with a high fibre content include: fruits and vegetables; whole grains and cereals; beans, pulses and legumes; seeds and nuts. Complex carbohydrates digest slowly and release glucose into the bloodstream at a steady rate, requiring less work on behalf of the pancreas and ensuring a constant supply of usable energy to promote physiological function and long-term health. The addition of dietary fibre slows the absorption of natural food sugars further, maximising the efficacy of the digestive system and enabling the individual to extract the most fuel out of their food.

A high-fibre diet reduces the risk of colon cancer by speeding up the rate at which stools pass through the intestine and by keeping the digestive tract clean. Additionally, fibre binds to substances that would otherwise result in the production of cholesterol and eliminates them from the body. In this way, fibre helps to lower cholesterol levels, resulting in a decreased risk of heart disease.

Nutrition can be a controversial and conflicting subject. Often, as people become interested in modifying their diet, they inadvertently create mental and emotional anguish, becoming fearful both of eating and not eating! Modern society is flooded with inconsistent nutritional advice and dubious health claims, leaving the layperson confused and prone either to anxiety around what to eat, or perhaps even worse, apathy towards their diet and eating habits.

Yet the hallmark of healthy eating is extremely simple. The diet should be primarily plant-based (i.e. fresh fruit and vegetables), wide ranging, seasonally variable, and having undergone the least amount of processing before arriving on the plate. This is very much in the spirit of the old-fashioned eating practices, such as the traditional Mediterranean approaches, which do allow for the consumption of meat and animal products, albeit they may not need to form the base of our meals, but might rather be considered an optional addition.

There is a distinct difference between a diet and a lifestyle. Whilst a diet implies that certain foods are allowed, and others are not, a lifestyle teaches us as individuals to become more personally discerning about the things we consume and more aware of the effects that different types of food can have on our physical, mental and emotional health. The work then becomes the practice of developing intuition around our body’s unique needs and making the best food choices from the options available to us at any given time.

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