If you follow my work with Dementia Researcher you may have stumbled upon my podcast series “Food for Thought”. It’s a show where I sit down with medical doctors who specialise in treating their patients by complementing modern medicine with well-evidenced, beneficial diet and lifestyle choices. We talk about the best foods you can eat in order to keep your brain in the best possible shape and reduce your risk of developing dementia.
This is really strongly demonstrated when you superimpose maps of the globe with hotspots for APOE4 gene expression (the main genetic risk factor) on top of maps that show global dementia rates. Some of the countries with the highest prevalence of APOE4 have incredibly low rates of dementia. South Africa is one example of such an occurrence. This can be partially explained away by life expectancy rates (~65 in South Africa vs ~77 in the USA) as dementia is very much a disease of the aged. However, that is not enough to explain why the incidence is over two times higher in America despite South Africa having a five to ten fold increase in the incidence of APOE4. Something else is in play here.
Now why is this all relevant to the title of this blog? If you have listened to any of those podcast episodes you will have learned that there is a wealth of evidence out there that, in many cases, genes merely load the gun for developing dementia. Diet and lifestyle pulls the trigger. So much so that diet and lifestyle choices are the biggest controllable risk factors for developing dementia. More specifically, eating healthy and exercising is one of the best things to do for your brain and there is a recurring theme from every podcast guest I have spoken to about this: avoid processed foods and bad fats. There are various ways of doing this but the easiest way to do it is to get more plants on your plate. Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes etc. and this brings me on to today’s topic (wow that was a long intro!)
January is a month of change. It is the time of year where we set our goals and decide on what challenges we take on. It has also become the prime month for veganism with the advent of Veganuary; an annual event where many people give veganism a try for a month. I have been vegan for over a year now but I want to start by saying I am not someone who thinks it is the only way to live. Our guest on food for thought promote plant based diets for health but you may have noticed they also never say “go vegan”. They just encourage people to consider more plant based options to optimise their health.
With that out of the way, I thought I would use my blog this month to help anyone who is new to veganism in navigating those waters and getting the most out of the experience. In my experience, when done right, a vegan diet can make you feel a level of energy, nourishment and vitality that no other diet has ever given me but it has to be done right. With that in mind, here are my top tips for Veganuary:
1 – Plan, plan, plan!
This first one is the most important. You often see stories online of public figures stating they tried veganism and it made them feel terrible. I can guarantee you that at least 90% of those cases were a result of bad planning. When you are accustomed to an omnivorous diet you don’t need to think about where you are getting your nutrients from. You know how to make a balanced meal. When you switch to veganism you need to rethink this a bit. If done right you can get absolutely everything you need from a vegan diet; even the famously quoted vitamin B12 which you can get from fortified plant milks and marmite. If in doubt, a vegan multivitamin is always a handy thing to take. The worst case scenario is you don’t need it and just produce expensive urine. There are lots of foods to explore but below is a table of what I consider to be staples of a good vegan diet along with the key nutrients they contain. Before you look it at let me say one more thing… if you try tofu make sure you get Tofoo co stuff as it’s ready to go and please marinade it first. Don’t make the mistake of thinking tofu is bland because the only marinade you tried was air…
2 – Read the labels
This next point is something that will hopefully become automatic. Any time you are buying something that is even slightly processed check the label. You will be amazed at how many things have milk powder snuck into them. If you’re buying fresh fruits and veggies then you are fine but anything with added ingredients needs to be checked to ensure there are no animal products within. Many vegan items don’t carry a vegan label because they are produced in factories that also handle meat and dairy. Look for the ingredients in bold to check. “May contain milk/eggs/meat” is fine. It just means the factory is not 100% vegan.
3 – Forget about cheese
Cheese is the number one reason people state for not wanting to try veganism. There are many vegan cheeses out there but they will disappoint you if you go straight to them from dairy cheese. The cathedral city vegan cheese is pretty good but my main recommendation for doing Veganuary is to get the health benefits from it. Forget about cheese. You might find you stop missing it much quicker than you expected.
4 – Don’t rely on fake meat
On the topic of health… try not to rely on fake meats. My friend said he tried veganism and felt no different but every meal was loaded with highly processed fake meats. They are delicious but they are also incredibly expensive and, while they aren’t as bad for you as processed meat they are still unhealthy. They contain so many ingredients that absolutely do not promote good health (saturated fats, emulsifiers, preservatives etc.) They are okay to have once in a while (I enjoy them occasionally) but try and get 80% of your calories from unprocessed whole foods.
5 – If you’re hungry, eat
This is another common complaint; “I tried veganism… I was always hungry”. EAT MORE THEN! If you are hungry please eat. If you follow the whole food principals you can eat a hell of a lot of food without going into unhealthy calorie surplus. Apps that allow you to track calories and nutrients are really handy here. Plants are much lower in calories than meat so load your plate. If your salad doesn’t make the table shake when you put it down it isn’t big enough.
6 – Embrace new flavours
This has been one of my favourite thinks about going vegan. When you aren’t relying on dairy and meat for flavour you find yourself exploring so many new flavours. Over the last year I have tried cuisines I would never think to try before with the added bonus of not having to worry about bad food reactions. You can’t really get food poisoning from lentils. Instead of thinking about the foods you can’t have, get excited about the wealth of opportunities that are now on your plate. Get some vegan cookbooks and start exploring.
7 – Go easy on yourself
The switch to veganism is a big one. It can take time to adjust and occasionally you might backslide a little. That is absolutely fine. Don’t be too hard on yourself and get back on the wagon. Nobody is going to fine you if you accidentally eat a bit of Dairy Milk.
8 – Keep a journal
Another handy thing to have is a journal where you can note down what you eat each day and how you feel. You can include recipes you enjoyed and new things you have tried. You can then look back at the end of the month to see if it really has made a positive difference to you.
9 – Meal prep
As I said earlier, veganism takes planning. In order to make it easy on yourself try and spend some time on the weekend making some meals in bulk that you simply have to reheat when ready. It makes cooking so much easier and it keeps you on track. Good examples are a big pot of 5 bean chilli, lentil dhal, pasta sauces and stews.
10 – Do some reading
Finally do a bit of research about the benefits of veganism. I often find myself googling what I am eating only to read a long list of significant health benefits and I feel a real sense of positivity about what I am putting in my body. You might find veganism isn’t for you but hopefully you enjoy the journey along the way. Good luck!
Dr Sam Moxon is a biomaterials scientist at the University of Manchester. His expertise falls on the interface between biology and engineering. His PhD focussed on regenerative medicine and he now works on trying to develop 3D bioprinting techniques with human stem cells, so that we better understand and treat degenerative diseases. Outside of the lab he hikes through the Lake District and is an expert on all things Disney.