Have we been asking the right questions about protecting our health? Are more doctors and nurses the answer, or extra NHS funding? The election debates barely touched on health issues, particularly inequality and healthy lifestyles. Key party pledges focused on inputs into the NHS, rather than improved health outcomes. Having more staff or cheaper medicines does not necessarily improve the nation's health. We can do a lot more by focusing on prevention, supporting healthy lifestyle changes for all, and by enabling people to choose plant-based diets.
A few months ago we learned that nearly half of the UK population are on prescribed drugs. This shocked many, including health professionals. As a nation we have become more obese: Public Health England results for 2013 showed that around 62.1% of adults were overweight or obese (67.1% of men and 57.2% of women). Figures released in June 2015 by the Health & Social Care Information Centre showed that nearly a quarter of children aged 4-5 were overweight or obese and over a third of 10-11 year old children were overweight or obese in 2013-2014. Social inequality is linked to obesity, particularly for women and children. While the pharmaceutical industry is in politicians' pockets, individuals and public health are the clear losers of this worrying trend.
Salvation at the bottom of a bottle of pills
Many of us keep blood pressure in check through drugs or take cholesterol-lowering statins (65 million prescriptions!), needlessly. Our ill health may arise through the way we live, particularly when the infrastructure around us encourages poor health choices. When doctors tell us to seek salvation at the bottom of a bottle of pills this will frequently cause other side effects further requiring medication to manage. Can we create a healthier society where it's fair to say, 'let food be thy medicine'?
Healthy diets include plenty fruit and vegetables
A growing number of studies show that those eating plant-strong diets generally have:
• lower blood pressure, and lower incidence of cardiovascular disease (e.g. Leenders et al., 2013)
• lower cholesterol levels (e.g. Bradbury et al., 2013/4)
• lower body mass index (BMI) (e.g. Spencer et al., 2003; Tonstad et al., 2009)
• lower chances of developing diabetes type II or better management of the disease (e.g. Trapp and Barnard, 2010; Sabaté and Wien, 2010)
• reduced risks of developing some cancers (e.g. Key et al., 2014)
• and lower mortality (e.g. Oyebode et al., 2014)
A well-balanced varied vegan diet, particularly when combined with regular exercise, provides people with a natural 'health insurance' that can reduce the need for prescription drugs. It is high time that Government fully support health professionals to focus on prevention, and start prescribing plant-strong diets.
The recommended 7-8 portions of fruit and vegetables per day can be straightforward on a vegan diet. The chances are you already love particular vegan-friendly dishes, such as dahl, pumpkin soup, roast sweet potato or other delicious meals. Perhaps you can start to include more plant-based options in your breakfast, such as fruit, peanut butter or plant milks. For lunch try hummus, vegetable soups or big salads (including a source of protein such as nuts and seeds), and for dinner try easy options such as baked or refried beans (choose brands with reduced salt and sugar), or falafel. Maybe you can experiment with affordable dried mixed herbs and spices, to bring an extra zing to plant-based ingredients?
Take charge of your own health, and ask your Registered Dietitian (or, outside the UK, equivalent trained expert) today for more information about healthy plant-based diets and vegan nutrition. Visit vegansociety.com for recipe tips or sign up to 'try vegan living for 30 days'. In time, some of you may find you can cut back on unnecessary drugs (responsibly, of course, by getting medical advice!). As a Charity, we can help you start exploring how plant-based diets and vegan living may benefit you.