How a whole food plant-based diet can make you healthier and happier, and may even reduce the risk of severe Covid-19 infection
- Personal trainer and nutrition coach Charissa Areington saw her many health issues clear up after switching from meat and dairy to a whole food plant-based diet
- A recent study found that people who ate a plant-based diet had a 73 per cent lower chance of developing a moderate to severe Covid-19 infection
Before switching to a whole-food plant-based (WFPB) lifestyle eight years ago, Charissa Areington struggled with bad skin breakouts, irritable bowel syndrome, sinusitis and fatigue.
Fed-up with feeling less than 100 per cent for much of the time, she stopped eating meat and dairy products and began consuming more vegetables and fruit. It didn’t take long for her to notice changes in her health.
“My breakouts cleared up, I had more energy, my sinusitis improved and I started digesting food a lot better,” says the South African personal trainer and nutrition coach, who moved to Hong Kong in April 2020.
“Imbalances in the gut can lead to a range of health issues,” she says. “By taking care of my gut with the right foods, I learned that I could improve my overall health. When we eat high-fibre foods, for instance, the fibre ferments in our gut and promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria.”
Today, Areington consumes whole, minimally processed foods that are naturally high in fibre, phytonutrients and water. She loves smoothies made with baby spinach, berries and plant-based protein powder, coconut yogurt with seeds, vegetable wraps, apple slices dipped in nut butter, zucchini pasta, and veggie bowls consisting of baked pumpkin, cauliflower rice, herbs, sun-dried tomatoes and a sesame-based dressing.
She credits her antioxidant-rich diet with helping her stave off illness – including the flu, which she’s not had in many years – and giving her the energy she needs to stay active.
Countless studies support the link between a high consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grains and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, digestive diseases and certain cancers.
“This is because plant foods are low in saturated fat, virtually absent in cholesterol, and high in fibre, vitamins, minerals and anti-inflammatory compounds that are required for optimal health,” says Dr Shireen Kassam, a consultant haematologist at King’s College Hospital in London. Kassam is also a visiting professor in plant-based nutrition at the University of Winchester and the founder of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK, a non-profit membership organisation that provides evidence-based education on plant-based nutrition.
At the same time, a WFPB lifestyle eliminates or greatly reduces exposure to the harmful compounds found in animal-based foods, from saturated fat, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, to nitrates and nitrites, which are found in processed red meat and are linked to a higher incidence of cancer.
In addition, a WFPB lifestyle keeps our immune system healthy, helping us fight infection.
She adds the abundance of vitamins and minerals in healthy plant foods is crucial in supporting the health of immune cells that fight infection and the cells that produce antibodies against infectious threats.
Eating WFPB foods may even reduce our risk of Covid-19 and particularly the risk of severe infection. A recent small study, published in June in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, found that people who ate a plant-based diet had a 73 per cent lower chance of developing a moderate to severe Covid-19 infection. The results suggest that a healthy diet rich in nutrient-dense foods may be considered for protection against the virus.
Most chronic diseases share similar underlying mechanisms including inflammation, an unhealthy gut microbiome and an impaired immune system, Kassam points out, and while a WFPB diet can help address these issues, it doesn’t mean that eating this way will make you disease-proof.
To reap the health benefits of a WFPB diet, choose whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and avoid processed and convenience items. While foods like French fries, vegan “meats”, some varieties of vegan “cheese”, and some vegan cookies and desserts may be free of animal products, they may not be healthy if they are high in sugar, salt and fat. Plant-based foods that are also ultra-processed lack the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre that are abundant in whole plant foods.
There’s no right or wrong way to transition to a WFPB lifestyle. Kassam recommends taking the time to plan your meals – see where you can substitute meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy milk for tofu, tempeh, and soy or other plant-based milks.
She also advises taking a vitamin B12 supplement or consuming foods and beverages that are fortified with this vitamin – it’s the one nutrient that isn’t found in plant foods but is essential for keeping our blood and nerve cells healthy.
Areington also maintains good health with a combination of cardiovascular and strength-training workouts six days a week, and a gentler activity like yoga or a long walk outdoors one day a week. She believes that living a balanced lifestyle is key to keeping our immune system strong.
“Look at what you’re eating and substitute the processed foods for real, whole, plant-based ones. Over time you’ll make better food choices as your body rejects those foods that make it feel unwell. Exercise, recovery and mindfulness are important, too. Staying healthy is a journey made up of a series of positive actions.”