During the first month of the year, I couldn’t help but notice a rather sudden rise in veganism. A record number of consumers have signed up to ‘Veganuary’, a charity inspiring people to go vegan in January. Restaurants and supermarkets offer a much wider range of vegan options than ever before, articles on the benefits of veganism flourished on both social and traditional media, and people constantly talk about vegan and plant-based diets.
As a doctor myself, nutrition is something that I am really passionate about, since it plays such an important role in both our physical and mental health, as well as our overall well-being. It is an exciting field where new information constantly comes to light; however, this has resulted in a plethora of often confusing and contradictory information coming from various sources: scientific research, media and books.
To learn more about nutrition, I recently read the book ‘Gene Eating: The Science of Obesity and the Truth about Diets’, where Dr Giles Yeo discusses a number of famous diets, such as Paleo, Atkins, Dukan, plant-based, gluten- and dairy- free diets. These diets focus on weight loss, and/or improvement of health.
Although these diets may be successful in the short term (weight loss), they usually fail in the long term (weight regain). Often advocated by media gurus, these diets are based on pseudo-scientific premises, and follow a simplistic reductionist approach.
On the contrary, there’s the Mediterranean diet, widely considered one of the healthiest in the world. It includes relatively high consumption of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, grains, legumes and nuts, moderate consumption of fish and poultry, as well as red wine, and low consumption of dairy products and red and processed meat. It has been linked to reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and increased longevity.
On that note, I would like to point out that even though a moderate consumption of red wine can be beneficial to our health, alcohol is a double-edged sword, since a higher consumption is associated to a number of physical and mental illnesses. For this reason, in the UK, guidelines recommend not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. Higher consumption of alcohol can exacerbate both the physical and the mental health, and may render other interventions ineffective.
Excluding certain food groups from our diet and depriving ourselves of certain nutrients is not risk-free. There are, of course, notable exceptions, where dietary exclusions are necessary for health reasons; for example, sufferers with diabetes should avoid sugar, sufferers with coeliac disease should follow a gluten-free diet, and people who allergic to certain foods should avoid these foods.
I otherwise support a more holistic and balanced approach where all foods are allowed, and I fully endorse the Mediterranean diet. Remember, however, that moderation is the key.
Here are a few small improvements for better physical and mental health:
- Have three regular main meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Have healthy snacks between the main meals.
- Eat mindfully.
- Eat in moderation, not too much.
- Follow a varied but balanced diet of protein, carbohydrate and fat (use the UK ‘Eatwell Guide‘ or other official recommendations as a guide).
- Eat your five a day (fruit and vegetables) .
- Drink plenty of water, but drink alcohol in moderation, not in excess.
Alongside a healthy balanced diet, do not forget to exercise and keep physically active. Nutrition and exercise are the two sides of the same coin. Both are equally important for better physical and mental health, and for overall better well-being.
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Dr Alex Chatziagorakis is a London-based consultant psychiatrist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
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