What is the quickest and easiest way to improve our health? According to a new book by Dr Alan Desmond, switching to a plant-based wholefood diet would do so in a mere 28 days.
lays out the science behind his thinking. It also includes an appetising range of recipes and a step-by-step meal plan outlining exactly how we can harness the power of food to maximise our health.
“A lot of people are asking themselves how they can look after their health in 2021 and my answer to them is to start by looking at the food on their plate,” says Desmond. “I hope this book will convince them to do just that.”
Desmond is certainly qualified to give this advice. The Cork native is certified in gastroenterology and general internal medicine, having trained in Cork, Dublin, and Oxford. He is the lead consultant gastroenterologist at the Devon Gut Clinic in Britain and he also works with Stephen and David Flynn of the Happy Pear with the aim of educating people about how food affects health.
“I have been practising medicine for 20 years, specifically dealing with gut health problems,” he says. “People know intuitively that their health has something to do with what they eat and always ask me how they should change their diets. I have spent my career searching for evidence-based answers to that question and this book represents what I have found.”
The diet he recommends is one where 50% of each plate consists of fruit and vegetables, 25% of wholegrain carbohydrates, and the other 25% of beans, nuts, and seeds.
“This is the diet that humans have thrived on for centuries,” says Desmond. “It reduces your risk of chronic disease and it adds healthy years to your life.”
The gut plays a significant part in maintaining overall health and the food we eat determines how effective it is at doing that.
“The microbes that make up the lining of your gut respond to the food you eat,” says Desmond. “They thrive on fibre, which gives them the energy they need to grow and carry out their various functions in the body, such as producing hormones to signal hunger and satiety, controlling blood sugar levels, activating immune cells, and maintaining the gut barrier.”
Many of us are deficient in fibre. “The answer isn’t rocket science,” says Desmond. “Fibre can be found in plants, which means adding more fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds to your plate.”
The positive effects of such a diet are well established. Desmond cites research from University College London which found that people who eat seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day reduced their risk of dying from heart disease by 31% and from cancer by 25%.
He also refers to a 2018 study which analysed the diet quality and health outcomes of 1.6m Europeans and concluded that plant-based diets significantly lowered rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
“This is where the standard western diet has been going wrong,” says Desmond. “We don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. They should make up half of what we consume.”
We also eat too much processed food. “A large 2018 study in Britain showed that adults got more than half their calories from junk food,” says Desmond. “The ingredients in those foods – the flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, and stabilisers – damage gut health. They promote the growth of harmful bacteria and degrade the gut barrier. They are also full of added sugar, unhealthy fats, and sodium.”
The consequences of this diet, he says, can be seen in the state of the nation’s health. “About 10,000 people die in Ireland every year from heart disease and stroke. There are currently about 225,000 people living with type 2 diabetes. The figures for these diseases are much lower in populations where people eat plant-based diets.”
Desmond believes that we should follow their example. “Studies show that a healthy plant-based approach to food can help us to prevent, halt, or – in some cases [such as with type 2 diabetes] – even reverse these illnesses,” he says.
Throughout the book, he mentions people for whom this has worked. “I now start conversations with patients by asking them about the foods they eat each day,” he says.
This difference is obvious within 28 days. “In January 2020, I worked with Stephen and David Flynn to challenge 100 healthcare professionals in southwest England to go plant-based for 28 days,” says Desmond.
“One third of them had elevated non-HDL cholesterol levels, a strong predictor of future heart disease and stroke. After four weeks of eating plant-based food, their levels had fallen by an average of 27%. Challengers who were overweight or obese had seen an average weight loss of 5kg. These benefits are available to everyone if they follow a wholefood plant-based diet.”
It is a diet he follows himself. “In 2016, I decided a plant-based diet was best for me and my family and we have eaten that way since,” he says. “It’s not complicated. We use familiar ingredients to create delicious and nutritious food.”
Through his work as a gastroenterologist, his collaborations with the Happy Pear, and his new book, Desmond hopes to convince us all of the advantages of eating this way.
“I want to start a plant-based diet revolution,” he says. “It’s as simple as building most of your meals from foods known to benefit human health.”
- The Plant-Based Diet Revolution: 28 days to a happier gut and a healthier you, by Dr Alan Desmond, published by Yellow Kite, €23