Plant foods will pave the way to better health, say scientists


The EAT-Lancet Commission was tasked with answering the question 'Can we feed a future population of 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries?' Here's what they found, and how you can do your bit for your own - and the planet's - health.

With the release of a report from the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health, it's clear that prioritising plant-based foods is no longer the stance of a select group of animal-lovers or environmentalists. The Commission brought together more than 30 world-leading scientists from across the globe to reach scientific consensus on what defines a healthy diet and how we can reach it sustainably.

Throughout the report, the researchers delve into and encourage the universal adoption of a 'planetary health diet', which focuses on consuming more whole, plant foods and far less meat and highly processed foods. A plant-based approach to eating is becoming increasingly popular as evidence for the health benefits of such diets stack up, and as more people seek environmentally sustainable alternatives to animal proteins.

A diet that reduces your risk of lifestyle diseases and prevalent cancers

And just what do these health benefits entail? "Vegetables and fruit are rich in vitamins and minerals, fibre, antioxidants and plant compounds called phytochemicals which protect against cancer," says Discovery Vitality dietitian Terry Harris. "There's very strong evidence that links an increased intake of vegetables and fruit with a reduced risk for lifestyle diseases."

These diseases include heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, such as breast and colorectal - types that are alarmingly prevalent in South Africa. According to the 2017 Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) Oncology claims tracker, the two types of cancer most diagnosed in female DHMS members is breast cancer and cervical/uterine cancer. For men, it's prostate and colorectal.

"To gain the health benefits," says Terry, "you need to eat a minimum of 400 g (that's five portions) a day of a variety of fruit and non-starchy vegetables. Eat your fruits with the skin and pulp - not juiced."

Keep those grains whole and don't leave out your legumes

Including whole grains in your diet can also protect against lifestyle diseases, as well as overweight and obesity, Terry adds. "This is because whole grains - such as barley, brown rice, bulgur wheat, oats, popcorn and whole-wheat bread, pasta or crackers - provide fibre, resistant starch, a number of vitamins and minerals, as well as those beneficial phytochemicals."

"The fibre in whole grains helps you feel full faster and steadies your blood sugar levels, which helps prevent overeating and weight gain. In contrast, highly refined grains, like white rice, white bread and white flour, make you hungry soon after eating them, because they've been stripped of their filling fibre content."

It's also important to include legumes and pulses (like beans, chickpeas and lentils) in your weekly meals. The fibre found in these foods helps to decrease cholesterol levels, guard against diabetes, prevent constipation, and protect against gallstones. Learn more about what legumes are and how to prepare them here.

The planetary health diet could help prevent 11 million deaths annually

The EAT-Lancet report concludes that the data presented in the report is "both sufficient and strong enough to warrant immediate action." It goes on to state: "Food will be a defining issue of the 21st century. The Commission shows that feeding 10 billion people a healthy diet within safe planetary boundaries for food production by 2050 is both possible and necessary."

"It also demonstrates that the universal adoption of a planetary health diet would help avoid severe environmental degradation and prevent approximately 11 million human deaths annually." The question is - will you - and will South Africans as a nation - use this data to take action and eat healthier? And if you do - what impact will it have?

"Chances are, by doing so, you'll see and feel the proof not just in your body, but also on your wallet," says Harris. "At Discovery, we see this play out clearly in our data," she explains. "Vitality members get cash back on healthy items they purchase at Pick n Pay and Woolworths, and our data has shown that when members receive a discount and earn Vitality points for using the Vitality HealthyFood benefit, they positively change their behaviour."

Healthier eaters have lower health claims and BMIs

Data from about 350 000 Vitality members taken between 2009 and 2011 shows that, depending on the discount they receive (10% or 25%), they purchased up to 9% more healthy foods and 8.5% more fruits and vegetables. They were also three times more likely to have three or more whole grain servings daily.

Eating more nutritious foods has measurable health outcomes. According to Harris, a shift in the nutritional quality of a member's basket from average to best is associated with a reduction in claims of R900 per year, and a body mass index (BMI) reduction of 4.2%. This demonstrates that incentivising healthier behaviours really can impact lives - and while these figures are very encouraging, we can all strive for even better."

So give a whole food, plant-based diet a try - even if it's just a few times a week (like embracing #MeatFreeMondays). Take full advantage of your HealthyFood benefit, learn how to cook the healthy way by joining an interactive cooking course at the Vitality HealthyFood Studio, and check out these practical tips on how to bulk up your regular, everyday meals with plant foods.

Feed your family good health with Vitality HealthyFood

Discovery Vitality's HealthyFood benefit, created by a team of nutrition and health experts, aims to promote good health and lower the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Vitality members can earn up to 25% cash back at Pick n Pay or Woolworths for their healthy food purchases.

Check the Pick n Pay and Woolworths HealthyFood catalogues to see which products qualify. Then SMS "Join" to 47751 to start getting rewarded for healthy choices with Vitality.

Make your meal prep plant-based, with a twist!

Spring into action and start eating healthier with our new, flavourful Plant based, with a twist cooking course. This fun, interactive cooking course with Prue Leith Chefs Academy focuses on creating sensational, superfood-packed meals using locally-sourced fresh produce from Woolworths.

You'll cook up a storm in our state-of-the-art kitchen, followed by a sit-down meal where you will be able to tuck in to all the delicious meals you've prepared. This course is perfect for vegans, vegetarians or anyone who just loves veggies and wants to learn how to create delicious meals with them. Limited courses available - find out more today!

Recommended for you by Vitality

Learn how to work wonders with veggies

Keen to eat healthier but not sure how to best incorporate more fresh, seasonal ingredients into your meals? Look no further than the Discovery Vitality HealthyFood Studio, a state-of-the-art teaching and dining kitchen based in Sandton, Johannesburg.

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