If your body is healthy and well nourished, the evidence will radiate from your hair, skin, eyes and overall appearance. To look good and feel great, an excellent starting point is to change your diet to include plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. This is the basis of healthy eating, so you can expect your hair to start shining, your skin to glow and your energy levels to soar. The science behind this advice is now overwhelming.
There are several reasons why a veggie diet is so good for skin. By cutting out meat, dairy and processed foods, your saturated fat intake will fall but you will still need some fats – good fats! Nuts (walnuts in particular), seeds (especially flax seed and hemp seed), soya beans and oils provide these ‘good’ fats and are excellent foods to make your skin glow.
Vitamin A protects the skin against dryness and premature aging. It also helps maintain good circulation and fights skin infections, which will give you a healthy glow! B vitamins (B for Beauty!) also play a crucial role in maintaining healthy skin, and a deficiency can lead to dermatitis or eczema. Symptoms can often disappear when B vitamins are added to the diet.
Vitamin C is essential for the production of collagen, the major component of connective tissue. Collagen acts as a scaffold, providing the structure and support to stop skin from sagging and wrinkling. It also protects against dry skin and helps prevent lines, wrinkles and spider veins, and at the same time helps wounds to heal and fights infection.
Vitamin E helps prevent premature aging of the skin, protects against dry, dull skin, and the formation of age spots, whilst improving the circulation and helping scars to heal.
Antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E, and selenium) work together to help protect skin and combat the signs of aging. The most colourful and bright vegetables and fruits tend to contain the highest quantities. Fortified margarines and spreads are good sources of essential fatty acids and vitamin A. Eat whole grains, seeds and nuts for zinc, dried fruits, pulses, nuts and seeds for iron, and whole grains, bananas and nuts for selenium.
One of the most important ingredients for good skin is water – we’re 70 per cent water so make sure you drink plenty! Your minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables each day will also provide water so it makes sense to snack on them rather than cookies and chips!
The average Western woman spends about a half an hour a day on her hair - longer than some take to cook dinner! What you eat is reflected in the condition of your hair, and like the rest of your body, healthy hair needs the right nutrients in the right quantities.
For example, a lack of vitamin A can lead to dry, dull and lifeless hair whereas essential fatty acids can be used to combat dry, brittle hair and improve its texture. Magnesium and calcium work together to promote healthy hair growth whilst vitamin E helps scalp circulation and, together with the B vitamins and zinc, may reduce hair loss. There is a very strong hereditary link with grey hair but some research suggests that the B vitamins can delay the greying process.
The claim that carrots help you see in the dark is based on the fact that carrots contain beta-carotene (vitamin A), an essential vitamin for healthy vision. It is particularly important to the rods of the eye - which help us to see in the dark! If you’re lacking vitamin A, night blindness can be the result.
There is now plenty of evidence to show that some foods aid vision in other ways. A major study found that antioxidants can slow down the development of macular degeneration as people get older - eyesight gradually deteriorates until it results in blindness. Other research suggests that zinc has a similar effect. Vitamins C and E, on the other hand, may help to prevent or delay cataracts.
In short, if you want to keep that twinkle in your eye, eat plenty of wholegrains, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly the brightly coloured ones!
The claim that cow’s milk is essential for strong bones is simply not true. Most of the world's population (about 70 per cent) can't drink milk because thay can't digest a sugar it contains called lactose. These people get their calcium from plant sources and it's interesting that these are the same people who tend not to suffer from weak bones resulting from osteoporosis.
On the other hand, American women are some of the biggest consumers of calcium in the world yet they have one of the highest levels of osteoporosis, a disease that makes bones brittle and prone to fracture. Research suggests that too much animal protein from meat, milk and dairy products such as cheese, can upset the body’s acid balance making it too acidic. It tries to neutralise this with calcium - calcium it takes from the bones.
Other studies point to a high salt intake contributing to calcium loss – so beware of ‘hidden’ salt in processed foods. Phosphoric acid, used in fizzy drinks such as colas, can also increase calcium loss while other guilty parties include caffeine and smoking.
The evidence is pretty clear that the most important thing of all in producing healthy bones is exercise - what's called weight-bearing exercise. This means climbing the stairs instead of taking the lift, walking to the shops instead of driving and, of course, dancing.
You don’t build muscle by eating muscle (meat), you do it with regular training and exercise. Unfortunately there’s no magic bullet. Look at gorillas! They never eat meat, fish or dairy and are six-times stronger than us despite having 98.5 per cent of the same genes.
For gorillas and humans, the best muscle fuel is a wholegrain, plant-based diet that includes plenty of complex carbohydrates, ‘good’ fats, plant protein, vitamins, minerals, disease-busting antioxidants, and healthy fibre. No surprise then that Carl Lewis, the American track-and-field athlete who won nine Olympic gold medals during the 1980s and 1990s, did it on a vegan diet.
Don’t forget that eating well is only part of the equation; you have to exercise regularly, too!
Wholegrains release their 'complex' carbohydrates slowly and are the best source of energy for everyone. A good diet will contain a mix of plant protein, fats, vitamins and minerals and is the best way to stay in good shape. Aim for as wide a range of different foods as possible with enough calcium for good muscle function, iron to carry oxygen to the muscles and B vitamins that will help your body obtain the energy it needs from food. And drink plenty of water when exercising to prevent dehydrating.
Complex carbohydrates such as wholegrain breads, pastas and cereals are the key to providing energy, and by including as many as possible in your diet, you are sure to get a good supply of essential amino acids, from which protein is built. Low levels of iron are often responsible for a lack of energy and feelings of weakness and fatigue, and again it’s worth remembering that vitamin C significantly improves iron absorption. A lack of zinc can also lead to a loss of energy as it plays an important role in many bodily functions. B vitamins are also important as they are essential for the release of energy from food. White bread and white pasta are not complex carbohydrates as they have essentially been stripped of most of their goodness, including fibre. Because of this, the energy they do contain tends to be released in a rush rather than being paced over time, which is the ideal.
Vegetarians are 25 to 50 per cent less likely to die of heart disease than people who eat meat and it’s largely because they eat less saturated fat, hydrogenated and trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and refined carbohydrates, and more complex carbohydrates, plant protein, ‘good’ fats, vitamins and minerals. Research shows that soya protein lowers cholesterol, so it's a good idea to include soya milk, tofu or other soya products in your diet.
A typical Western diet consists largely of meat, eggs, dairy and processed foods, and contains high levels of undesirable nutrients and low levels of the desirable ones. A well-balanced, plant-based diet, on the other hand, is low in fat, high in fibre and includes many of the foods that help to keep a heart healthy, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and help with weight loss, which research shows can be anywhere between six and twenty eight pounds!
Fibre lowers both blood pressure and cholesterol, which is one reason why it is important to ensure that you eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but preferably eight portions. These are all high in fibre, whereas meat, dairy and eggs contain no fibre at all. Fruit and veg also contain disease-reducing antioxidant vitamins A, C and E which will help your heart as well as protecting against some cancers and other 'degenerative' diseases - those that kill most people in the affluent West.
Watch your weight! Losing just an inch or two from your waist can significantly lower your risk of heart disease and a plant-based diet, coupled with regular exercise, can help shed those excess pounds! Follow Viva!Health’s V Plan Diet – it's not about calorie counting or starving yourself, but it shows how to control weight by eating healthily - for life.
Eating too much salt can increase blood pressure so it needs to be watched. Using fresh herbs and spices to flavor food can be a good replacement and it doesn't take long for taste buds to adapt.
Smoking is a killer, as is drinking too much alcohol. Getting on top of these two and improving your diet is the recipe for a healthier, longer and fitter life.
Organs – kidneys, liver and lungs
Vegetarian and vegan diets can benefit the whole body, inside and out, including kidneys, liver and lungs. Animal protein can overwork the kidneys and reduce their filtering abilities. It can cause calcium to be leached from the bones and excreted in the urine to reduce the acidity caused by animal protein. Because a vegetarian diet contains less animal protein, it is less of a burden on the kidneys, while a vegan diet, which contains no animal protein at all, is the least stressful.
Switching from meat and dairy to a plant diet has been shown to benefit kidney disease.
The liver acts as a clearing house, collecting nutrients, removing waste and regulating the level of chemicals in the blood. It makes sense, then, that the liver will suffer from too many refined or processed foods and artificial chemicals.
Avoid too much saturated or processed (hydrogenated and trans) fats and make sure you drink plenty of water, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, unrefined whole grain foods and a wide range of legumes. This type of eating can also benefit lungs as research shows that lung cancer rates are lower in vegetarians. This may be partly because they are less likely to smoke, but the protective effects of their diet can’t be ignored.
Perhaps surprisingly, you can improve your mood through what you eat. Omega-3 oils help stabilise mood and can help to prevent depression. Good sources are flax seeds, flax oil and walnuts. Again, fruits, vegetables, wholegrain foods, pulses (peas, beans and lentils), nuts and seeds can provide a boost of invigorating nutrients.
Studies show that people who suffer from depression often lack B vitamins, particularly folate, B1, B6 and B12. With the exception of B12, all these vitamins are available in many plant foods, including nuts, green leafy vegetables, savoury yeast flakes, pulses, bananas, avocados and mushrooms. B12 is in fortified foods such as soya milk, breakfast cereals and margarines.
Reduce your intake of refined, processed foods and saturated animal fat from meat and dairy. Avoid sugary snacks and cut back on tea, coffee and alcohol as the boost from these stimulants is only temporarily. Avoid smoking at all costs!
There are things you can do to maintain a healthy smile! When they have access to sugar, bacteria in the mouth produce acid which can damage teeth and the more teeth are exposed to sugary foods, the more likely tooth decay is.
Swap chewy and sticky snacks for healthier nuts, seeds and vegetable sticks. Limit sugary drinks - water is far more thirst-quenching. Low intakes of vitamins B2, D, and B12 may increase dental decay but gum disease can be just as harmful for your teeth as tooth decay. Vitamin C helps prevent gums bleeding so ensure you don’t go short. Before long, healthy eating will become second nature.
Save the world, too!
The World Health Organization, American Dietetic Association and British Medical Association all agree that vegetarian and vegan diets can lead to good health. They can also help bring an end to the cruelty of factory farming, stop the onslaught of fishing that is destroying the world’s oceans, offer hope to the world's most impoverished people, and start the environment on the road to recovery.
Want to know more?
The best health and nutrition charity in the UK is the Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation.