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How plant-based diets reduce disease

At what age should I start eating a healthy diet to reduce my risk of cancer? The answer may surprise you.

Every week, I have to inform a small number of my patients that we have just reached a diagnosis of bowel cancer. The vast majority of cases occur after the age of 50 years. However, a new European study shows that this diagnosis is being made in more 20 to 29 year olds than ever before.

Having analysed data on almost 144 million Europeans followed for 25 years, researchers found that bowel cancer rates have tripled among young people since 1990. These results do not surprise me or my colleagues who work in diagnosing and treating bowel cancer. Our patients are getting younger.

The research team placed the blame for this increase not on rare genetic syndromes or bad luck, but largely on rising rates of obesity, poor dietary habits and consumption of processed meat.

This is not news. Cancer Research UK estimate that every year almost 12,000 people in the UK get bowel cancer simply due to eating a low fibre diet and a further 9,000 cases occur due to eating red and processed meat.

The US are reducing the age for screening colonoscopy to 45. In the UK, checks start at 55. With current trends it is likely that we will need to start screening younger people in the future.

Instead of waiting for these new guidelines and counting down the days to your first colonoscopy, you can start by making a huge positive change today. When it comes to reducing your risk, a whole food plant-based diet ticks all the right boxes and reduces your risk profile within weeks. It’s never too early.

Alan Desmond
A plant-based diet has been shown to improve gut health. Photo Alan Desmond/Instagram.

Moving to a plant-based diet isn’t just about cancer prevention. It’s also a great way to harness the power of a healthy gut microbiome. The trillions of microbes that reside in our gut play a key role in promoting our health and longevity.

Plant-based eating means higher intake of polyphenols, which increase Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. These bugs have anti-inflammatory effects and reduce cardiovascular risk.

Several studies designed to look at the healthy impact of a plant-based diet have demonstrated that the clinical benefits run in parallel to these positive changes in the gut microbiome. These studies encompass obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and even some early work in patients with Parkinson’s disease. In each study, positive microbiome changes occur on a plant-based diet.

These beneficial changes are not theoretical. When it comes to harnessing the power of a healthy gut microbiome to reduce your risk of chronic disease and to improve your quality of life, it’s plant-based all the way.


Alan Desmond

Dr Alan Desmond is a consultant gastroenterologist and an Advisory Board Member of Plant-based Health Professionals UK, a charity that educated doctors, health professionals and members of the public on the health benefits of a plant-based diet.  He shares his plant-based meals alongside the latest research in nutritional science and health on Instagram @dr.alandesmond. His new book, The Plant-Based Diet Revolution: 28 days to a happier gut and a healthier you, is out from 7 January. 

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