A Norfolk sanctuary for animals saved from the abuses of people

A shire horse at the Hillside Shire Horse Sanctuary

Strange bleats and whinnyings like I’ve never heard draw me towards a lush spring paddock. Scores of goats mill around munching grass, or chilling. They are not the bleaters. The peculiar noises come from a pair of long-necked, quiff-topped quadrupeds straight out of Dr Seuss… chasing each other from one side of their dandelion-speckled patch to the other, occasionally stopping to whack each other with their necks and tumble about for a few seconds: fighting… playing… mating? Who knows?

Certainly not this city boy who has rarely crossed paths with llamas – particularly not in England – and who took a few seconds to drop the Dr Seuss image and recognise them for what they were. They were on the far side of the Hillside Shire Horse Sanctuary at West Runton near Cromer on the Norfolk coast, and for me the most unexpected residents here. I went expecting shire horses but, in addition to the magnificent beasts for which the place is named, also saw cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, roosters, turkeys, those llamas and, perhaps even weirder (to my eye at least), alpacas.

All these creatures have some kind of story related to the abuses of the farming industry or simply of human carers who failed to care. Here, though, thanks to the dedicated efforts of the volunteers who run the Hillside Animal Sanctuary, they have peace and indeed sanctuary ([noun] refuge or safety from pursuit, persecution, or other danger).

A trio of alpacas at Hillside Shire Horse Sanctuary

The sanctuary is the public face of the organisation, and is billed widely as a tourist attraction in the area. There were plenty of visitors on the day I went, enjoying the opportunity for close encounters with the animals in settings immaculately maintained and tended by the volunteers. But while it is indeed a lovely place to spend an hour or two simply for the sake of it, it also promotes a strong vegan message highlighting the cruelty of much of the farming industry. This is done so subtly via little labels here and there that you could almost miss it. The small cafe also offers only vegan snacks.

The combined effect of the non-preachy educational material and the presence of so many well looked-after creatures, many saved from horrendous fates, underlines the fact that these are sentient beings and not food. I doubt everyone who walks out the gate at the end of their visit will become an instant vegan, but enough seeds will have been planted to inspire at least a little questioning and perhaps further investigation.

This video, produced with footage from Hillside Animal Sanctuary’s investigations unit, has a good ending in that a creature ends up with a decent life. It does, however, contain some harrowing scenes along the way; not slaughtering or anything like that, simply the dreadful conditions animals have to endure in the agricultural industry.

The Hillside Animal Sanctuary also has an investigation unit whose undercover filming helps to expose cruelty on farms. It has a real impact, for example inspiring the supermarket chain Waitrose to change a supplier. These videos are also excellent educational resources for anyone who might be interested in knowing how their meat and dairy produce are made. But it’s a long-term mission, because the agriculture industry is more interested in the money it makes than the wellbeing of the creatures it abuses to make it. As Wendy Valentine, who founded Hillside Animal Sanctuary after seeing how battery hens are farmed, says: “The farms are protected, not the animals.”

If you find yourself in the area, and you like animals, a visit to the sanctuary – whose patron is the actor Martin Shaw – is well worth making. The place is funded wholly by donations, and if you’re interested you can help in various ways, for example by adopting a rescued animal or contributing some money; there is information about this here.

Rescued goats at the Hillside Shire Horse Sanctuary

Delicious Indian food but don’t linger too long or you’ll OMNOM your bill for dessert

Starters: Samosas, foreground, and masala puri

OMNOM, a vegetarian restaurant and yoga studio that opened in January 2022, is set in a light, airy and modern space just off Upper Street in Islington, London. 

A registered charity, which states that it is founded on the principles of compassion and kindness, this formerly vegan business promises that for every meal eaten there, OMNOM donates a hot and healthy meal to a child in the developing world. Among its ambassadors, it lists podcasters Jay Shetty and comedian Russell Brand. 

As an eating experience, it offers a wide range of foods, from street-snacky bits to small plates and traditional curries. The food we tried was delicious. The samosas – three per portion – were tasty and served with a light spicy sauce. The masala puri was something I’ve not experienced before, and both different and lovely, consisting of crispy shells filled with potatoes, chickpeas and bell pepper, dressed in chutney and sprinkled with sev. 

To follow we went for the jackfruit biryani medley, cheesy nan bread and makhani daal. The jackfruit was excellent; it was chunky and moist, adding superb texture to the spicy rice. The nan was perfect, with a great melty vegan cheese. And the daal, made from lentils and red kidney beans in a mildly spicy, buttery and creamy gravy, was just delightful. I had the rich plant-based chocolate cake and ice cream to follow, while my friend went for a dairy dessert. 

Dessert: Plant-based chocolate cake and ice cream

The food itself was excellent, with decent portion sizes. Unusually and rather disappointingly nowadays, this restaurant began as a vegan place and more recently chose to add dairy to the menu, so ordering can be tricky as some meals are available as a vegan option only. Plus, personally, I am much more inclined to support fully vegan businesses. 

Overall, great ethic, lovely food and attentive service, perhaps a little too much so at points – it was startling to have the bill plonked on our table halfway through dessert and with our not having requested it. We were assured there was no rush… but there clearly was.

Looking at my booking email later, I noticed that one hour and 15 minutes is allowed per meal for a table of four and under. My bad for not noticing when I reserved a table, as to be honest it may have put me off as the main event on a night out to celebrate a friend’s birthday. It’s not an cheap night out. Without alcohol, our dinner for two came to £80, so a more relaxed ending would have been the icing on the cake, rather than leaving a slightly sour taste.

That said, a leisurely stroll down a busy Upper Street on a Friday night is a great way to end an evening. 

A report from the frontline of UK Grim with Sleaford Mods and Cold War Steve

Boris Johnson. Nigel Farage. Jacob Rees-Mogg. Liz Truss. Matt Hancock. Piers Morgan. Jeremy Clarkson. Priti Patel… The list goes on, a grotesque cast of the privileged and entitled who ooze across the husked-out landscape of modern Britain in this powerful video by the artist Cold War Steve (Christopher Spencer) for the title track of the Sleaford Mods’ new album UK Grim.

Even though the song doesn’t name check them all, they are perfectly placed in this clever visual, verbal and musical frontline report from, well, UK Grim. Overall, it’s not so much a personal attack on individuals as an account of a broken society and the system that facilitates it.

It’s a visceral expression of rage and despair that helps to articulate what many might be feeling about living in a country where the rich are richer than they have ever been, while somewhere down the road people queue up to feed their families at food banks. Crucially, as always with the Sleaford Mods, there’s an undercurrent of dark humour that somehow provides a bit of yin for the yang of it all.

There’s an excellent recent interview with the band in The Guardian that is worth a read, and the conversation below, in which Cold War Steve and the Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn discuss the video, is also really interesting.

The Bricks’ Reverse Alchemy EP revels in their wild musical DNA

The Bricks rock band
The Bricks: Marc Walker, Gemma Hartshorn, Guy Crouch and Paul Steere
NEW MUSIC Reverse Alchemy EP by The Bricks

If you like a bit of hard-hitting post-punk rock ’n roll, check out this new EP by The Bricks from York in the UK.

They’re tight, they throw time around, they rock out totally, they even funk it up some. It’s a really interesting sound: in the DNA, I hear Fugazi, Gang of Four, Led Zeppelin (check the crazy riff in the title track), Big Black, Huggy Bear, Queen (?!!), MC5… I could keep going. So much there and nothing derivative; they’ve a sound of their own and it’s really cool.

Have a listen here and if you like it, consider popping a few quid via their Bandcamp page to support a new non-corporate DIY band.

The Bricks are drummer Marc Walker (whose mighty work I know well from his previous group Red Monkey), bassist Paul Steere, singer Gemma Hartshorn and guitarist Guy Crouch.

If you want to know more about them, you can search them out on social media (sorry, I don’t feed those particular algorithms with links, but they’re easy to find if that’s your cup of tea).

Country Life in Prague provides an excellent whole-food fix for vegans jaded by processed junk

Prague Astronomical Clock
Classy location: Country Life restaurant is near the medieval Astronomical Clock in Prague’s old town

Prague has a lot to offer vegans: on HappyCow I recently counted 58 dedicated restaurants in the Czech Republic capital, with numerous other places providing options for herbivores. 

However, after travelling around Europe for two weeks, what we needed most was a deviation from the vegan burgers and other fast foods so often found in more recently established cafés. We were also looking for something a little kinder on the wallet.

Country Life was perfect. It’s a buy-by-weight restaurant located just south of Prague’s medieval Astronomical Clock in the old part of the city, so you get to take in some of the sights as well. It’s attached to an organic food store, part of a chain that began in 1991 and now includes an organic farm and bakery. 

Vegan food
Whole food heaven: The restaurant has a huge selection of hot and cold food

The restaurant is buffet style and cheap, offering a wide range of salads and hot dishes, full of the freshest ingredients, as well as drinks and desserts.  You choose what you want, dish it on to your plate and pay according to what it weighs. A lovely, patient staff make the process seamless.

I am a sucker for weigh-and-pay buffets, because you get to try so many different things. With such an abundance of salads on offer, this place is a great antidote to the junk food you often find in vegan establishments when you are on the road. While that junk might be tasty and fill the gap, it doesn’t necessarily provide the nutritional benefits of the whole grains and fresh vegetables we thrive on.

Finishing touch: Vegan cheesecake and chocolate berry slice

Country Life was also excellent for traditional Czech foods and spicier curry and chilli-type dishes. I piled it all on. The boiled herby potatoes were simply cooked but absolutely amazing. (We ended up taking a carry-out box with the potatoes and a range of salads back to our hotel for later.) 

We finished with sugar-free vegan cheesecake and grain coffee, and left the restaurant energised by the much-needed injection of whole food into our travel diet. If you’re in Prague, it’s well worth visiting.

Healthy living: The central Prague Country Life store attached to the weigh-and-pay restaurant. The shop is also very good, offering everything from bread and a small selection of veggies to tofu and vegan cheese

The Green Flamingo, a vegan oasis in the meat-munching Austrian heartland of Innsbruck

Green Flamingo entrance
Lush welcome: the entrance of the Green Flamingo in Innsbruck

Traditional Tyrolean cuisine is dense, rich and has a hell of a lot of meat and dairy in it. So when meandering through Innsbruck, the capital of the Austrian state of Tyrol, you’ll see restaurant menus celebrating dishes such as Kasspatzln (egg noodles baked in cheese), Gröstl (a fried hash of bacon, potatoes and onion with an egg on top), Knödel (sweet or savoury dumplings), and butter-heavy cakes and pastries with equally umlauted names. 

Top of the list of local delicacies is Speck, a distinctively juniper-flavoured fatty ham, the vast overconsumption of which once left my younger brother projectile vomiting for two days. This was many moons ago, and he’s since become a committed vegetarian, but just the word Speck is enough to conjure up shudders in my family.

Times have changed, and generally Austria, which like Germany has held a long-standing passion for all things ‘green’, has become a little more welcoming to those who don’t eat meat. But still, dishearteningly, everywhere you go you see menus offering endless meals made from animals’ body parts and their secretions.

Green Flamingo view from rooftop
Rooftop oasis: a view of the restaurant from the terrace

We definitely weren’t in Innsbruck for the food. But, having taken a break from our usual self-catering places during a train trip around Europe, we were staying in a hotel to visit this stunning Alpine city and knew we’d have to make more of an effort to eat well.

The Green Flamingo was an absolute treasure. I’d like to say we serendipitously stumbled across this vegan restaurant, started in 2019 by Danish Kaspar and his Dutch partner Kim, but it’s in a tucked-away location and we were led there by the Happy Cow app. 

Just beyond the main streets of Innsbruck, it greets you with a wonderfully green exterior covered in vines, and offers the choice of sitting inside or out on a rooftop terrace. It was a balmy evening, so we sat outside. 

Though a little off the beaten track, the place was packed, so I was glad we’d booked. But the spaced-out tables and abundant plant life growing in containers (gleaming tomatoes and peppers, for example) on the roof around us – not to mention the sunset-kissed mountain peaks in the near distance – made for a laid-back atmosphere, with no sense of crowding at all.

Starter meals
Starters: summer rolls with peanut dip, foreground, and We Love Cows quesadilla

The staff were great too. Whereas much of the Innsbruck hospitality industry seems to run on passing trade, with frequently desultory service, the waiters here were friendly and helpful.

So to the food. I can never resist summer rolls with peanut dip on a menu, so that was me sorted for a starter, and my partner ate the ‘We love cows’ quesadilla. Mine was really good, and his folded tortilla with melty vegan cheese, refried beans and Mexican spices looked and tasted amazing. 

Main course meals
Mains: Lego Döner Plate, foreground, and Kevin Likes Bacon burger

As a main, I can recommend the Lego Döner Plate – a DIY meal that presents you with an assortment of fresh vegetables and vegan döner ‘meat’, as well as a wrap and fries, which you put together as you please (I opted for eating separate items rather than stuffing all into the wrap). My partner ate the ‘Kevin likes Bacon’ burger. He’s a man who really knows his plant-based burgers and he declared this one superb.

It was really good food for sure, but for me the best thing about the Green Flamingo was its mere existence as an oasis of calm and veganism in the midst of all that animal consumption in Innsbruck. I felt at home.

Innsbruck mountain view from street
Mountain city: the Green Flamingo is located near this street off the tourist drags of Innsbruck, although that mountain view is always there

Tofu Vegan, a plant-based Chinese eating experience of the highest order

Flavoursome delights: Spicy cauliflower, Dongbei style potato green pepper and aubergine and Gong Bau tofu with peanuts

With its abundance of fresh vegetables, noodles, rice and tofu, Chinese cuisine is a reliable option for any vegan who fancies a night off cooking.

For me, though, there is always an underlying discomfort when browsing a standard Chinese restaurant menu, loaded, as they usually are, with chicken, prawns, pork and – a particular gross-out for me – shredded duck. I seek to stay focused on my own food, trying not to think about the inevitable contamination possibilities in a busy kitchen.

It was wonderful, then, to discover Tofu Vegan, which has two branches not far from me in London. I enjoy it so much that I have dined at the Islington branch three times in recent months, trying a wide range of the 40 or so dishes on the menu. I suspect there will be more repeat visits.

Welcoming: The Islington branch of Tofu Vegan

As the name suggests, it’s vegan, which means it instantly feels like a place in which I want to eat. The food is amazing. The menu is set out in a traditional style, with colour photos of many of the meals, and the staff are both knowledgeable and helpful when it comes to choosing dishes that suit your palate and will go well together.

I’ve asked for and taken advice before each order and never been disappointed. My favourites include the wontons in special house sauce, Dongbei-style potato, green pepper and aubergine, and the Gong Bau tofu with peanuts, but I’ve not sampled a taste there that I haven’t absolutely enjoyed.

Many of the dishes are made with tofu and mushrooms, or with Asian imitation meats made from bean proteins and other meat-free ingredients. The cooks include chefs from Sichuan, the Cantonese south of China and the north-eastern Dongbei region, so the menu features a range of enticing regional flavours.

Tasty treat: Gong Bau tofu with peanuts

It’s not, perhaps, the cheapest dinner option, but the portions are large and the rice is served in a regularly refilled all-you-can-eat bowl.

The owners say Tofu Vegan offers a completely plant-based menu suitable for vegetarians and vegans, but will also delight those who usually eat meat. I can confirm this from my own experience, as on all occasions bar one my companions were omnivores. Without exception they thoroughly enjoyed the food with the delighted astonishment of those who regularly eat meat without any apparent thought as to whether there might be an alternative.

Advertising Standards Authority highlights cruelty of the meat industry (and its own hypocrisy)

Man eating: still from banned Vegan Friendly UK advert
“They just don’t care about animals like we do, babe…” Still from the banned advert

At first glance – as a vegan, at any rate – it was easy to be irritated by news last week that Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority had banned a TV advert by Vegan Friendly UK on the grounds that it was “likely to cause distress” to viewers.

It’s not a particularly gruesome ad, showing a group of people enjoying a meat-based meal while pontificating about damage to the oceans and cruelty to animals, with a handful of swiftly intercut clips of freshly caught fish and farm livestock. It makes a powerful and thought-provoking point about hypocrisy, and urges people to “make the connection”.

However, the ASA ruled that the “juxtaposition between the adults eating and the animal imagery would heighten the distress felt by viewers” and banned the advert (see below) from TV.

The ban itself seems hypocritical, as the ASA is happy to allow a constant stream of material promoting roast lamb and pork sausages and beef burgers and fish fingers and cheese and milk, etc, all produced via distressing processes on an industrial scale. Still, you don’t like something, you don’t watch it. Easy.

But the more I think about it, the more I think the ASA has done a subtle service to the cause of veganism. By banning Vegan Friendly UK’s ad, it is highlighting the fact that the realities of the meat and fish industries are utterly horrific – too horrific, in fact, to be seen by those who eat their products, even in such an understated way.

The ban itself makes one of the points the advert was making – meat is a cruel business – but in a really stupid way. It might be worth investigating more closely.

Why adopting a wholefood plant-based diet can begin to improve your health in just four weeks

Despina Marselou
Inspirational: Dietitian Despina Marselou is knowledgeable, open and kind.

I first crossed paths with the Athens-based dietitian Despina Marselou after attending a webinar she conducted on the effects of diet on autoimmune diseases. With a recent diagnosis of multifocal motor neuropathy, a rare degenerative condition affecting the limbs, I was desperate to discover what I could do to help myself.

I spoke to Despina initially with a view to finding out more for this article but shortly afterwards I contacted her about the role food could play in making me, as a person with an autoimmune disease, feel better. As a practitioner she is knowledgeable, open and kind.

Within a few minutes of our online consultation, Despina told me that her Greek bluntness (and here I paraphrase) might challenge my English reserve. She wasn’t wrong.

In our initial appointment, which lasted an hour, the questions I had expected – primarily about my diet – never came. Instead, we chatted about my life, back to childhood, and what circumstances surrounded the time when I felt my first symptoms. She asked questions that no other medical professional had, presumably due to time constraints, and it felt good. It felt very good. I left our chat inspired, and feeling decidedly empowered around my own health, in a way I hadn’t done before.

In terms of my diet, I was already a long-time vegan, but more the fast-food munching kind than the “clean” unprocessed food type.  I wanted to understand how the change to a wholefood plant-based diet (WFPB) could work for me.

Greek-born Despina received an MSc in clinical nutrition and immunology from the University of Surrey in England, specialising in dietary support and behaviour modification in patients with disorders such as diabetes, cancer and autoimmune diseases. She believes fervently that a wholefood diet can be transformative in those with such conditions.

Here are some of the questions I put to her and her responses…

How dramatic a change can a WFPB produce? Do you often see life-changing effects in those you treat? Have you seen patients find renewed energy levels, for example?

Yes, and I am truly excited about it. Most patients who manage to adopt a plant diet can see differences in their health within four weeks. A WFPB diet is an unprocessed high-fibre diet with a variety of plants, full of the different vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and other phytochemicals. It allows balance and harmony within the diet. Everything is there: the flavours, textures and colours. 

Lab research
Research: The American Gut Project is investigating the link between diet and lifestyle and the health of the bacteria that live inside us (Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash)

In the largest study to connect the health of the bacteria that live inside us to our diet and lifestyle – the American Gut Project – they are discovering that the most powerful predictor of a healthy gut is the diversity of plants in the diet. The American Gut Project is part of the Microsetta Initiative and operates at the Knight Lab at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. It is an active research effort in which scientists aim to work with citizen scientists, as well as academic and industry researchers.

They hope to figure out what health and lifestyle factors are associated with the composition of the microbiome, which is defined by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as “the collection of all microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their genes, that naturally live on our bodies and inside us”. They are in the early stages of this quest and need to collect thousands of samples to have enough data to continue looking for answers.

How did your own interest in the power of plant-based diets come about?

When I was 28 years old, I was diagnosed with Graves disease (autoimmune thyroiditis) and multiple thyroid nodules. For almost two years I experienced inexplicable daily episodes of spasm in my feet and toes, muscle weakness, brain fog and fatigue. My doctor suggested thyroidectomy to remove the suspicious thyroid nodules and put the symptoms I had at ease. 

The operation was performed, but for a couple of years, despite the reassurance that all the symptoms would ease, I continued to experience most of them. As a dietitian I knew that nutrition played an important role, so I did make changes to what I was eating. I went on a gluten-free, semi-vegetarian diet, where I felt significant improvement in my physical symptoms.

However, unexpected events hit me during my second pregnancy.  I was diagnosed with bilateral vestibular disease, with up to ten attacks of vertigo throughout the day and peripheral neuropathic pain. It was impossible for me to drive, work or sleep and I took at least five different expert opinions.  Multiple medications and strong painkillers, including antidepressants, were the answer offered by most doctors, so it was then and there that I decided to make a big change in my life for my kids, for my family and for myself. 

I decided to give some time to myself and search for alternative therapies including giving up the semi-vegetarian diet and going totally vegan. As a Mediterranean and as a dietitian, it was a huge step to take. I always thought that the key to good health was “everything in moderation” and that a whole plant-based diet was something like an elimination diet. But I must admit now that I regret not adopting a whole plant-based diet earlier.

Transformative eating: Despina has enjoyed robust health since embracing a whole plant-based diet (Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash)

My passion for seeking evidence-based knowledge prompted me to take the plant-based nutrition course of the biochemist T Colin Campbell, along with studying and researching food synergies. I created my own fasting nutrition protocol combined with Mediterranean herbs and teas which I followed for four months. I am thrilled to say that I have experienced robust health since then.

What was your own diet like before going plant-based? 

Well, it was mostly Mediterranean, or at least I thought so. A good, healthy Mediterranean diet is mostly plant-based and mine wasn’t and there is a reason for that. In Greece, socialising with food is a big part of our culture; my husband and I used to go out a lot with friends and travel around at the weekends. So from Monday to Thursday, I was following a nice, healthy Mediterranean diet, but during weekends, I was consuming considerable amounts of fish, chicken and cheese. Oh, the cheese… I used to think there was no life without cheese. 

I know you are a great believer in taking a holistic approach to disease. Is this view becoming more common among medical professionals? 

Yes, and I am very happy about it. 

However, we must not confuse a natural holistic approach which means changes in your lifestyle such improvements to your sleeping pattern, socialising, adopting a whole plant-based diet, relaxing techniques such as meditation, yoga and so on with approaches that frequently include dozens of test kits (to check your genes, microbes, nutrient absorption, etc). 

There are so many online adverts for simple food allergy testing. These can lead a patient to forget all about real and natural changes, and go on a gluten-, grain-, phytate-, lectin-, oxalate-, nightshade-free food regime until the same “experts” discover another secret to human health that we’ve all been missing and end up with multiple supplements and no health change! We don’t want more restrictions or more supplements. We need real food and to feel ourselves again.

Do many of your nutritionist colleagues feel the same as you? 

At the moment, we are few but we will get there. Continuous education and evidence-based fact is the key. 

Does poor nutrition often play a role in the development of diseases? Are some diseases more prevalent in people following a conventional western diet? 

Developed societies have witnessed an increase in autoimmune diseases in the past few years and the link between chronic inflammation and gut bacteria seems to be undeniable. Just a quick reminder: our gut thrives with a simple nutrient, fibre. It is well established that the microbiome metabolises resistant starches and dietary fibre through fermentation and decomposition, leading to the production of short-chain fatty acids. These are crucial components for the immune system and our health. So if we start reducing fibre and consuming more animal protein, the fermentation by-products of our gut microbes will be, for instance, phenolic compounds and ammonia, which are highly inflammatory and mostly carcinogenic.

Chronic inflammation is considered a major contributor to several diseases and autoimmunity activation such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, allergic asthma, chronic kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis etc.

There is growing evidence that dysbiosis (a reduction in microbial diversity of the gut) is a concerning issue for autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, inflammatory diseases, and functional gastrointestinal disorders and one of the major reasons for dysbiosis is a diet high in saturated fat, animal protein, refined sugar and prepared processed food.

Risk: The WHO has classified processed meat such as bacon as carcinogenic

Back in 2015, the World Health Organisation determined that processed meat for example ham, bacon and sausages is a major contributor to colorectal cancer. The organisation classified it as carcinogenic to humans. 

Minimising the potential for underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes is crucial for protecting against all autoimmune illnesses and, indeed, Covid-19. As fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans help reduce inflammation in the body and promote a healthy immune system, diet could play a significant role.

Why do you think nutrition plays such an important part in fighting disease? Why plant based? And what exactly do you mean by this?

The immune system and microbiota – the micro-organisms found in all multicellular organisms, including the plants we eat and ourselves – are deeply intertwined. In fact, there is evidence that the microbiota enhances our infection-fighting power by helping to foster the proper development of immune cells. The microbiota also helps immune cells to identify and eradicate threats. So when we take care of our gut microbes, they take care of our immune system. This decreases our risk of autoimmune or allergic illnesses, among other problems. 

If we don’t attend to this, the immune system may get weak and inadequate, exposing us to increased risk of infection or parasites such as blastocystis. The bottom line is that we want a healthy immune system, and to get there you need a healthy gut. 

So how do we optimise this gut-immune connection? The answer again is to hit that fibre so you will have the optimum production of short-chain fatty acids. They go to work fixing the lining of the colon, reversing the damage of dysbiosis. 

So if you want to support your immune system it’s really quite simple. Eat more plants, in abundance and diversity, and let the fibre do the work for you. 

Colours of life: Eat like you have a rainbow on your plate (Photo by Chantal Garnier on Unsplash)

The plant-based diet I promote to my patients has four basic rules:

  • It needs to be rich in complex carbohydrates: quinoa, millet, buckwheat, barley, and wholewheat pasta. 
  • It should be high in fibre: gut microbes are waiting to thrive and support immune function and the brain through the gut-brain axis (oats, pulses, barley, vegetables and fruits, fermented products). 
  • Eat like you have a rainbow on your plate – at least five or six different veggies with different colours and the same number of portions of fruits daily. Try to combine fruits with veggies in smoothies or green leafy veggies with some nuts, apples and raisins. 
  • Avoid processed foods, although occasionally you can have some sugar or your favourite plant-based burger since no one is perfect. It’s important to remember to make your plant-based nutrition a lifestyle, not just another unsustainable diet.

What about the vegan diet? Yes, a vegan diet can be unhealthy since the core idea of a vegan diet is to care for the planet and not hurt animals, so a person who follows a vegan diet won’t necessarily go through all the ingredients to check the salt or sugar content in a specific product. But there is a simple solution… choose both. WFPB for your health and vegan for our planet.

Is there much scientific research backing up the advantages of adopting a WFPB diet?

Yes. Recent studies have shown that just two weeks on a low-fibre diet causes altered gut microbiota that literally starts to eat away the intestinal lining, causing breakdown of the protective barrier and susceptibility to disease. Other studies point to a WFPB diet leading to a significant reduction in the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. It has also been seen to reverse type 2 diabetes, enable effective and sustained weight loss without portion control or exercise, and arrest the progression of early stage prostate cancer.

But how many studies do we really need to accept a simple fact? Plant foods are packed with antioxidants and phytonutrients which are great for our health.

I’ve heard people talk about “leaky gut syndrome”. What exactly is it?

Leaky gut syndrome refers to damage in the seals of the bowel lining, so germs, toxins or other substances can be absorbed into the bloodstream via porous (“leaky”) gut tissue and can promote an inflammatory cascade, activating the immune system in the “wrong” way. 

There is very little evidence about this and no diagnostic tool at the moment to diagnose a leaky gut.

What are your views and experience when it comes to gluten? 

Several autoimmune conditions seem to share the HLA gene responsible for regulating the immune system, which suggests that coeliac disease could be an underlying factor in autoimmune conditions. As health professionals, we need to be careful in suggesting that patients follow a gluten-free diet without solid evidence and certain diagnosis, since grains are beneficial for the microbiome. Also, following a gluten-free diet can put more stress on patients on top of their diagnosis. 

Take advice: Be careful about following a gluten-free diet without solid evidence of its necessity and relevant diagnosis (Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash)

On the other hand, we cannot underestimate patients who report discomfort with foods that contain gluten. Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity might be a possibility and we have to take it into consideration. A trial with a natural gluten-free diet (meaning no gluten-free products packed with preservatives) for a period of around six weeks before reintroducing gluten in certain amounts could provide some answers.

Whatever the case, it’s important to seek advice from a dietitian specialising in such conditions. You certainly don’t need nutrient deficiencies to deal with on top of your autoimmunity problems.

 My main aim is to share the knowledge of a plant-based lifestyle with people who suffer with chronic and autoimmune disease. I firmly believe that every person is unique. No matter the distance, I am here to help you explore what works best for you through a personalised whole plant-based lifestyle not a diet and feel “yourself” again.

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Eating plant-based, as Despina explains it, doesn’t have to be hard: stews, casseroles, soups, stir-fries and Buddha bowls are all relatively easy to whip up. Serve these with quinoa, brown rice or roast sweet potatoes. For all the above, combinations of fresh or frozen vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses are basically cooked together in a vegetable stock with herbs and spices of your choosing. Start by googling “vegan one pot recipes”, and then play around with tastes and textures that work for you.

For stews, the vegetables are cut in chunks, and quinoa or lentils, for example, can be cooked in the same pan for a one-pot meal. Casseroles are the same, but with the pot going into the oven rather than being cooked on a hob. 

It doesn’t really matter what vegetables you use. Potatoes and carrots are a good base, and from there you can add whatever you fancy, or whatever you have in the fridge. Lentils are great in these dishes. They are an excellent source of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc as well as protein and fibre. 

Soups are made from the same combinations, cooked and whizzed with a hand blender. Stir-fries are super quick; flash-fry the vegetables with some tofu or tempeh. Buddha bowls are combinations of nuts, seeds, pine nuts, tofu, quinoa and vegetables served together cold with a light sauce. You can make a simple, tasty sauce with tamari, a little hot water and peanut butter.

Powerhouse: Smoothies are a quick and reliable way to boost your diet (Photo by Christina Rumpf on Unsplash)

If you can, invest in a blender or specialist smoothie maker too. Quick, easy and filling, smoothies can be a reliable powerhouse. Just chuck in what you feel like, and there’s a balanced diet in a cup. 

With these things in mind, here is Despina’s weekly shopping list to support immunity and a healthy gut microbiome:

Wheat products and pseudograins: Oats, quinoa, millet, wild rice, whole grain pasta.

Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, pumpkin, cauliflower, peppers, broccoli, beetroot, tomatoes, cucumber, at least two types of leafy greens.

Pulses: Beluga, lentils, mung beans, soya beans/edamame, chickpeas.

Fruits: Frozen berries, dried fruits, avocado, kiwi, apples, oranges… fill your fridge, freezer and fruit bowl with your own favourites.

Nuts and seeds: Almond or peanut butter, tahini paste, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds.

Herbs and spices: Turmeric and pepper, mustard powder, oregano, thyme, basil, curry and saffron.

These are some of the basics for developing a healthy approach to food. Experiment with what works for you. It might take time, but the rewards of finding your body’s ideal diet can be well worth the effort. It’s hard to give up the things we think of as treats. We live in a society in which the concept of “Go on, you deserve it” floods our social media feeds and filters through into popular thinking.

But perhaps what you deserve more is to feel the revitalisation possible through ditching greasy, sugar-rich, plastic-wrapped, addictive but artificial consumables and replacing them with the honest-to-goodness natural food that your body craves.

As Despina says, we don’t need fancy diets. All we need is real food and to feel ourselves again.

  • To find out more about Despina’s work, visit her website here.

A guided run through the full Pawanmuktasana Series of gentle yoga exercises

Join me in this video for a guided run through the full Pawanmuktasana Series, an excellent three-part sequence of simple yoga exercises designed to gently mobilise and energise the whole body, working through most of the joints and major muscle groups.

While it is a physical practice, you will, as always with yoga, get more from it if you keep your mind fully engaged with what you’re doing. This helps you to discover the most effective ways of using your body by paying close attention, but also serves as a form of moving meditation – using each exercise as a flowing stream of focus points for your mind.

Add in active attention to your breath – encouraging it to slow down and flow in a relaxed way, perhaps even co-ordinating it with your movements – and you have a solid all-round yoga practice that could just as easily set you up for your day as end it.

If you’re familiar with the series you might find my guided run through it in this video a little chatty, but I’ve erred on the side of offering plenty of options for those who might be new to it. I’ve also slowed the pace right down, so the full series will require about an hour and 20 minutes of your time. If you can treat yourself to that, I’d encourage it, as the full sequence really feels good.

However, it’s also possible to do each section as a standalone practice. For the first section, start at the beginning of the video and the work begins after a brief introduction. For the second section begin at 36:00 in the recording. For the final section start at 58:08.

While it is a reasonably gentle practice that should be approachable for most people, if you require a doctor’s permission for exercise – for example if you have serious bone- or heart-related issues – please seek it in advance. And, as always when following any exercises offered on the internet by someone you don’t know, look after yourself by not following blindly – most importantly, if something hurts, stop doing it. You are your own best teacher when it comes to your body.

On a brief historical note, Pawanmukatasana is loosely translated from Sanskrit as “wind releasing posture”. And no, this does not refer to farting, rather the idea of energy moving through the body. The series was developed by Swami Satyananda in the 1960s and, while it is a key element of his Bihar school of yoga in India, it has become popular across many different strands of the practice.

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga and Pilates teacher based in East London, currently offering classes online or one-to-one in person. Details at yogayelvy.com