An interview with Dr Anthony Hadj: why a whole-food, plant-based diet is best for our health and the planet

Dr Anthony HadjThe food we eat has long been used to prevent and manage health problems, and now there is a growing movement of medical people who believe wholefood, plant-based diets not only prevent but can sometimes reverse a lot of the chronic illnesses associated with western lifestyles. They believe a change of diet can treat ailments such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease as well as, if not better than, daily drugs that control symptoms rather than offer a cure.

We spoke to Dr Anthony Hadj, pictured, a vegan GP with a special interest in management of chronic diseases (eg obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease) using a combination of modern medicine and nutrition/education. The Australian medic is passionate about the subject and spends some of his time promoting veganism as the best choice for a healthy lifestyle.

You’re clearly 100 per cent sold on the benefits of plant-based diets. I’m interested in your own path as a medical practitioner to that conclusion; at what point in your practise/training did the power of a vegan diet start to become clear to you?
I have always had a strong interest in animal welfare and, like many, loved animals. In 2013 I began to realise the horrific practices that occur in the animal agriculture industry and I made the conscious decision to be vegan from then on. There was a video that Paul McCartney made called Glass Walls, which had a strong impact on me. As I explored veganism, I was made aware of medical practitioners like Dr John McDougall, Dr Caldwell Esselstyn and Neal Barnard and the work they were doing with nutrition and disease. I was amazed that diet could play such a large role in not only the causation but cure of disease. From then on, I chose to include it in my practice and encourage many people to pursue this.

Did the notion of a strong link between nutrition and illness always make sense to you?
It didn’t become clear until I researched and understood the science. That was in 2013/14. Once I started to read the pioneering studies from people like Dean Ornish who were able to reverse our number one killer, heart disease, I was sold on the power of plant-based nutrition.

What we put into our bodies has always been linked to certain ailments. Having seen the benefits first hand in your patients over a number of years, you now have your own experience to draw on when it comes to using nutrition to cure western society ailments like diabetes type 2 and hypertension. What research/studies did you initially consult to guide you into your current thinking?
I read the book The Starch Solution, by John McDougall. He brilliantly covers the science of plant-based health and references many papers through his book. The pioneering studies from Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn that showed a radiographical reversal of heart disease were very convincing. The Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine website also has a great deal of links to studies that have shown the impact plant-based health has in treating type 2 diabetes.

Do your patients always follow your ‘go to the fruit and veg section of the supermarket’ prescription? Would some just prefer to take the tablet and eat the cheese?
Many patients of mine are very keen to follow the prescription. They are often seeing me because they have had a ‘wake-up call’ or a diagnosis that is life changing – heart disease, mini heart attack/stroke, diabetes etc. It’s at this point that many feel incapacitated but also energised to do whatever they can. When you are able to showcase the power of plant-based nutrition to them, it is very enticing. Many patients are prepared to do whatever it takes to live longer. Some people do just prefer a tablet and cheese; however, even with these patients, I have noticed that they do come around eventually.

How could I, a layperson, explain simply to a fellow layperson what the health benefits of a plant-based diet are?
Consuming plants is our natural diet. We are designed to eat plants and specifically carbohydrates. Many large civilizations have spread and prospered because of starchy (high complex carbohydrate) foods. We have a lot of evidence that populations who are mostly plant based live the longest and happiest of all. It is now beyond doubt that consuming a whole foods, plant-based diet lowers blood pressure, heart disease risk and keeps us trim and healthy looking. Websites like the John MacDougall’s, plus the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and NutritionFacts.org provide a great place for people to start.

Do you believe that the meat and dairy industries are now involved in a collusion to keep the health benefits of not eating their produce quiet which rivals that of, for example, the tobacco industry in the 1960s (and potentially the alcohol industry, though that’s another story entirely)?
I don’t think there is a collusion or conspiracy. I do believe that it is just about money. They are seeing a movement like veganism take root and thrive, and it is a threat to their bottom line. They will always be able to find a study that supports their work; however, it is almost impossible to suppress the benefits of this programme. They use mass marketing to try and keep the public confused.

You’ve been vegan for three years. Before that what was your own diet like?
My diet was very poor, with a preference for high-fat foods of an animal nature.

How would you counter the suggestion that plant-based is the current fad. I grew up in the 70s and saw my mother try high fibre, low fat, high fat and highly restrictive calorie-controlled diets among others, all in the space of a decade. What makes this different?
It is a very sustainable diet. We will feel full when we consume a vegan diet (generally) because it is high in fibre. We thrive and feel better because it is a diet focused around antioxidants, macro/micro nutrients that helps to keep our body healthy and well. Many fad diets in the past have failed Continue reading →

The Birds is a perfect nest for peckish vegans in Leytonstone

Vegan meal, The Birds, Leytonstone

What a glorious find The Birds pub on Leytonstone High Road is. The menu is mainly vegan and it’s ridiculously cheap to craft a good meal.

Between two of us we had the chickenish popcorn with garlic mayo, salt and pepper tempura cauliflower, and a macncheese each, all for under £15, plus two pints of lime and soda and a vegan ‘Snickers’ to share, which came in at less than a fiver.

Vegan dessert, The Birds, Leytonstone

We went earlyish on a Thursday night, and this E11 pub – the name of which is a nod to Leytonstone’s most famous son, Alfred Hitchcock – was quiet, though I’m guessing weekends are a different story.

Loved the food, but, honestly my favourite bit was the gentle birdsong piped into the ladies toilet.

 

The highs and lows of afternoon tea and cake at Shakespeare’s Globe

Vegan cake stand at the Swan, Shakespeare's Globe, London

When I can, I steer clear of omnivore eating establishments, but something about an afternoon at the Swan, a pub and restaurant attached to the Globe theatre in London, appealed to my latent luvvie.

Having booked a vegan tea, there was no problem when I arrived, and even the included cocktail, which normally contains honey, had been changed to accommodate me.

Cocktail at the Swan, Shakespeare's Globe, LondonThe initial waiter bent over backwards to make me feel special, which was appreciated; to me, afternoon tea is always as much about the gloss as about the taste. No disappointments on that front as my food arrived, along with my pot of oolong, looking suitable pretty and colourful. Mine looked every bit as well prepared as my omnivore companions’ cake stand.

It felt as though a lot of thought had gone into the sandwiches, which were dainty and filled with combinations of roasted peppers, vegan mayo and cheese, smidgens of cress and thinly chopped cucumber.

After that, it went downhill. The scones were dry and actually quite unpleasant to eat, and, though two of the chocolate-based cakes were delicious, the small glass containing a hefty blob of jam sprinkled with muesli was a real lowlight.

I’m going to give this experience a silver star for effort but, at £40, they really do need to try harder with the sweet stuff.

A vegan stalwart, one of the hidden gems of Porthmadog

vegoniaI’m just back from a road trip through Wales with my family, all three of us vegan. Having learnt from experience – a recent similar venture through the East of Scotland – we decided we had three choices when it came to food: spend our days glued to the Happy Cow app, with hunting as a primary focus of each day; take whatever food presented itself (the approach we took in Scotland, which we knew to be a hit-and-miss, often grim, choice); or go Airbnb and self cater.

At this point, let me clarify – I’m not saying it’s impossible to get food in these countries – I know there are many great places if you do your research or stick to cities – but we were going off-grid a little and wanted to make good food part of our journey, and not a central focus.

We plumped for self-catering – a wise move, which meant we spent less money and expended less energy searching for suitable places to eat. That said, I kept a close eye on the web, just in case we missed one of those lucky vegan finds; one such place was Vegonia Wholefoods in Porthmadog.

This independent vegan and vegetarian wholefood store carries over 3,000 lines including chilled, frozen and ambient foods, organic, gluten free, pet and baby foods, hot and cold drinks, vitamins, minerals, remedies, toiletries, household cleaning, and home brew products. I know this because I’ve done my web research, but that’s pretty much all there is about this place on the internet.

Slap bang in the middle of this small town in North Wales, Vegonia started up over 20 years ago, and though it’s listed in all the usual places, it has zero web presence of its own. There is no website, and only an automatically-generated Facebook page based on what users are interested in with no affiliation to the shop itself. And yet it has kept going since its opening in 1997.

In a world so often dominated by Holland & Barrett (and here’s a shout-out for that company’s own plans to become increasingly vegan-friendly soon), a long-standing independent shop, which has survived with virtually no internet presence while keeping so true to its original vision deserves a mention and a visit if you’re ever in the area.

The hype is true: Berlin could very well be the vegan capital of the world

Berlin: Marienkirche and Fernsehturm

A recent trip to Berlin (above) confirmed to me its status as one of the world’s capital cities for vegans. I’d been once before, as a vegetarian, and was decently catered for, but a few years later and eating out is an absolute delight.

During our five days there, we barely scraped the surface of the options available, but suffice it to say, it made such an impression that I’m headed back again in just a few months to revisit the wonderful food sampled last time, and to dig ever deeper into what’s on offer for vegans.

On the way to our hotel, in the fashionable area of Friedrichshain (on which this piece is going to focus), we stopped in the Teutonic equivalent of a kebab and falafel shop (Haroun al Rachid, Neue Bahnhofstr. 28), it being around lunchtime after a long morning, and us having spotted a board advertising ‘vegan halloumi’.

Not realising quite how vegan-friendly this whole area was, I went in and interrogated the guy behind the counter about the exact nature of the ‘cheese’, which was basically tofu slices in a fine batter. It was cheap and it was fresh and it was tasty (see below).

Haroun al Rachid: vegan halloumi

This was just one of a myriad such places, all advertising vegan choices, around the station Ostkreuz.

I always prefer to eat in totally plant-based restaurants, but I love the idea of a city in which vegans are catered for wherever they go and with whomsoever they are travelling. I’m lucky enough to do most of my travelling with someone of the same dietary persuasion as me, but for those with omnivore companions, I know eating out can be an issue. After that first meal, though, I stuck entirely to vegan-only food establishments.

From there we headed to our hotel, the Almodóvar, chosen for its purely vegetarian breakfast menu and ethical stance.

Having googled the breakfast, I knew I was going to be good… but €17.50 worth of good? My travelling buddy likes a bargain, and who could possibly be providing that much food first thing in the morning that we would want to eat? We agreed to try the buffet at the hotel’s Bistro Bardot (see below) on the first day and henceforth play it by ear.

Berlin Almodovar Hotel, Bistro Bardot

And, yeah, upshot was that we breakfasted there on all four mornings: long lazy breakfasts that went on for well over an hour. Vegan croissants, freshly baked pretzels, several varieties of bread were served alongside currywurst, scrambled tofu, several types of cold ‘meats’ and dairy-fresh cheeses, and several varieties of cake and muffin. This is on top of the cereals, fruits, juices, coffees and rustic-looking teas.

Friedrichshain is just a wonderfully cool area. Formerly part of East Germany, Continue reading →

The Feel Good Café, dedicated to saving animals and healthy eating

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Good plant-based food is often found in the strangest of places and the Feel Good Café in north-east London is an example of this. A small underused Chingford arcade, tucked neatly between a pet grooming salon and a photography studio, is where owner Idan, pictured above right, started up his vegan café three years ago.

With a constantly updated menu filled with good wholesome vegan fare – at the point of writing it includes the most delicious buckwheat pancakes with chia seeds, potato bagels and pink love porridge made with beetroot powder – the Feel Good Café is passionate about both the food they serve and the cause they are helping to promote.

So what is the driving force behind this venture? Idan answered the questions we put to him.

I know you came to veganism initially for health reasons – what specifically was the condition that led to this diet?

I suffer with ME/CFS, an autoimmune condition that until five years ago kept me housebound for years. Living with ME is like living with a flu that doesn’t go away.

Having being diagnosed, what led you to a plant-based diet? I have heard you talk at points about raw veganism… is that a diet you’ve tried yourself?

Over the years in my desperation to get better I’ve tried many diets. Eventually I realised that we share a common ancestor with the great apes. And that the great apes are still living not only in the same environment that we evolved from, but also eating the very same food that our species originally evolved to eat.

From there I learned that we have the hands to murder a banana, fig, spinach leaf, apple and so on but certainly not a living animal. Furthermore, looking at our digestive tract, teeth and jaw movement it is clear as day that we are herbivores/frugivores.

Morally we do not possess the excitement and hunger associated with killing an animal for food ourselves. Blood puts us off, where it excites a carnivore.

My diet consists of: fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans, grains, nuts and seeds. I try to eat them as nature presents them, so no frying, no salt, oil or sugars added. I tend to eat more raw foods in summer and more cooked in winter.

How much research do you think people should do before starting a vegan diet?

Animals are getting killed by the thousands as we speak; there’s no time to be wasted, first go vegan. Eat fresh and natural foods. Then read the book How Not To Die by Dr Michael Greger. This will set you on an amazing path that offers higher morals and health.

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I know you are passionate about veganism being for the animals. Where does this fit in with your choice to go vegan? Were you vegetarian before your diagnosis?

I too, regrettably, was a meat eater once, but films such as Earthlings, Cowspiracy or Dominion have inspired many of us to become passionate about our commitment to animals – veganism is a logical consequence.

You strike me as an excellent front man for the cause. When you started your cafe in that little, often deserted, arcade, I was delighted. But I couldn’t help wondering how anyone starting a vegan café in that venue could make it work. You have though – how on earth have you achieved that?

It was hard to attract people at first and still is much harder to get customers compared to a High Street shop. However, word of mouth soon started spreading and so did our social media channels. But yes, being tucked away, it’s always a working process.

You’ve achieved what I have to say is an amazing feat. What was this journey like? How have you made it work? Were they times when you felt like you’d made the wrong decision, starting this venture? And who are your customers?

The Feel Good Café is made up from different teams. I may be the face, but Izabela is constantly hitting on the social media, while other people are making sure the shop runs smoothly each day. We have an amazing accountant and business consultant who’s vegan too.

But most importantly it’s the local people, community and online community. All of whom are extremely dedicated to the cause of saving animals and eating healthily. The people of Chingford and the wider area are incredible and extremely supportive to their local vegan café.

Life is not perfect; we make mistakes regularly but also small landmarks. We’re still young, only going for three years. And over time the path gets clearer and easier to walk on.

The vegan B&B that can teach you how to cook the delights you eat there

Our Lizzy newTry googling vegetarian hotels in the UK and the choices are still very thin on the ground, and yet for me, certainly, as cool as it is to find places with great vegan choices, I always feel much more at home in cafes, restaurants and accommodation where vegetarian is just the way it is rather than merely an option. This is how I came across, and spent a night at, Our Lizzy, a cookery school and B&B based in Malvern; this vegan establishment is run by Lizzy Hughes, pictured, a former teacher whose appetite for good food led her to open her own business eight years ago.

Lots of people dream about opening a B&B, but you really went into it with your eyes open. Tell me a little about yourself and your background. How long did it take you before you could open your cookery school? What are your qualifications and how was it gaining them alongside a full-time profession?

As I began my teaching career I saved for some sort of veggie venture not knowing if it would take the shape of a restaurant, café or B and B. I taught in schools close to a large university and met children from all around the world. We had many international food evenings and I enjoyed finding out about food from a range of culture. I also had a good grounding in vegetarian cookery though undertaking the four week long Cordon Vert Diploma from the Vegetarian Society Cookery School. After this I had lots of experience giving cookery demonstrations to evening groups, people asking about classes so as a teacher this seemed a natural idea to pursue.

You’re clearly driven and passionate about cookery, nutrition and veganism – can you tell me a little about your own road to these things? When did you become vegetarian? What was your main motivation? And how much of a role does that play in your desire to share and teach what you know to other people?

As a child I didn’t like the idea of meat, it always had a close association with the animal it was from. I became vegetarian when I was at college and soon realised the horror of the dairy industry. I became vegan in 1990 around the time I finished my degree, I knew then I’d like to do something to help animals. Being vegan has been a way of life for so long; it’s a pleasure to share it with other people.

How much research do you think people should do before starting a vegan diet? What are the main things to be aware of?

I meet an awful lot of people here at Our Lizzy who go vegan overnight now, whereas in the past I’d say it was more of a gradual transition. I think coming on a course is a great way to see how you can have vegan versions of all your favourite dishes. For others there are a multitude of cook books, blogs, film clips and recipes online to draw upon. It’s all about balance and not too much junk food! Just stick to a healthy varied diet just supplemented with B12.

How do people end up coming to your classes? Big question, I know, but a few anonymous/general examples might help. Are most people already veggies or vegans? I guess linked in with the previous question, you must see people toying with the idea of switching to a plant-based diet coming to you as part of that journey?

A variety of people come, there is no requirement to be vegetarian or vegan and the majority of customers aren’t. They are interested Continue reading →