Dr Julia Sen: Is Veganism Food For Thought?

Dr Julia Sen: Is Veganism Food For Thought?

Dr Julia Sen is a Consultant Ophthalmic Plastic, Reconstructive and Cosmetic Surgeon with more than 20 years of experience in her field. Every month on DLUXE she shares with us her own observations from almost 30 years of medical practice and 50 years of life experience.

In this month’s post, Dr Julia Sen discusses veganism and shares her recipe of the month

November is World Vegan Month, coinciding with Cancer Research UK’s “Veg Pledge”. This fundraising event challenges participants to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet for at least a week, raising money via sponsorship. Whether your plant-based adventure is for detox purposes or the beginning of a long-term lifestyle change, it’s a great opportunity to shake things up a bit, experiment in the kitchen and see how you feel in your mind and body as a result.

Whilst globally, meat consumption is increasing thanks to modern intensive farming methods producing greater quantities at lower prices, in the UK it is now declining, with the economic downturn, animal welfare concerns, various health scares and impact on the environment all contributing to this move away from our traditional carnivorous diet.

An additional factor may be how much more available and sexy plant-based food has become. When I stopped eating meat in the 80’s, the best I could hope for in our local restaurants was the offer of an omelette. These days most eateries have myriad plant-based options, often so much more enticing than meat and two veg. We’ve come a long way!

In terms of our health, the fact that a cancer charity is advocating a meat-free diet begs the question, is it bad for us? Meat has, after all been part of the human diet for over 2 million years and is rich in many vital nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc, selenium, phosphorus and vitamins A and B complex. Offal is even more nutritious than the skeletal muscles that our modern palates prefer.

So how could it be anything but good for us?

One of the concerns about red meat in particular, is its saturated fat content. Demonised for raising cholesterol levels for several decades, the evidence now suggests that it may not be quite so villainous; indeed saturated fats are now believed to be healthier for deep frying than polyunsaturated oils, due their stability at high temperatures. Seed oils such as sunflower and canola tend break down into toxic trans-fats.

But while saturated fats are not inherently unhealthy, too much of them can be. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease and large bowel disorders, including colorectal cancer are associated with diets rich in red meat, especially that which has been processed (burgers, sausages, smoked meats etc.). Too much poultry seems to predispose to problems higher up in the gut and diabetes is a risk for high meat consumption in general.

Eat the rainbow

The level of processing seems to be an independent risk factor but even the way animals are reared affects the impact on our bodies. Animals evolved to graze outdoors on grass are now often fed grains and soy, fortified with antibiotics. This increases the growth and therefore value of the livestock. Unfortunately, when we then eat meat produced in this way, our gut microbiome and hormonal status may be negatively impacted and indeed this is one of the proposed mechanisms participating to our current obesity epidemic. Vegetarians and vegans are less likely to be obese than meat eaters, although there are factors other than just the exclusion of meat which may also contribute.

One additional advantage to reducing or excluding meat from your diet is that there is room for more plants. The amount and diversity of plants we consume is linked to many benefits for our physical and mental health. For example most of our body’s serotonin (aka the happy hormone) is produced by our gut, facilitated by the “good” bacteria that live there. By crunching our way through lots of fibre-rich plants we are eating ourselves happy. Gut bacteria differ in which micronutrients help them to thrive, so the more variety, the better. Professor Tim Spector of the Zoe programme suggests 30 different plants per week as the number we should aspire to but don’t panic – this includes tea, coffee, herbs and spices in addition to fruits and veggies. The deeper the colour, the higher the antioxidant content, so try to “eat the rainbow”.

But what about protein?

We seem to have become so obsessed with the idea that we are not getting enough, that even the most unlikely products are posturing themselves to be the answer to our perceived protein “deficiency” (Mars bars for goodness sake!). In reality, few of us are deficient and we don’t need to guzzle protein shakes to remain healthy. Conversely, too much protein places us at risk of obesity, and diseases of the heart, liver and kidneys. 

So for those of you going plant-based for the first time, I recommend trying out recipes containing pulses such as beans, peas and lentils, which will be warming and satiating, nuts and seeds – great on your breakfast bagel or sprinkling onto salads; plenty of leafy greens (the darker the better) and wholegrain carbs wherever possible. Do try to avoid ultra-processed food and for vegans it’s also important to supplement with vitamin B12, since there are no reliable plant sources.

Feeling inspired?

Why not try making Dr Julia Sen’s Autumnal Pretox Minestrone Soup? It will help to prepare your body to cope with the over-indulgence of the festive season.

Serves 8 | Cooking time (including preparation): 1 hour*

2 tbsp olive oil

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

1-2 cloves garlic, crushed

Red chilli – 3 dried whole, 1 tsp flakes or 1 fresh red

2 carrots, finely sliced

Quarter of a Savoy cabbage, shredded

1 bag of spinach, kale or cavalo nero

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 tbsp tomato puree

2 vegetable stock cubes or 1 tbsp Miso paste made up to 1 litre with boiling water

1 tin of mixed beans

100g pearl barley

Salt, black pepper and herbs to taste, e.g. bay leaves, oregano, sage, paprika.


Heat the oil then add the chopped onion and sauté for three-four minutes. Add garlic, stir then add the chopped carrots or any other root veg you may be using. Cook for another five minutes before adding the leafy veg, tomatoes and puree. 

Stir well then add your stock and barley. Add your beans, herbs, spices salt and pepper to taste and cook for a further 45 minutes. *If using pasta, e.g. orzo or farfallini, this will be cooked in 20 minutes.

To serve:

Sprinkle with finely grated Parmesan (for non-vegans) and serve with toasted sourdough drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.

Nutritional credentials:

  • Olive oil, red onion and dark leaves are rich in polyphenol antioxidants.
  • Cooked tomatoes are bursting with lycopene – great for your skin.
  • Barley helps lower cholesterol and contains resistant starch, loved by “good” gut bugs.
  • Miso is a fermented food that supports good gut health.

Feel free to switch and use up the odd bits of veg at the bottom of your fridge. I managed to pack in 15 of my 30 different plants in this one recipe! It can also be frozen and reheated whenever you need a delicious bowl of comfort. Enjoy!

Discover more about going vegan – whether it’s during menopause or skincare essentials – on Dr Julia Sen’s Wellness blog here

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