Pathfinding: Plant-Based Health Professionals

Ever wondered about the routes other health professionals take, how they find their niche and the key lessons they’ve learnt along the way?

Healthcare is a complex and vast field, full of expertise and supportive individuals ready to share their story. So this year we’re shining a light on a range of professions within healthcare that are working within sustainable diets. Our first deep dive is into the world of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK - an organisation that is dedicated to providing education and advocacy on whole food plant-based nutrition for prevention and treatment of chronic disease.

Written by Dr Shireen Kassam, Founder and Director of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK.

How it all started

My background is as a medical doctor in the NHS. I qualified from medical school in 2000 and after training in general medicine I began my speciality training in haematology in 2004. I had always been interested in haematology since doing an intercalated BSc in the subject. I liked the combination of clinical and laboratory work and also the emphasis on research and clinical trials. During haematology training I took 4 years out to do a PhD and was part of the cancer pharmacology group at Barts Cancer Centre. I studied the impact of supra-nutritional doses of selenium on human lymphoma cells in the laboratory and its ability to sensitise cancer cells to chemotherapy. Interestingly, this was my first real exposure to the clinical application of nutrition science and looking back was the start of my interest in diet, nutrition and health.

I completed by training as a haematologist and in 2012 took up my current position as a Consultant Haematologist at King’s College Hospital in London specialising in the management of patients with lymphoma and also running a regional diagnostics laboratory.

Since adopting a plant-based diet in 2013 I conducted a deep dive into the science supporting a plant-based diet for human health. I was amazed to discover the enormous wealth of knowledge and information that has been available for decades that clearly demonstrates that a 100% plant-based diet is one of the healthiest choices you can make with benefits for planetary health and of course the animals. I was enthralled by this subject and continued my personal and formal education over the next 5 years, which then expanded to include the field of lifestyle medicine, the fastest growing medical speciality globally. I completed courses such as the eCornell certificate in plant-based nutrition, the International Diploma in Lifestyle medicine and most recently qualified as a practitioner of the Complete Health Improvement Programme.

With this knowledge and new found passion I wanted every healthcare practitioner in the UK to have access to this crucial and clinically relevant area of medicine. So I approached the then Vice Chancellor of Winchester University, Prof Joy Carter, who I had been informed was a like-minded individual who cared about social justice issues including animal welfare, food and climate justice. We discussed the need for a University-based course on plant-based nutrition and she had the vision and foresight to give me the green light to develop the first such course in the UK. Since 2019, I have delivered and facilitated this online, 8-week CPD accredited course on plant-based nutrition that has had over 500 participants from all over the world. It has been a joy to deliver and has been so well received and of course only possible because of the network of plant-based health professionals within the UK that have contributed to the content.

Why plant-based?

My decision to adopt a plant-based diet was for ethical reasons. I had been vegetarian since 2001 but after exposure to information about the meat industry I decided to become vegan in 2013. Consuming, using and wearing animals was no longer aligned with my ethical and moral values. Making the transition from a veggie to a vegan diet for me was not difficult at all. I am from a South Asian background and most of my favourite meals were already mostly vegan or easy to veganise.

I realised during my vegan journey that being vegan was not necessarily healthy and that to truly thrive on a plant-based diet you need to centre your diet around whole plant foods, limiting added salt and sugar and paying attention to nutrients such as calcium, iron, iodine and vitamin B12. I was also learning about the health benefits of eating this way and realised that there was a gap in the UK healthcare education system. Health professionals were not adequately trained in supporting patients or clients to adopt a healthy plant-based or vegan diet. This was the reason for starting my community interest company, Plant-Based Health Professionals UK, which I launched in 2018. I initially tested the water to see if there was interest in this area of healthcare and organised the first UK medical conference on plant-based nutrition and health in March 2018. It was a sell out with a long waiting list, and from there the foundation of an education organisation was born. We are a fast-growing membership organisation dedicated to the provision of evidence-based education on healthy plant-based diet. We do this through CPD-accredited events and webinars, factsheets, articles, a 21-day plant-based health challenge and so much more.

Within a few years of forming and growing our network, it became clear that people were looking to consult with plant-based healthcare professionals to support them in improving their health using a diet and lifestyle approach. In addition, telehealth became an accepted and desirable way of delivering healthcare. With this background came our latest project called Plant Based Health Online, the UK’s first CQC-registered, online, plant-based lifestyle medicine service. Launched in January 2021, we have been able to support patient and clients to improve their health and reduce the use of medication by adopting a plant-based diet and other healthy lifestyle habits. We have also teamed up with Chartwell Cancer Trust to support patients recovering from cancer treatment to improve their quality of life and reduce the risk of future chronic conditions.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

I haven’t found being a plant-based health professional challenging on a personal level as such, only that I wish I had known about the benefits of a plant-based diet earlier in my medical career and also had made the transition sooner myself.

My current challenges are around the pace of change within medical curricula and clinical practice. We have known for decades that a plant-based diet along with other healthy lifestyle habits such as regular physical activity, has the ability to prevent or delay the vast majority of chronic illness managed within the NHS. Yet only around 5% of the NHS budget is dedicated to these public health measures. When I see my patients with lymphoma in clinic they often have other preventable chronic conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. This makes cancer care that much trickier, yet very little resource if any is dedicated to addressing these issues. I find it challenging to deliver diet and lifestyle interventions in this clinical setting when patients are more concerned, and understandably so, about the chemotherapy they require and how this will affect every aspect of their lives. I therefore hope for a time when I can support patients more fully in adopting healthy habits, thus improving their quality of life both physically and mentally.

Top tips for other HCPs interested in giving plant-based diets a go

Don’t wait, the time is now. Adopting a plant-based diet is the single most impactful action you can take for personal and planetary health, and it is a kinder more compassionate way of living on this earth.

You will not regret the decision and like many will wonder why it took you so long. My main advice is to find a friend, family member or community to support your transition. It’s hard to do this alone and like with any behaviour change, social support is essential to make it sustainable.

Do take some time to plan rather than launching straight in. Try out different plant-based milks for example and find one that suits your taste. Consider your favourite family meals and make sure you stock your cupboards with the right ingredients to make vegan versions of them. Learn to cook some basic dishes and make sure to centre your diet equally around fruits, vegetables, whole grain, beans and a small portion of nuts and seeds on most days. Try new plant foods on a weekly basis to improve the variety in your diet, an important aspect of a healthy plant-based diet.

Take time to educate yourself and feel comfortable with the decision you have made. Like with anything, knowledge is empowering and if this is your first time eating a plant-based diet you will need to make sure you are paying attention to certain nutrients such as iron, calcium, iodine and B12. It really is not difficult, but you need to be armed with the right information.

Be prepared to answer questions about your choice to adopt a plant-based diet from your friends and colleagues and know how to answer these questions. My new book Eating Plant-Based, co-authored with my sister Zahra was written with just this in mind. Most of the common concerns and questions people have are easily answered and it won’t take long before you feel comfortable talking about the health benefits that are on offer with a plant-based diet too.

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