Advocating for a rapid transition to a plant-based food system in the UK

September 7, 2021   |   Dr Shireen Kassam, Founder and Director of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK

I adopted a plant-based diet and vegan lifestyle and philosophy in 2013. I had been vegetarian since 2001 but had not taken the time to educate myself about the egg and dairy industry. Once I did, veganism was my only option. 

Being a doctor with a research background, I became very interested in the health impact of a plant-based diet. Having been through medical school at a time when there was little emphasis on practical application of diet and nutrition in clinical practice, I started as most people do by reading books and watching documentaries. This then led me to discover the original research papers that clearly demonstrated the benefits of a plant-based diet for the prevention and reversal of chronic disease. I soon became familiar with the work of the early pioneers in the field of plant-based nutrition, including Dr Neal Barnard and the work of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Dr Dean Ornish, Brenda Davis, RD and Dr Caldwell Esselstyn. I then paused and observed the education and practice in the UK and realised that my immediate peers and colleagues were also unfamiliar with my newfound passion for plant-based nutrition. Something had to be done.

It took a few years for me to educate myself and feel confident, but in 2018 I decided to hold the first plant-based nutrition conference for healthcare professionals in the UK. To my surprise, tickets sold out several weeks before the conference date and I suddenly found myself connecting with other like-minded healthcare professionals who had also, in isolation, discovered the power of plant-based nutrition and using this within their clinical practice.

This event launched my community interest company, Plant-Based Health Professionals UK, a non-profit membership organisation dedicated to providing education and advocacy on healthy plant-based diets in the UK. Since then, we have grown from strength to strength with an active multi-disciplinary team and nearly 1000 members all supporting our goal to hasten the transition to a plant-based food system. 

We have several ongoing projects and programmes. Our education lead and nutritionist Dr Leila Dehghan developed and runs the 21-day plant-based health challenge, a free email-based resource supporting people to transition to a healthy plant-based diet, including weekly live zoom classes. Leila also leads the development of our popular factsheets, which are used by patients and healthcare professionals and founded a project called ‘Athletes, Food and Diversity’, highlighting the talent and expertise of vegans of the global majority. Rohini Bajekal, nutritionist and our communications lead, runs our very successful CPD/CME-accredited webinar programme, which has attracted a global audience. Rohini also works with our amazing PR and website teams, Eden Green PR and, Madideas, to get our plant-based message out to a wider audience, with many successful articles and interviews in mainstream media. Dr Laura Freeman, GP and Lifestyle Medicine Physician has launched the UK’s first regulated plant-based lifestyle medicine service called Plant Based Health Online, through which patients and clients can book an appointment with a plant-based doctor, dietitian or nutritionist to improve their health using a diet and lifestyle first approach.

We have been excited to team up with a local London-based cancer charity, Chartwell Cancer Trust to offer cancer survivorship programmes to patients recovering from treatment. Dr Hayley Tait, GP, chef and author is bringing plant-based culinary medicine into medical schools with her programme called ‘Cooking for the Climate’. These courses will launch next academic year. Our patient advocate, Kate Dunbar, who herself reversed psoriatic arthritis on a plant-based diet and now free of medication for more than 3 years, continues to inspire others to improve their health. We were excited to be able to publish her story of healing in a peer-reviewed medical journal

Our aim has always been to provide mainstream, credible education, and with that in mind I was fortunate enough to team up with Winchester University to create and run the UK’s first accredited University-based course on plant-based nutrition for healthcare professionals. It is a fully online course, accessible globally which has now been running for 2 years and has been incredibly successful with several hundred participants to date. This has been a team effort with 18 plant-based contributors and regular updating of the content to keep it relevant and useful.

As time has passed it has been increasingly clear that as healthcare professionals we need to be advocating for a plant-based food system as part of the solution to the global climate and ecological crises. We are therefore supporting campaigns that address these wider global issues, which also include antibiotic resistance, pandemic risk mitigation, food justice and sovereignty. We are therefore proud to be supporting the Scrap Factory Farming campaign in the UK, which has launched a legal challenge demanding the end to factory farming. 

Even though the UK is slowly coming to the realisation that a shift away from animal agriculture is indeed necessary, as evidenced by the publication of the National Food Strategy, it is not happening quickly enough. It’s therefore down to us as healthcare professionals to lead the way. This is why we are proud to be endorsing the Plant Based Treaty.

About the Author

Shireen is a Consultant Haematologist at King’s College Hospital, London with a specialist interest in lymphoma. She is passionate about promoting plant-based nutrition for the prevention and reversal of chronic disease. Shireen also works at Winchester University where she provides the UK’s first University course on plant-based nutrition. 

Shireen discovered the power of plant-based nutrition in 2013 and has since immersed herself in the science of nutrition and health, including completing the eCornell certification in plant-based nutrition. She is a board-certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician and a certified CHIP (Complete Health Improvement Program) practitioner. Shireen hopes to use CHIP as part of a cancer survivorship programme

Shireen founded Plant-based health professionals UK in 2017, a non-profit membership organisation that provides evidence-based education on plant-based nutrition. In January 2021, Shireen co-founded and launched the UK’s first regulated, online, plant-based lifestyle medicine healthcare service, Plant Based Health Online.

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