The Power of Plant-Based Diets: Dr. Alan Desmond | OYNB 107

One Year No Beer Podcast Episode 107 – Dr. Alan Desmond

Dr. Alan Desmond is a returning guest to the One Year No Beer podcast. Alan is a gastroenterologist and a passionate advocate of plant-based diets. 

In today’s episode, Alan discusses his own One Year No Beer journey. He talks about how he would give up drinking when he was training for Spartan races and why he finally decided to give up alcohol for good. He was training for a Spartan Ultra, and he decided to begin a challenge 90 days before a race. Like many people who try the One Year No Beer challenges, he found that he slept better, woke up fresher, and was generally more productive without the alcohol.

“For me, it's been a real gamechanger. It's like you discover all this extra time in the day.”

Alan also discusses his interest in plant-based diets. As a gastroenterologist, he explains, he frequently gets questions from patients about what they should be eating, what they should be avoiding, what types of foods will make them feel better and improve their diagnoses. Alan’s interest in giving his patients evidence-based answers to their questions led to his advocacy for a plant-based diet. 

Now, Alan’s written a book about plant-based diets and how they can help individuals lead healthier lives. In discussing his book, Alan talks about how the right diet can lead to a healthier mind and a healthier body. His book details a 28-day plan that people can use to test out a plant-based diet and see for themselves how much better they feel. He even talks about how the right diet can reverse serious conditions like diabetes and chronic inflammation. Listen to the episode to learn more about Dr. Desmond, his book, and the power of plant-based diets.

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Episode Transcript

Ruari: Welcome to another epic episode of the One Year No Beer Podcast. Today, I am rejoined by one of our incredible members, a chap called Dr. Alan Desmond. 

He's been on the podcast before. He is a doctor in Devon, a gastroenterologist, but also a lover, follower, and wild advocate of plant-based diets. Through his journey of understanding clients, seeing people, and then researching further and further into this, he has now produced a book which we are so excited to talk about on the podcast today. 

Today, I am joined by none other than Dr. Alan Desmond. Alan, how are you?

Alan: Ruari, great. Thank you so much for having me back. Pleasure to be here talking about the plant-based diet revolution. A pleasure to have this book close to being on the shelves and being at the point when I can go and talk to old friends like you all about it.

Ruari: For those of us who weren't listening to the previous podcast, Alan, why don't you tell us a bit of background into your story and how you got to where you are today.

Alan: My name is Dr. Alan Desmond. I'm a gut health expert, a gastroenterologist. I also practice in general medicine. I'm a full time NHS consultant. I also do a little bit of private work. 

As you’ve mentioned, in the last several years, I've become a very active advocate and educator on the benefits of taking a healthier approach to food, which has stemmed out of my clinical practice. It also involves public speaking, speaking at conferences, publishing the medical literature, educating members of the public, fellow doctors, policy makers, et cetera, on the benefits of a healthier approach to food. 

If we zoom back about five years, 2015, was when I discovered One Year No Beer. At that time, I just happened to hear your good friend Andy Ramage on a podcast. At that time, like a lot of your followers, I was doing great. I was a full time consultant, gastroenterologist, have young kids, physically active, exercising, always thinking what can I do to be better, et cetera.

When I heard Andy talking about this concept of taking a complete break from alcohol and doing this 90 Day Challenge, it really intrigued me. At that time, I'd been doing a lot of Tough Mudders and I was getting into Spartan races. At that time, whenever I had a race coming up, I would take three or four weeks where I just wouldn't drink any alcohol because I knew it would affect me on the day. It would reduce my performance and my endurance. 

I had my first ever Spartan Ultra coming upthe big Spartan race, the 25k ones. I had that. It was 90 days away, I happened to listen to Andy 91 days before it. I said, okay, I'm going to do it. I'll try this thing to see how I get on the Spartan event. 

Of course, like so many of your One Year No Beer enthusiasts and graduates, I suddenly figured out that if I wasn't going for those few pints in a Thursday night and if I wasn't having a couple of glasses of wine maybe one night a week at home, that I was now waking up fresher seven days a week. I was more productive. 

After I finished that Spartan race, I was really proud of my time, how I got through it, and everything. I thought, well, that's it, I'm not going back, I'm not having a beer to celebrate this one. Since then, I went on to take part in a One Year No Beer Master class. As I've said to you and Andy before, we're going to talk about the plant-based diet revolution today, so dropping the booze for me was a revelation. 

When I told my wife that I was giving up alcoholshe doesn't drink at all, she hadn't had alcohol for years herself—she said, why? She didn't view me as having any sort of issue at all with alcohol. I would just go have a few pints on Thursday night with a close group of friends and enjoyed a fancy glass of red wine with my dinner. She said, why? Why are you doing this? She didn't immediately say, oh, thank goodness you're giving up alcohol. It's about time. 

It really improved my productivity and my fitness. Is it four or five years later now, I wouldn't change a thing. For me, it's been a real gamechanger. It's like you discover all this extra time in the day. 

I'm not working today. Up early this morning, I did a CrossFit workout from home because we're in lockdown right now. I spent time with the kids, my littlest fella is 4 ½. I helped him make us both a big bowl of porridge. Did a little bit of Joe Wicks with the kids because it's lockdown right now and Joe's on YouTube in the morning. I just had a very pleasant morning. Then, jump on here with you. I know for sure if I'd been out last night with my buddies and I had those three or four pints, a lockdown notwithstanding, I just wouldn't have been there 100% when I got up this morning.

Ruari: Yeah. I especially love the stories of people who weren't drinking that much in the first place and yet, had all of these advantages and the benefits. I think that's why we're reaching so many more people. You can't hide from it. Alcohol is causing you more trouble than you realize and you don't realize until you take a break from it.

Alan, thank you for giving us the background into that journey. Something that you got really focused on and passionate aboutyou always werebut I guess, did it then increase this focus of the plant-based diet for you? Tell us about that journey. Then, up to now, what is going to be your best-selling book.

Alan: Oh, thanks, man. Well, it's interesting. For years as a gut health doctor, someone who deals with people who have significant tummy problems, whether that's irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, colitis, diverticular disease, fatty liver disease, and the list goes on of all these long-term conditions that we view in this part of the world as being “normal and inevitable.” 

Having dealt with individuals with these conditions over many, many years, every single patient, Ruari, asks their gastroenterologist after that conversation, where you've explained a new diagnosis, explained a new medication, or a surgical procedure or what have you, every single patient, what about food, doctor? Is there anything that I should eat or anything that I shouldn't eat that's going to make me feel better today, but it's also going to improve my prognosis?

For my patients, I've always been seeking evidence based answers to that question. What does the medical science, the nutritional science, and the science on health and wellbeing tell us are the healthier things to eat? Of course, the more I got into reading the research, the more I realized that this goes well beyond gut health and digestive health.

Sadly, Ruari, in modern societies, as pointed out by a chap called Dr. David Katz two years ago writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, food is no longer an essential sustenance. It's no longer something that helps us to perform at our optimal, to survive, and thrive. Sadly, food is now a major contributor to chronic disease and to premature deaths. 

Now, in the UK, this is an incredible statistic that you're probably not going to believe, but it's absolutely true. In the UK right now, dietary factorspoor food choices and poor availabilityaccount for more disease, disability, and more lost years of quality of life than alcohol and drug use combined. It's incredible, isn't it? The only thing in the UK that's causing more problems than food is cigarettes. 

In the United States, food has overtaken cigarettes to become the number one cause of human disease and disability. This is incredibly important stuff. When we look at the things, what should I eat? It's the same question that my patients have been asking me since I took my very first job as a very junior member of the gastroenterology team almost 20 years ago to now in 2020, when I sit in my clinic. When I take part in public speaking events or any of the work that I do with The Happy Pear, people are so confused because there is so much diet confusion out there.

It sounds like a simple question, what should I eat? In fact, it's probably the most important question or one of the most important questions in the 21st century. The reason for writing the book is to spread that message further, to help people to join this plant-based diet revolution, to give them the science simply explained and broken down, as well as the recipes, the plans, and the answers to all of these common questions that will help them to choose, to build every meal, or most of them from foods that will help them to optimize their health, their performance. 

You're one of the few people, Ruari, who's seen a preview of the books. You've had the preview to look through. As you can see in the book, I describe why healthy food means you're going to have a healthier gut, a healthier heart, a healthier body, and a healthier mind. That's what the book is all about. For me, one thing has flowed from the other.

Ruari: That's 100% the journey we are on here. We're on the journey of self-discovery. We're on the journey of realizing that we've been using alcohol to numb so many things in our life. That when you park that at the door, you're given a sense of clarity and energy that you want to start tackling other things. 

That's why things like trying, testing out, what it's like for you to have a plant-based dietI'm not saying everybody should do it, you absolutely are. There's lots of people who are like, I don't know if I could ever do that, but it's absolutely about trying it. 

I think what's amazing is that's why you've come up with the 28-day revolution. You're like, come and do it for 28 days. I'll give you all the recipes, all the tools, all the materials that you need, and you will probably change your relationship with food forever, correct?

Alan: Absolutely. What I've tried to do with the book, as well as providing this 28-day plan, which as you've seen, is really, really easy because it literally guides you through each step of the way. Each day of those 28 days, it explains which recipes you're cooking, what food to get ready for the morning, et cetera. It really takes people by the hand. 

It goes through your store cupboard essentials, your shopping list for the week, all the recipes. Here's how to cook and store the food. Here are tips for buying the food. 

My really good friend Bob Andrew, who's this incredible chef, a real expert chef, we put our heart and soul into this thing because we really wanted to make it very, very achievable. 

The whole concept of enjoying the benefits of a plant-based diet is certainly out there in the public sphere. People are hearing from more and more celebrities like Lewis Hamilton, Serena Williams, Meghan Markle, even David Beckham, lately, people like Beyonce, Olympic medalist Dotsie Bausch, and rugby player Anthony Mullally. They're probably hearing this more and more from doctors and health professionals about the benefits of a plant based diet. It can seem really, really intimidating. 

Over the years, I've been through my public speaking, through my clinical practice and also through my work with Steve and Dave at The Happy Pear, where we run a number of online courses. I've been really privileged to guide and shepherd thousands of people who've been making the switch to plant-based. 

I've kind of taken all of that experience over the last several years to make sure that the science is simple, the food is not intimidating, that it's nice and appealing, and kind of recipes that you'll enjoy. You don't need any fancy ingredients. 

When we were designing the recipes and meal plans, we had this sort of test called a Sainsbury's test. For anyone listening outside the UK, Sainsbury’s is a kind of a mid-range, high-street supermarket here in the UK. We had the Sainsbury's Test. Can you buy these ingredients in Sainsbury's? It was a key test for us because it has to be achievable.

Ruari: Yeah, easily reachable and no barriers to entry.

Alan: Exactly. As you have seen, Ruari, in the science sections where we explained the grounding for recommending this whole food plant-based approach to food, I also keep it really simple. You can dip in and dip out. The information is presented in a nice little short paragraph, in some nuggets, and illustrations, so that it's completely not intimidating.

I just might say just a little bit about what a whole food plant-based diet is, because I haven't actually explained that. Maybe for some of your listeners, they don't know what I'm talking about. 

Ruari: Absolutely. Let's hit enter.

Alan: That's really important. We talked earlier about how what should I eat is a critical question. In fact, it's such a critical question that a couple of years ago, one of the world's leading medical journals, The Lancet, set up an independent commission of 38 global experts on food, diet, health and agriculture and said, well, can you go out and answer a question for us? It is really an important question. What should we eat? Not just the 720 million people in the world who can't get enough food, but also the 3.5 billion people in the world who are suffering poor health because of excess calories and excess nutrition. 

What should we eat? Can you provide us with a healthy plate that everybody should eat in order to maximize and optimize their health? They came back with what they called the Planetary Health Plate. They describe it and I'll give you the quote, “A healthy plate should be approximately half a plate of vegetables and fruits. The other half should consist of whole grains, plant-based sources of protein, unsaturated plant oils, and optionally modest amounts of animal sources of protein.”

Joining the plant-based diet revolution is about learning to embrace a variety of plants, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and about discovering how to make these incredibly healthy foods the basis of or the entirety of each meal that you enjoy.

In fact, when they EAT-Lancet Commission came up with that blueprint a few years ago, they reckoned that if they could flick a switch and get the whole planet to adopt overnight and have access to this way of eating, that it would prevent almost 12 million completely preventable deaths per year. Not only that, when we look at the wider evidence globally, over 250 million years of health are lost to poor food choices or poor food availability globally. 

Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw this paper coming out, the Global Burden of Disease report for 2020. This is a huge academic effort that is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Basically, they look at the health of the world. This report was published just immediately before the COVID pandemic. 

What they identified in high-income countries like the US and the UK, is that sadly, over the previous decades, medicine has achieved so much with antibiotics, surgery, bypasses, and all these incredible developments we've had that have added years of life expectancy, but predominantly driven by poor food choices and poor lifestyle choices. We’re at this pointthis incredibly depressing pointwhere in high-income countries like the UK and the US, the next generation may enjoy fewer healthy years than their parents because rates of heart disease, obesity, type two diabetes, stroke, and various cancers are creeping up and up every year. 

Although I say that's a little bit depressing, for me, there's actually a big message of hope there. The things that we need to do with our diet to improve our health are actually very, very simple. The science is inspiring, the statistics are intimidating. Really, it's about making fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, the things that you eat every day. 

There's really a source of optimism there because people can reverse these things. You can achieve a healthy weight. You can reverse type two diabetes. You can normalize your cholesterol. You can reduce chronic inflammation within your body. As it is in the subtitle for the book, you can really start to do that within 28 days.

Ruari: Yeah, that's fantastic. That is brilliant. In the book, you give a sort of blueprint called, I think, how to eat like the healthiest people in the world. Can you talk a bit about that and where it came from? 

Alan: Well, it's very much based on two things. Number one, the EAT-Lancet report that we were just talking about a moment ago. That was published just last February 2019. It's this whole concept about choosing plants firstfruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, et cetera.

In fact, they were recommending that for everybody on the planet, it’s a healthy choice. In fact, we already knew about this. Obviously, they were just pooling together 30 years of research. 

About 20 years ago, Ruari, a journalist named Dan Buettner was asked by National Geographic to go off and find the healthiest people in the world. He was given a lot of resources, a lot of researchers, a lot of demographers, and all the facilities at National Geographic to go and find these people. 

He identified these five little pockets of population scattered around the world: in Loma Linda, California, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, Sardinia, Italy, Ikaria, Greece, and in Okinawa, Japan. In these five areas, he identified these people who were just super healthyliterally the healthiest people in the world. 

For example, in Okinawa, which was Japan's blue zone, he found individuals with the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. The people living in this particular area of Okinawa, Japan, were living seven years longer than the average American. They were healthy and productive, not just in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, but in their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond.

What he identified when he looked at the population, as a doctor, a gastroenterologist, and someone who's so interested in the importance of food and health, I want to know immediately, what were they eating? What were these traditional Okinawans eating? They were eating a whole food and unprocessed plant-based diet. No junk food, no highly processed food. 

They were getting their calories from complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, rice, grains, wheats, and vegetables. They were getting their protein from legumes, beans, peas, soybeans, and nuts. They very seldom consumed meat, eggs, or dairy at all. Those things made up probably 3% of their calories. 

When you look at the foods that they were eating like tofu, miso, and vegetables, you see meals that look a lot different to what we eat on a standard British or standard Western diet—your kind of big mac and cheese and a Coke. 

Ruari: Bacon, eggs, and sausages.

Alan: Right, their food. I do a lot of presentations now where I show pictures of their food compared to our food and the difference couldn't be more dramatic. That was in Okinawa, Japan.

I'll just give you one other of the blue zones that he identified. It's really interesting to me that in the United States, which is held up as the epitome of poor healthhuge rates of obesity, type two diabetes, heart disease—he also found one of the healthiest populations of the healthiest people in the world. He found them in an area of California called Loma Linda. 

In Loma Linda, California, there is this group called the Seventh-Day Adventists and they are a faith community. They are genetically very diverse. People come from all over to join them, but they have faith. They put a great emphasis on physical activity, healthy living. They tend to be nonsmokers, they tend to be nondrinkers. They were just incredibly healthy. 

In fact, men living in Loma Linda, California, who were part of the Seventh-Day Adventist group, were living 11 years longer than the US average. The reason they were living 11 years longer was because they have less cases of digestive cancers. Nearly half as rates of heart disease were about half the US average. Rates of Type two diabetes were two thirds lower than the US average. 

In Loma Linda, he found really healthy individuals, even healthy individuals who are over the age of 100. Again, you've got to ask yourself, what are these people eating? For religious reasons, the Seventh-Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California, not only do they put emphasis on faith, family, and physical exercise, they also put emphasis on eating an unprocessed and predominantly or completely vegetarian diet. They were also eating a whole food plant-based diet. 

Dan Buettner was reporting this 20 years ago. It’s incredible to me that 20 years later, when one of the world's most prominent medical journals went out to find the answer to that question, what should I eat? They came back with the same answera healthy completely or predominantly whole food plant-based diet.

Ruari: Amazing. Really, really amazing. In the book, you talk a lot about the world of the gut microbiome and all sorts of things like that. For those of us who don't really grasp that concept yet, give us a bit of background, explanation into the gut microbiome, and why you write so much about it?

Alan: Oh, man, we could do hours on this. Once I get going on the gut microbiome, I need to be shut down. 

Ruari: Don't worry, I will.

Alan: The good news is we are not alone. We view ourselves as individual organisms, humans walking proud dominating the planet. We’re an individual organism, an individual animal. In fact, we're not, we're a symbiotic organism.

All over our body, but particularly within our gut and particularly within the lower part where the gut is large, we are carrying with us hundreds of trillions of microbes, bacteria, yeasts, fungi, archaea, and viruses. We have more microbes within our large intestine than there are stars in the Milky Way or trees on planet Earth. We have more bacterial DNA in our body than we have human DNA in our body. 

Although modern humans, as we appear today, have existed for maybe 200,000 years or so, these primitive microorganisms that we carry around within us have been around for billions of years. In fact, they are the descendants of the world's first ever living organisms—these tiny little unicellular clumps that existed on the planet within half a billion years of earth forming. 

It's incredible, right? We're still carrying those bugs with us deep inside our body. What medical science has shown us over the last 20 or 30 years is that these bugs are incredibly important because our health is critical to their health and their health is critical to our health. By having a healthy gut microbiome, you can really help to influence and improve your own health. 

How do we harness the power of a healthy gut microbiome? The number one thing we can do to influence our gut microbiome, to help our bugs to help us to stay healthy, is by choosing food that they love and used to produce beneficial products. Our gut microbes don't just sit there, they're biochemically active. Not only do they digest foods that we send them, but they also produce chemicals that they've been described as an unlicensed drug factory because they produce biochemically active substances all the time. The substances that they produce very much depend on what we send through the food hole to them for them to digest and work on. 

I'll give you an example. Short-chain fatty acids, these are incredibly beneficial chemicals that help our body to control our appetite, to control our blood sugars, reduce our risk of chronic inflammation, reduce our risk of heart disease. They also help to keep the incredibly important lining of the gutreally healthywhich is really important in order to, again, prevent chronic inflammation and prevent all of these chronic diseases. Short-chain fatty acids, super important.

Where do we get them? We only get them, Ruari, when we eat fiber. Where do we get fiber from? We get it from plants. When we choose to build every meal from a variety of plants, we increase our body’s production of short-chain fatty acids by harnessing the power of a healthy gut microbiome. 

I'll give you an example of how to harness an unhealthy gut microbiome.

Ruari: Go to McDonald's?

Alan: Well, go to McDonald's. To be quite honest, sit down with a nice big Aberdeen-Angus. When we consume meat and when we consume eggs, for example, when we eat those foods, they're incredibly rich in substances called carnitine and choline. Now, carnitine and choline, choline in particular, are needed for a healthy body. Will you find small amounts of choline in vegetables? 

If you're just eating a plant-based diet, you get enough choline to keep your body healthy. It's really important for neurological development, liver health, and a few other things. When you eat your average Aberdeen-Angus steak or if you're having a few eggs every morning for breakfast, you are consuming so much choline that it doesn't all get absorbed by your body. It gets all the way down through your digestive tract, into your large bowel, where we have the gut microbiome. 

When your gut microbiome gets to work on eggs, carnitine, and choline, it starts producing a different chemical. Instead of producing a beneficial short-chain fatty acid, it produces this stuff called TMA—Trimethylamine. That gets absorbed into your bloodstream. It goes to your liver. It gets turned into TMAO and that's a proinflammatory molecule that drives heart disease, stroke, and atherosclerosis. 

In fact, if you, Ruari, ended up—god forbidin the emergency department tomorrow, having had a heart attack or serious episode of angina, if I took a blood test from you and measured the level of TMAO in your body, I could predict how well you're going to do in the coming months. Whether you're going to go on to have a heart attack or stroke.

The higher the TMAO level in your blood, the more likely you are to have a heart attack or stroke. Where do we get TMAO? It is made by our gut microbiome.

Once you've adopted a completely plant-based diet, the bugs that make the TMAO just die off. We've seen studies showing people with a completely plant-based diet after 12 months, they don't even make that stuff anymore. Their microbiome has lost the ability to make it.

Ruari: Wow. Gosh, that is so powerful and life changing. I think all of these things, you're just not going to know until you've tried it. What most people think about changing their relationship with alcohol, like your wife, why would you ever do that? Why? Which is how many people might think of when you say, oh, but why would I do a plant-based diet?

You can tell me the health benefits and you can tell me those things. The truth is, you are not going to really understand until you try it. That's why the plant-based diet revolution and your 28-day revolution is so perfect because it gives people this window, this insight, these easy steps to follow.

Alan, now that I have been a walking advert for your phenomenal book coming up, when is the book out and where can we buy it?

Alan: The book, The Plant-Based Diet Revolution, it's available to preorder now on Amazon and through If you preorder it now, you will have the hardback in your hands on January 7th. That's in the UK and Ireland. 

The books are also being released in Australia, the United States, Canada, and beyond. If you're in the US, which is incredible, I'm so stoked, I'm so excited to get this out there more broadly. 

Ruari: Congratulations. 

Alan: Oh, thanks, man. It's been incredible. It's going to be released in those territories as well on January 7th in the US, Australia, Canada, and beyond, you can get the e-book. The hardback will be released in early April. 

For your listeners who are in the UK and Ireland, if you preorder it now, you will have to hardback in your hands on January 7th.

Ruari: That is amazing. Alan, thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you. We will definitely, again, get you back on again once the book is out. I'm confident we'll be doing some more things with you down that path anyway. One Year No Beer will be hearing a lot more about Dr. Alan Desmond. 

Lastly, where can people find you?

Alan: Best place to reach out to me is on Instagram. It's Alan Desmond. If you type Alan Desmond to Instagram to search, you'll see me, Dr. Alan Desmond, I’m wearing my blue scrubs, and just tap on there. 

On Instagram, as you know, I share pictures of the food I'm eating. I’m one of those guys. With each post, it explains to you exactly why I'm choosing to and recommending that people eat food that looks a bit like this. It's so difficult to keep up with the nutritional science. The papers that really catch my eye or shape my clinical practice, I write up nice, neat, and actionable summaries of those. I post those on Instagram as well.

Ruari: You're an absolute star. Alan, thanks so much for coming on the show. It's been great to have you.

Alan: Pleasure, Ruari. I’m looking forward to the next one.


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