Dr. Shireen Kassam and Rohini Bajekal are British Asians who became concerned by the way their families and communities were disproportionately affected by cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and type 2 diabetes (T2D), and, therefore, decided to tackle some of the contributing factors.
British Heart Foundation (BHF) has reported a 50 percent higher risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) amongst South Asians living in the UK. Similar findings were obtained in 2006 by researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) in the USA, where a study was set up to look into the main factors leading to high levels of CVD and T2D in US residents coming from South Asia.
Far from being an alternative lifestyle choice, plant-based diets—defined as those derived from plant sources including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are now embedded in scientific literature. However, having a good understanding of a nutritionally balanced diet may not be enough on its own to tackle chronic conditions if there are other poor lifestyle factors.
“Other cultural factors that present challenges to maintaining a healthy diet relate to celebrations around religious festivals, community, and family events where it is traditional to provide lavish hospitality and where many of the foods on offer are often high fat, deep fried and high sugar versions of dishes that should, ideally, be eaten sparingly. Another unhelpful ingredient common across South Asian cuisine is ghee, a clarified butter used for frying, basting, and tempering dishes, which Rohini describes as ‘oxidised cholesterol.”
With South Asians making up 25% of the World’s population and accounting for 60% of heart disease patients, prevention rather than cure would seem to be a wise option. Future projections of rising rates of heart diseases are a reason to improve and expand culturally relevant health education.
“It’s clear that healthcare systems will always need to prioritise life-saving treatments, but the value of prevention will not only be felt in the healthcare system, but also on a personal level for the individual, their family, and their community”, says Dr. Shireen.
Source: Judith Ozkan, Taking root: how a fresh approach to nutrition is tackling heart disease amongst South Asian populations, European Heart Journal, 2021; https://doi.org/10.1093/eurheartj/ehab410
About Dr Shireen Kassam
Dr Shireen Kassam is a Consultant Haematologist and Honorary Senior Lecturer at King’s College Hospital, London with a specialist interest in the treatment of patients with lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system). She is also passionate about promoting plant-based nutrition for the prevention and reversal of chronic diseases and for maintaining optimal health after treatment for cancer.
She qualified as a medical doctor in 2000, initially training in general medicine, and gaining Membership of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP; 2003). She then specialised in Haematology and achieved Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath; 2008). During training, she took time out to undertake a PhD (University of London, 2011). Her research investigated the role of selenium, an essential micronutrient, in sensitising cancer cells to chemotherapy. She was able to show that supra-nutritional doses of selenium could enhance the action of chemotherapy in the laboratory. She has published a number of peer-reviewed papers in the field of lymphoma.
Shireen discovered the power of nutrition for the prevention and treatment of disease in 2013 and since then has been following a whole food plant-based diet. She has since completed the eCornell certification in plant-based nutrition and in 2019 she became certified as a Lifestyle Medicine Physician by the International Board of Lifestyle Medicine.
Shireen founded Plant-based health professionals UK, a community interest company, in 2017. Since then she has been appointed as Visiting Professor of Plant-Based Nutrition at Winchester University where she has developed and runs an online course on plant-based nutrition for health professionals.