In Conversation with Dr. Shireen Kassam | @KingsCollegeNHS @shireenkassam1

Ismailimail is pleased to publish an interview with Dr. Shireen Kassam, a Consultant Haematologist and Certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician at King’s College Hospital, London, and Visiting Professor in Plant-Based Nutrition, at the University of Winchester, United Kingdom. Dr. Kassam joins in conversation with Sujjawal Ahmad to discuss the importance of nutrition and a plant-based diet in the prevention and treatment of some important non-communicable diseases.

Sujjawal Ahmad (SA): Tell us a bit about yourself and your work background.

Shireen Kassam (SK): Thanks for inviting me to this conversation. I work as a doctor in the NHS in the UK at King’s College Hospital. My specialty is hematology and within that, I care for people with lymphoma and also lead a haemato-oncology diagnostics service.

Outside of my work for the NHS, I provide education and advocacy for healthy plant-based diets. I do this through my role at the University of Winchester where I have developed and facilitate an online course on plant-based nutrition for health professionals. I am also the founder and director of a non-profit organization called Plant-Based Health Professionals UK whose mission is to provide education and advocacy on whole food plant-based nutrition for the prevention and treatment of chronic disease, as well as for supporting planetary health.

SA: Any recent project you would like to mention?

SK: Yes, of course! My latest project has been the launch of a plant-based lifestyle medicine healthcare service called Plant Based Health Online, where we support patients to use the principles of lifestyle medicine, including a plant-based diet, to improve their health and manage chronic conditions, often being able to support them to come off prescribed medications.

SA: With a background in hematology, what sparked your interest in a nutrition-based diet?

SK: I became vegan in 2013. Whilst researching how to adopt a healthy plant-based diet for myself, I came across a wealth of information supporting plant-based diets for promoting optimal human health and well-being. I was pretty surprised to be learning this more than 13 years after qualifying as a doctor. I don’t remember an emphasis on healthy nutrition during medical training despite the fact that dietary risk factors are now the leading cause of chronic illness and early death globally.

Once I had sufficiently educated myself, I really wanted to share this knowledge with healthcare professionals in the UK and therefore started my non-profit organization called Plant-Based Health Professionals UK. From that work, I was invited to develop and facilitate a course at the University of Winchester on plant-based nutrition. This remains the only University-based course in the UK on the topic and is fully CPD accredited.

I also discovered the new specialty of lifestyle medicine, a global discipline that uses evidence-based healthy lifestyle habits, including a plant-based diet, to prevent, manage, and oftentimes reverse chronic conditions. I have since qualified as a certified lifestyle medicine physician and launched a lifestyle medicine service here in the UK called Plant-Based Health Online.

SA: How plant-based nutrition can serve as a powerful tool for the prevention and reversal of non-communicable diseases such as cancer?

SK: Plant-based diets really address the root cause of chronic conditions. A diet centered around fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds is high in fiber and phytonutrients and is able to promote good gut health, reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and favorably impact gene expression. Plant-based diets have been consistently shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers and to help promote a healthy weight. Most of my patients with lymphoma have other common chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Knowing how to support them to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle is hugely important to their care and has the ability to improve their long-term outcomes.

In addition to the impact on individual health, the widespread adoption of a plant-based diet is now considered essential to deal with the current climate and ecological crises. Without addressing the food system and moving away from animal agriculture we will not be able to meet our climate or nature commitments.

SA: As you know, treatment resistance is one of the major challenges in cancer therapeutics. Your previous work showed the role of selenium in sensitizing cancer cells to chemotherapy. Tell us a bit more about that.

SK: My Ph.D. investigated the impact of supra-nutritional doses of selenium in sensitizing lymphoma cells to chemotherapy. I was able to show that adding selenium to chemotherapy could preferentially enhance the killing of cancer cells whilst protecting normal cells from toxicity. I was able to show that there were various mechanisms by which this occurred, including selenium’s action as an HDAC inhibitor and an enhancer of autophagy.

To be honest, though, most studies using nutriceuticals have not made it into clinical practice and my interest now is really focused on supporting my patients to adopt a healthy diet that will impact both their cancer care but also reduce the risk of future chronic conditions.

SA: Given that COVID-19 is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, what do you think the impact diet and nutrition can have on COVID-19 outcomes?

SK: The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of populations to this infectious threat. Our high level of chronic illness, be it overweight and obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc, has led to increased harm from the virus. Most people with severe COVID-19 have had at least one underlying health condition. Yet, through the adoption of a healthy diet and other healthy lifestyle habits, we can prevent most of these chronic conditions and thus improve our resilience to infectious agents.

Making healthy plant-based diets accessible and affordable to all communities would be a major step in the right direction. It will improve our physical and mental wellbeing, reduce the risk of chronic conditions and reduce the harm from infections. In addition, our food choices matter when it comes to preventing the next pandemic. These infectious threats usually come from the way we treat and use animals and their habitats. Animal agriculture in all its forms poses a real and present danger of new infectious threats with pandemic potential.

SA: You are a published author too, tell us of any of your books that people can benefit from.

SK: Thanks for asking that. So my first book which I co-authored with my sister Zahra, an oncologist in Canada is Eating Plant-Based, Scientific Answers to Your Nutrition Questions. With dietitian Lisa Simon, we have also just published a multi-author edited textbook called Plant-Based Nutrition in Clinical Practice.

SA: One piece of advice you would like to give.

SK: A healthy plant-based diet and other healthy lifestyle habits such as regular physical activity, good quality sleep, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and reducing stress is the primary way of maintaining good health, well-being, and longevity for you and your family. This really needs to be emphasized on a personal level, for our families, and in the wider community. Diseases of the modern world are mostly preventable and that really needs to be our focus going forward.

Author: Sujjawal Ahmad

Sujjawal is an invited blog author from Pakistan. He finds it extremely exciting to develop a deep love of cultures around the world. The stories that are about humanity, and emotion, that compel us as individuals, and connect our hearts and minds are the kinds of stories Sujjawal has always gravitated to, and the kinds he tells. He can be reached at: sujjawalahmed@gmail.com

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