Dr Laura Freeman is a physician, and mum on a mission. One of her key convictions driving her passion is that she was once herself a patient, diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer 5 years ago managing not only to survive it, but positively thrive!
After careful study and research backed by reputable science (not opinions) she has found that people who eat a plant-based diet reduce their risk of getting cancer significantly. She quit red meat, dairy and processed meats switching them for an abundance of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, non-processed foods, as well as soy protein-type foods such as tempeh and tofu.
Dr Laura Freeman is certified as a CHIP (Complete Health Improvement Program) Practitioner. In 2019, Dr Freeman became a diplomat of the International Board for Lifestyle Medicine and is also a course tutor leading a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals in a first of its kind, online plant-based healthcare service called Plant Based Health Online (PBHO).
In addition to her busy schedule, she also runs regular health workshops and ‘Walk with a Doc’ walking groups in her community.
If you’re wondering what UK doctors are currently really thinking about the whole subject of health, fitness and diet, our exclusive interview, Dr Laura Freeman will put you square in the picture as we cover several topics in depth, such as the plant-based diet, lifestyle tips, mindset and much more!
It’s great to connect with you and we hope you’re keeping well. Welcome to Keep Fit Kingdom!
Just to get your views briefly if we may…Have you taken a look at our site – what do you think of the name Keep Fit Kingdom (KFK) for short?
Yes, great content. Reminds me a bit of KFC, but better!
Our mission is to help a billion people reach 100 years of age happily and healthily by the year 2100, what is your impression about that?
I like an ambitious goal.
Thank you! OK, let’s start off with some basics…
Background & Career
Please briefly outline your story and journey to becoming a doctor – what made you decide to get into the medical profession? Who are your main inspirations and influences?
I was always fascinated by the eye and started medical school to become an ophthalmologist. However, ophthalmology and surgery was never my strong point – communicating with patients was where I really excelled. I had a clinical mentor at the time who encouraged me to work towards GP training and that is what I did.
In my personal life, I am positively influenced by my family who I am very close to. There are a lot of strong, and driven women in my family including a great aunt who lied to her parents about enrolling in medical school because it was not thought to be an appropriate career for a female. She pioneered post natal care in the community and has really been an incredible source of inspiration.
What’s the most challenging part about your particular focus of work and what’s the most rewarding?
By far, the most rewarding is the success I see with my patients. By helping them focus on a healthy, plant-based diet (PBD) and other lifestyle habits, they are able to reach better health. It can be challenging as my colleagues do not always understand PB nutrition and are not yet aware of the evidence supporting a lifestyle- medicine approach but that drives me to spread the message further and wide.
Plant Based Health Online (PBHO) UK
How long have you been following a PBD and what improvements or benefits have you noticed yourself – which convince you to freely and enthusiastically promote this to others, as far, and as wide as possible.
Since 2016 – so almost five years now. I feel more energetic and have a healthier relationship with food. Most of all, I am confident that I am making one of the healthiest choices possible and doing all I can to prevent disease in the future – for myself and my patients.
Plant-Based Diets: Effective Way of Reducing the Risk of Certain Cancers
You have a very defining story about surviving cancer, and you seem thoroughly convinced that a PBD can prevent serious diseases from manifesting in the first place, can you tell us more?
Whilst it does not provide a guarantee, there is compelling evidence to support a whole-food, PBD as an effective way of reducing the risk of certain cancers – especially of the colon, prostate and breast.
This dietary approach has also been shown to reduce the incidence of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s – some of the most common chronic diseases that I see frequently as a GP. By optimising dietary choices along with other healthy habits, my patients can take control of their health, and in many cases prevent, treat and sometimes even reverse these conditions.
Breathing Exercises are a Very Simple & Effective Way to Help Reduce Stress & Anxiety
Do you recommend any sort of breathing exercises as adjunct to a healthy lifestyle along with a PBD?
Yes! One of the pillars of lifestyle medicine is stress management and breathing techniques can be a very simple but effective way to help reduce stress and anxiety.
It was actually one of my own patients who taught me to breathe in for 3, hold for 4 and breathe out for 8. When you exhale longer than you inhale, you activate your parasympathetic system which has a calming effect.
This is a very simple technique but it has a nice calming effect. I encourage my patients to try to exhale longer on their inhale and pay attention to their breath. We can always come back to our breath, no matter where we are, what we are doing or how we are feeling, so it’s a very effective technique.
Dr Freeman Takes a “Food First” Approach
Do you take the ‘food as medicine’ approach? Why is that a good perspective?
I take a ‘food first’ approach – wherever safe and possible. I fully support and am grateful for conventional medicine and allopathic practices certainly have their place. However, the majority of people have room to optimise their food choices and I encourage all my patients to look at this first – before taking medications for example.
This is not suitable for everyone but it is always worth a discussion so that we can make informed choices. A whole-food PBD can have such a positive impact on health – I believe everyone should know about its benefits and the evidence to support it.
The Difference Between a Plant-Based & Vegan Diet
Is there a difference between a plant-based, and a vegan diet? If so, what?
A vegan diet excludes all animal products but can still be unhealthy if it only includes vegan junk food for example. A whole-food, PBD really describes what you are incorporating into your diet – fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes nuts and seeds. All of these foods are health-promoting, and have been associated with better health and longevity.
How would you suggest tackling the differences in bioavailability of iron (haem vs non-haem)? In particular for pregnant women who are on a PBD?
Haem iron from animal foods have been linked to an increase risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease so is best avoided. There are plenty of healthy plant foods which are rich iron sources – lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, kale, dried apricots etc and all of us should try and incorporate these foods regularly into our diet.
Adding a source of vitamin C (peppers, kiwi, strawberries etc) can help increase absorption and avoiding drinking tea and coffee with these foods can help further. During pregnancy, the demand for iron is much higher and it is not always possible to meet your daily requirements – most pregnant women will take a prenatal vitamin and this usually contains some iron.
Plant-Based Milk vs Cow’s Milk – Which is Better?
In the Plant Based Health Online (PBHO) starter guide, the drawbacks of cow milk consumption are mentioned and therefore plant-based alternative milks are recommended. However, plant-based milk has to go through several processing procedures to obtain the final product. So, how much better are they than cow’s milk?
They are still a much healthier option than cow’s milk – for our physical health but also planetary health as dairy production has a damaging effect on the environment. I usually recommend unsweetened (fortified) soya milk or oat milk which are rich in their nutritional values and less harmful to the planet.
How do you suggest dealing with cravings when people first move away from meat and dairy, and into a PBD?
Everyone has different ways of dealing with this, but it really isn’t something I see often. Most people feel better very quickly on a PBD and enjoy introducing new foods into their diet, so I don’t find there is much focus on foods they miss.
Lifestyle Tips to Help Make a Plant-Based Diet STICK!
What sort of lifestyle changes would you recommend along with a PBD to see true and sustainable change?
There are many, but they are really very different for each individual. I am passionate about a healthy exercise regime and this is something I focus on a lot with my patients. It does not need to be a tough workout every day – even a gentle walk outside will bring benefits.
I try to tailor the lifestyle changes I prescribe to each individual patient I see, and focus on what matters to them and what they can easily fit into their lives. This makes it both meaningful and sustainable.
Doctors’ Advice for the Modern Age: Connection & Happiness
We interviewed the Plant Power Doctor, Gemma Newman – is there anything else you might want to add to her approach when it comes to PBDs?
I read that, it’s a great interview and I love how Gemma mentions happiness and connection – these are such important practices when it comes to our health.
I would add that everyone has their own reason, their own driving force for making healthier changes and I think that it’s crucial to tap into this and use it for effective change. These reasons can change over time so it’s helpful to think about them often.
This Change Needs to Happen in the NHS, now!
If there is one thing you could change in the NHS right now, what would it be?
That is a really tough one! The NHS as a whole has done a truly incredible job over the last year or so especially, but I do agree that many things need to change.
Changing hospital menus would be a very great place to start. It really is quite unbelievable that we are still serving our hospital patients processed meat for example. We could make a lot of progress by introducing healthier choices at meal times for our patients, and extend these benefits even further if we start educating – staff and patients – on the evidence around plant-based nutrition.
The Role of Yoga
Do you believe meditation influences or affects health, if so, how?
It is not easy for everyone but even a short meditation can positively impact your physical and emotional health.
There is research to show it can improve focus, and sleep and reduce anxiety for example. We are much more used to being busy and are always on the go though I do think many of us during the pandemic, have realised the value of slowing down and becoming more self aware – something that meditation can teach us to do very well.
How do you think the landscape of PBDs and health will evolve in the next 5 years? How about thought as medicine, is that a possibility?
I hope that the landscape will change positively whereby more people will start to transition to a PBD and become aware of the benefits this brings to our physical health and for the health of the planet.
I also hope that the ‘lifestyle first’ approach will become more mainstream where we really focus on getting to the root cause of people’s diseases rather than treating the symptoms. With this, there should be shift towards using practices like mindfulness and meditation, and we will be able to understand how our thoughts, feelings and behaviours really do influence our health.
Diet & Lifestyle
What does Dr Freeman’s typical diet look like these days? What are your regular go-to’s?
For breakfast I enjoy soya yogurt, berries and homemade granola with lots of tahini, cinnamon, nuts and seeds. I usually have soup or sourdough bread with hummus and avocado at lunch – usually with broccoli sprouts on top. In the evenings I try to change up our dinner menu as much as possible – a mild curry with lots of veg and brown rice is my favourite – especially because my kids will eat it too.
What is one of your favourite healthy, PB homemade dishes or PB desserts?
What are some of your favourite exercises, or routines with or without gym equipment?
I try to vary my exercise as much as possible – for the health benefits but also to keep it interesting. So I really love to mix it up with low-intensity endurance, high-intensity interval training and strength training a few times a week too. I have an exercise bike at home which I am so grateful for now that the gym has not been an option. I also love to get outside and walk.
What is your best energy management tip?
Getting a good night’s sleep! After years of night shifts and having two young children I am now much more aware of how a bad night’s sleep can have a negative impact on your health and energy the following day.
This also has a knock on negative impact on your mood and food choices. It isn’t always easy but focussing on a good sleep routine is absolutely the best way to manage your energy levels.
Perspectives, Tips & Advice
Based on the number of clients you’ve seen over the years, what would be Dr Freeman’s top 3 tips be to live happily and healthily to a 100 hundred-year goal?
1. Choose a whole food, PBD, and move your body regularly.
2. Surround yourself with your loved ones and be present in their company.
3. Don’t sweat the small stuff!
What are your views on human potential briefly?
I always see the best in people and I think we have to focus on this – especially just now when everything feels tough.
We hold such potential for developing resilience and I think that, even in times when it doesn’t feel this way, we need to remember how much potential we have and how we can use it to benefit ourselves and others around us.
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years? What are you aiming to achieve?
I would really love to see Plant Based Health Online (PBHO) become mainstream and to have the NHS recognise our work and the success it brings our patients. I hope that we are able to work in conjunction with them so that we can provide plant-based health care far and wide.
What are a couple of life quotes or motivational sayings that inspire you to be, and do your best?
One of my favourite quotes is, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou
What special message would you like to share right now with Keep Fit Kingdom readers and those that follow your work in the UK and around the world?
I really want people to know that they have power over their health and that we shouldn’t wait for a serious diagnosis, illness or injury to be grateful for it.
I want people to know that they can choose health – and that by focusing on a healthy, plant-based diet and other healthy lifestyle habits, we can live long, fulfilling lives.
Thank you, Dr Freeman, for your kind participation in this interview, we appreciate you taking the time to share your valuable experience and wisdom on this subject.
We hope you found this interview with Dr Laura Freeman interesting and insightful. Find out more about Dr Freeman on the excellent website resource, Plant Based Health Online, and her Instagram page @drlaurafreeman, where she posts and interacts. So, what are your views on the plant-based lifestyle, health and wellbeing? What do you think the NHS should be doing right now to give patients better choices and options? If you’re giving the plant-based diet a try, we’d love to hear your experiences! Let us know in the comments below, and join in the conversation on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.
Communications & coordination by Marleen Lam.
Editing by Raj Khedun.