There’s a lot of conflicting advice about the best way to eat, but one thing that almost everyone agrees on is that eating more plants is good for you.
So what’s the best way of doing it?
You don’t have to go vegan to eat more plants
You don’t need to be a vegan to follow a plant-based diet. In fact, the term ‘plant-based’ can be used to refer to a wide variety of dietary patterns which all have one thing in common: they’re centered around plants.
And we don’t just mean fruit and veg. Nuts, seeds, pulses, grains, herbs and spices all come from plants too (as do tea and coffee!).
There’s plenty of room for variety based on personal preferences, budget and access, but a typical plant-based diet should include a diverse range of these foods, either with the addition of small amounts of animal products or none at all.
How does eating more plants affects your health?
Plant foods are an abundant source of beneficial nutrients including vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and protein. They’re also rich in polyphenols – the thousands of biologically active molecules that feed our gut bacteria (microbiome) and benefit our health in many other ways.
Although it is difficult to determine cause and effect when it comes to food and disease, what we do know is that people who eat more plants in their diet tend to have lower overall risk of diseases, including high blood pressure (hypertension) and type 2 diabetes.
People who eat a heavily plant-based diet also have a consistently lower risk of death due to heart disease, compared to those who eat a typical Western diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods.
Why are plants good for you?
Firstly, plants are good for your gut, as long as they’re not overly processed or refined. The dietary fiber and polyphenols they contain are important for feeding and maintaining your microbiome – the gut bacteria that carry out many important functions that benefit our health.
As an example, a large study of more than 20,000 men and women found a strong positive association between those who ate a diet higher in plant foods and bowel movement frequency (more pooping, in other words).
Keeping regular matters, because being chronically constipated can have some pretty unpleasant effects on your health.
Plants are full of healthy polyphenols
Whole plant foods can also help to improve your immune system and reduce harmful inflammation in the body through the actions of all these helpful polyphenols.
This includes red-purple flavone pigments in eggplants, peppers and tomatoes; isoflavones in soybeans, bright orange beta-carotene in carrots, squashes and pumpkins; tasty flavonols and vitamin C in kale, onions and fruits; and the nutritious omega-3 fats found in nuts and seeds.
Polyphenols also act as fuel for your gut microbes, and the more different polyphenols you provide through your diet, the greater the diversity of bacteria you’ll grow and the better your overall gut health.
The American Gut Project – a massive citizen science project that gathered microbiome samples from more than 10,000 people – showed that people who eat around 30 different plants every week have much greater microbial diversity than those who eat just 10.
The same study also showed that people who pack in the plants are less likely to have gut bacteria carrying genes conferring resistance to antibiotics – an important benefit given the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections around the world.
Comparing apples and oranges
While increasing the amount of plant-based foods in your diet is a good thing, it’s important to remember that plants aren’t all the same.
We know from our research that even identical twins can have different nutritional responses to the same foods, including plants, so what’s best for your body may not be ideal for someone else.
For example, when our co-founder Jonathan took part in the study, he discovered that eating oatmeal – a supposedly healthy grain – gave him a very high blood sugar spike, while other participants had much less dramatic responses.
We’re now using machine learning technology to analyze millions of datapoints so we can predict how any individual will respond to particular foods.
And we’re also figuring out how different foods affect the populations of bacteria in our guts, known as the microbiome, which play an essential role in nutrition and health.
10 easy ways to get more plants into your diet
Increasing the variety and amount of plants in your diet doesn’t have to be difficult, especially once you expand your idea of what counts as a plant-based food to include spices, herbs, nuts and seeds.
Here are our favorite ways to dish up some diversity.
- Bulk up with beans – Make your meals go further and switch half or all of the meat you’d normally use to prepare meals like stews, curries, and bolognese with plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils, or tofu. Add tinned tomatoes, herbs, and spices for extra flavour and diversity.
- Meat-free Mondays – This is a really great way to prioritise plant-based foods at least once a week. If you’re stuck for ideas, why not follow some of the great plant-based bloggers out there for some recipe inspiration? Why not share your favorites with us by tagging us on Instagram (we’re @ZOE).
- Sweet treats – Fruit is a delicious dessert, and definitely doesn’t need to be boring. Poach, bake, griddle or simply chop all kinds of fruits and top them with nuts, seeds and spices to make things interesting.
- Plan ahead – Cook up extra roasted vegetables, vegetable-based stews or grains at the weekend and pop them in the refrigerator or freezer to use throughout the week. Cooking in bulk can save you both time and money, ensuring that you have plant-powered meals ready to go whenever you need them.
- Frozen is your friend – Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as (if not more) nutritious than their fresh alternatives. This is because they’re frozen within hours of picking, which seals in nutrients that are normally lost over time in fresh fruits and vegetables. Canned fruits, vegetables, lentils and beans are also good options with long shelf-lives, so they’re always handy when you need to whip up a meal.
- Mix it up – The key to a healthy plant-based diet is diversity – not just eating the same few vegetables on repeat. Keep a seasonal food calendar for your area on your refrigerator (here’s one for California, for example) and try to include one new fruit or vegetable in your diet each week. Test out different preparation methods for your favourite plant foods to keep things exciting. Experiment with different grains such as quinoa, freekeh, bulgur, barley, spelt. The possibilities are endless!
- Say goodbye to boring salads – Forget tasteless iceberg or watery tomatoes and think about how to include all the colours of the rainbow in your salads – more color generally means more of those healthy polyphenols. Incorporate texture and crunch with toasted nuts and seeds, experiment with different ways of preparing your veg such as spiralizing or grating, use fresh herbs for extra flavour or add in cooked and cooled grains to bulk it up.
- Hidden greens – The great thing about green leafy vegetables such as kale, swiss chard, spinach or cabbage is that you can chop them finely and fold them into cooked dishes. They’ll wilt down and push up the plant power of your dish in a flash without being too obvious. Perfect for picky kids (or adults) who aren’t keen on solo greens.
- Make the most of dips and spreads – There’s a world of possibilities when it comes to making bean-based dips and spreads. They’re easy and cheap to make at home and can be used as a creamy sub filling, a quick addition to salads, a dip for chopped vegetable sticks and crackers or as a substitute for mayo.
- Half-and-half – Instead of just cooking up your regular helping of potatoes, increase diversity by switching out half of them for other root vegetables like sweet potatoes, squash, beets or carrots, which are all delicious roasted, crushed or mashed.
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