Want to know one of the easiest ways to improve your health? Eat more plants!

June 23, 2020

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.

But how many different types of fruits and vegetables should you be eating each week? And what if you find it really tricky to find creative ways to include more plants in your diet? The good news is that 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.

Read on for our top 10 tips for getting more plants into your diet.

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.

But what makes plants so special?

Plant foods are an abundant source of beneficial nutrients including vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and protein. They’re also rich in polyphenols, which are 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), type 2 diabetes, and 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 your health?

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. A healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome, which can be boosted by increasing the variety of plants in your diet. A diverse microbiome also is something that our PREDICT study results suggest is associated with healthy nutritional responses and lower levels of certain inflammatory markers.

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. 

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.

Here are our 10 favorite ways to dish up some diversity and get more plants into your diet.

1. 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.

2. Meat-free Mondays

This is a really great way to prioritise plant-based foods in your diet 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?

3. Reinvent dessert

Fruit can be 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.

4.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.

5.Take advantage of your freezer

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. 

6.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!

7.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.

8.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.

9.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. 

10.Go 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.

Share your favorites!

Those are our top ten tips, but we'd love to find out about yours! Tag us (@join_zoe) on Instagram or tweet us (@Join_ZOE) to share your tips and tasty recipes for getting more plants on your plate.