A diet that lets you eat more
I’m not promoting a fully vegan diet, because research doesn’t necessarily support that from a health perspective. I’m not even suggesting you should go vegetarian. What the evidence suggests is that we could all benefit from eating more plants, but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean only plants.
There is no calorie counting here, no weighing and measuring, and no cutting out. I recommend people aim for 30 – yes, 30 – different plants over the course of a week. It’s much easier than you think if you follow my easy hacks (see box).
Why this target? The five-a-day rule can be a good place to start, but it totally ignores the trillions of microbes living in our gut. They all need different types of plants to flourish.
So when I say eat more, it’s not just about quantity, but also variety.
It’s easy to kid ourselves into thinking we eat a wide variety of foods when really we tend to stick to the same old favourites. It has become cheaper and easier to eat processed foods instead of feeding our gut microbes with the vast array of plants they – and we – need in order to thrive.
While an estimated 300,000 edible plant species are available to humans, more than half of our global energy needs are met by just four: rice, potatoes, wheat and maize.
Many of us just reorder the same supermarket delivery, week in, week out. But our gut microbiota need us to shake it up a bit.
Tea, coffee and even dark chocolate count
The recommended daily intake of fibre is 30 grams in most countries. The average intake? Well under 20 grams. Our ancestors, on the other hand, used to clock up about 100 grams a day!
I’m not suggesting you have to hit that, but increasing your intake by 50 per cent over time is a good place to start. To get 30 grams in a day, around three portions of wholegrains, two pieces of fruit, five portions of veg and one to two portions of nuts, seeds or legumes per day should do it. Upping your fibre by just eight grams per day is linked with a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and death from all causes.
Think ‘plants’ and you might immediately picture green veg and salads. But there’s a wealth of flavour and colour out there to enjoy: wholegrains (barley, oats, millet), fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes (beans and pulses), even herbs and spices (including tea and coffee) count. Refined plants such as fruit and vegetable juices and white grains don’t.
What if you’re just not that into plants? There are two things to consider here. First, every food can taste bad if it’s not prepped right. There’s a world of difference between soggy, overcooked broccoli and lightly steamed, crunchy florets roasted in soy sauce and garlic. Second, the way we perceive taste is influenced by a range of factors. Research shows you can train your taste buds by eating more of the foods you don’t (think you) like, particularly for more complex flavours.
Emotional eating? Blame your gut
Forget calories in and out, or restrictive diets that are low fat, low carb and so on. There’s a definite link between our gut and our metabolism. Our gut microbes and the chemicals they make when they digest the fibre we eat from plants can impact appetite. Essentially, they tell our body we’ve had enough. In turn, this halts the production of hunger hormones such as ghrelin, and increases the ‘I’m full’ hormones such as leptin. This likely explains why it’s often fibre intake, independent of calorie intake or type of diet, that results in healthier weight and greater dietary adherence – as shown in the appropriately named 2019 POUNDS study. Other chemicals produced by our microbes are thought to target the reward network part of the brain, which influences our relationship with food and our tendency towards emotional eating.
The gut–metabolism axis doesn’t stop there. Microbes and their metabolites have been linked with ‘turning on’ genes in your body that are related to fat distribution. They can also affect glucose and fat production and storage in the liver.
In a nutshell, feed your GM well and it’s likely to keep everything else in check. So step off the scales, put down the calorie-counting calculator and just eat more plants.
10 science-backed foods to boost your resistance to colds, flu and viruses
The following foods are filled with key nutrients and phytochemicals to nourish your immune system:
- Sun-exposed mushrooms (In summer, leave them on the windowsill to absorb sunlight).
- Firm tofu
- Chia seeds
“How can I boost my immunity?” is probably one of the top five questions my clients ask. What we don’t hear enough is that immunity is powered by the gut. An impressive 70 per cent of our immune cells actually reside in the gut, alongside our gut microbiota. The microbes teach our immune system what is worth reacting to (like disease-causing microbes) and what is safe (like proteins found in certain foods). So one of the best ways we can support our immunity is by supporting our gut microbiome.
Eight diversity hacks to get more plants into your diet
- Swap crisps for a handful of toasted nuts or seeds, or try saving your potato or butternut squash peelings to roast in the oven for a crispy snack
- If you’re making a fruit crumble, substitute a third of the flour with oats and another third with ground almonds
- Don’t just add kidney beans to your chilli; replace with mixed beans.
- Switch your single piece of fruit for half a cup of mixed berries (fresh or frozen).
- Every time you go to serve up a meal at home, stop and think, ‘What could I add?’ Chop a banana over your muesli, add some sprouts to your sandwich, slice a tomato on to your plate – every bit counts.
- Stock up on frozen veg and fruit – so when you’ve got nothing fresh left, it doesn’t matter. For extra diversity, buy mixed bags of both.
- No casserole, stew, risotto or pie is complete without one more vegetable than the recipe says – it can be as simple as adding a tin of lentils or chickpeas
- Make up a seed shaker and add a sprinkle to cereals, yoghurt, smoothies and salads, or eggs, avocado on toast, or soup.
Eat More Live Well by Dr Megan Rossi (RRP £16.99). Buy now for £14.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514