A record 400,000 people signed up to the Veganuary movement (nearly double the number last year), but few of them have adopted a vegan diet for good. Our naturopathic nutritionist Rhi Hepple outlines why a more plant-focused shouldn’t be just a fad for a few weeks – it’s a great plan for the rest of your life
If you were inspired to eat more vegetables at the start of the year, then keep up the good work! Even if you are not going to go vegan, eating a diet that is more plant-focused definitely has incredible health benefits. Instead of relegating vegetables to a side dish, giving them a more central role in your meals undoubtedly reaps rewards. Scientific studies are proving that the more variety of vegetables you eat the more benefits you will get for your health.
Five a day is no longer the recommendation – research shows that we would benefit more by consuming 30 different plant-based foods each week
Consuming 30 different plant-based foods each week has been proven to give us more diverse microbial cells in our gut microbiome (the home for all that beneficial bacteria that play a key role in digestion). Not only does having a more diverse microbiome increase our resilience to infection but this diversity plays a key role in many cellular functions. All disease starts in the gut so ensuring we have a happy, healthy gut will help us to remain healthy and happy too. Scientific studies have linked at least 70 different health conditions to an unbalanced microbiome.
More veg = a healthy microbiome
So what does a healthy microbiome do for us? The gut plays a number of important roles in supporting our health, such as:
- The elimination of toxins. If our diet is high in toxins then this is much harder for our body to process. Too much toxicity increases acidity and inflammation in the body.
- 70% of our immune cells are actually housed in the wall of our digestive tract. The healthier our microbiome the stronger our immune cells and the better our resilience to infections. This is our first line of defence against all bad microbes. Ensuring you have a strong immune system is the best way to keep healthy.
- We absorb all our nutrients in our gut which helps to fuel our energy as well as support all cellular functions.
- We also make key nutrients in our microbiome such as the B vitamins and vitamin K, as well as amino acids, hormones and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin (which regulate our mood and sleep).
- It contributes to balancing our blood sugar levels.
- It helps to reduce fat in the blood.
- It enables the body to regulate our appetite – sending key messages to the brain to tell us when we are full, as well as when we are hungry.
- It sends information to all our vital organs such as the brain, liver and hearts so they do a more efficient job.
- Our gut also plays an important role in metabolising medications as well as hormones.
This is why these microbial cells are just so important. So why aren’t we nurturing this little activity centre more?
How to support a healthy microbiome
These microbes in our gut thrive on fibre and antioxidants which is why plants are so important as they supply all of these in abundance (and much more). Increasing fibre from whole-grains can help to reduce the chances of developing several diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and several cancers as well as playing a pivotal role in reducing depression, helping us to be more balanced in our mood in general, more focused, clearer thinking and more decisive, as well as supporting the regulation of hormones.
So how to do we ensure we have a healthy microbiome?
- Avoid antibiotics unless vital It is well known that antibiotics can damage our good bacteria as well as the bad bacteria that are causing an illness and, although antibiotics may be essential in a critical condition, it is now advisable to take antibiotics only when really necessary and to support a strong immune system as our first line of defence against infections. Recent studies have also concluded that other medications can also impact the growth of our microbes.
- Work preventively We should all be focused on wellness not illness and doing all we can to prevent disease by having a healthy lifestyle that includes good nutrition, exercise, hydration, sleep and reducing stress or supporting the impact of stress.
- Eat a diversity of plant-based foods Obviously our diet plays a key role in affecting the health of our microbiome. These good microbial cells need to feed and reproduce to thrive, and what they feed off is fibre, polyphenols and inulins (a type of soluble fibre) – all of which are found in a range of plant-based foods.
Diversity is key
Sticking to the same vegetables on a daily basis is not enough – diversity is key. Ensuring your diet includes a range of colourful vegetables, fruits and a mix of whole-grains is the trick to maintaining a healthy microbiome. Each day try for:
- 5 portions of vegetables
- 3 portions of whole grains
- 2 pieces of fruit
- 2 portions of nuts, seeds or legumes/pulses
If you do this most days then you will easily be hitting your 30 different varieties. This will not only provide an abundance of essential micronutrients that will support all cellular functions but will also give you an excellent supply of that fibre to keep those good microbes happy.
Which fruit and veg are best?
Well, all plant based foods are great and they all contain different nutrients that can support our bodies in different ways which is why it is so important to have that variety across the week. But there are some that are the super plants, which contain things like polyphenols and inulins, that are better at keeping our good bacteria thriving and multiplying. So ensure some of these are included in your meals and you will really be giving those microbial cells a little treat:
Fruits: apricots, dates, nectarines, pomegranates, prunes, persimmons, watermelon, dried figs, dried mango, black elderberries, blueberries, black currants, plums, cherries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, black grapes and apples.
Vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, brussel sprouts, black olives, chicory, fennel bulbs, garlic, leeks, red onion, spinach, okra, beetroot, broccoli, capers.
Nuts, seeds and legumes: black beans, butter beans, chickpeas, white beans. Linseeds, chestnuts, hazel nuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, pistachios.
Grains: amaranth, barley, freekah, rye, spelt, wheat berries
Herbs and spices: celery seeds, cloves, sage, thyme, oregano, peppermint, rosemary, spearmint, star anise, basil, curry powder, ginger, cinnamon, caraway and fennel seeds.
Oils: extra virgin olive oil and organic rapeseed oil.
And to drink: green tea, chai tea, chamomile tea, dandelion root, cacao, organic red wine, filtered black coffee, black tea.