You might think that your diet is pretty healthy but when it comes to digestive health, diversity is really important. Eating the same thing (and the same plants) regularly doesn’t actually spell good news for your gut – it needs you to keep on switching up what you’re scoffing.
However, diversifying your diet doesn’t need to be difficult, as eating a variety of plant-based foods has been proven to support good gut health by diversifying the gut bacteria. Research has found that individuals who enjoy more than 30 different plant foods a week have a more diverse gut microbiome compared to those who ate ten.
A diet which ensures you’re getting your servings of plant foods a week has also been shown to offer benefits for mood, weight, general health and wellbeing – what’s not to like about that?
We spoke to Dr Emily Prpa, nutritionist and Science Manager at Yakult to find out more about upping our diet’s ‘plant points.’
So, what actually counts as a ‘plant point’?
With so many potential benefits, it’s important to try and include more plant foods in your diet. One way to do this is to think of each plant-based food you eat, such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, as one ‘plant point’. Herbs and spices count as ¼ point each. Then, total up the number of plant points you eat throughout the week. Each individual plant food counts as one point – so if you eat two red apples, this translates to only one point. An easy hack - if you’re fond of a particular fruit or veggie, incorporate different colours of it into your diet, as they both count. This means having yellow and red peppers count as two points – not just one!
How to increase your ‘plant points’ total
Upping your intake of different plant foods, and in turn ‘plant points’, doesn’t have to be daunting or expensive. Remember, it’s not just the more obvious fruits and vegetables that count, but also legumes such as beans, lentils and chickpeas, and wholegrains like brown rice and pasta. Don’t forget about nuts and seeds such as walnuts, chia seeds and peanuts, as well as herbs and spices like paprika, parsley and mint.
To help make eating more plant foods and increasing your ‘plant points’ simple, Dr Emily Prpa has put together some top tips – all of which will, in turn, help boost gut diversity.
Eat the rainbow
Whilst including a variety of different plant foods in your daily diet is key, it is also important to aim for diversity in colours, too. Focus on eating lots of different coloured vegetables, fruit, legumes, herbs, spices and grains, since different foods contain different health-promoting plant compounds called polyphenols. Polyphenols give fruits and vegetables their colour. They’ve been shown to enhance the growth of beneficial bacteria and promote gut health.
Add it on
There are numerous easy ways to add more plant points to your meals. Start the day off by topping your porridge or cereal with fruit, nut butter or seeds. For lunch, enjoy a side salad with your sandwich - making sure it’s made using wholegrain bread. Customise your main meals by adding your favourite veggies to dishes like stir fries, salads or bowl food. Leafy greens such as kale or spinach can be finely chopped and added to many dishes. They’ll wilt down and increase the plant points of your dish instantly. Out for the weekend? Simply add some veggie toppings to your pizza.
Simple and easy swaps
Simple swaps can help easily diversify your diet. For example, purchase a mixed salad bag with spinach, rocket and grated carrot instead of one type of leaf. Or add a tin of mixed beans (e.g., five-bean mix) into your chilli con carne rather than only kidney beans, serve with a pack of mixed wholegrain rice and quinoa, and swap frozen green beans for a bag of frozen Mediterranean veg. You can also diversify your diet by changing up your snacks and choosing mixed nuts instead of always peanuts, and opting for a mixed fruit salad rather than only apple slices.
Feed good bacteria with prebiotics
As well as encouraging diversity, we can encourage the growth of specific, beneficial bacteria by consuming prebiotics. Prebiotics are fibres that help to ‘feed’ beneficial bacteria, including Bifidobacteria. Prebiotics are found in plant foods such as apples, bananas, cauliflower, garlic, onions, leeks and oats.
Tinned and frozen count too
Canned lentils and beans are good options with longer shelf-lives. Tinned legumes in water are an excellent, inexpensive plant-based protein source. Legumes pack a nutritious punch as they are also loaded with essential nutrients such as fibre, B vitamins, iron, calcium, potassium and immune-supporting zinc.
Buying fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables can also help keep costs down. However, when out of season, frozen produce can be much cheaper. Plus, freezing is a highly effective way of keeping the nutrients intact.
Say yes to fermented foods
Additionally, including certain fermented foods in our diet can give our guts regular exposure to live bacteria. Good food sources include fermented dairy like live natural yoghurt or Yakult, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and pickled vegetables.
Some examples of plant points:
All of your favourite vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, seeds and nuts count towards your plant points total, but to start you off, below are some examples:
VEGGIES – Tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, pepper, sweetcorn, spinach, potato, onion, peas, carrots.
FRUIT – Grapes, apricot, strawberries, watermelon, blueberries, apple, banana, orange & kiwi.
GRAINS – Oats, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat & wholewheat flour.
LEGUMES, NUTS & SEEDS – Chickpeas, lentils, tinned beans, seeds, nuts (mixed for extra points!)
When upping your fibre intake by increasing your plant points throughout the week, it’s important to keep your fluid intake up. Also, remember the rule “low and slow” – increase your intake slowly to allow your gut to adjust to a new level of fibre.
Dr Emily Prpa is a Science Manager & an award-winning Registered Nutritionist at Yakult. She has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences from King’s College London where her research focused on the therapeutic effects of plant-based foods. Her research has been published in high-impact scientific journals, as well as in the form of POSTnotes, informing UK Policy in Food & Nutrition. Her research now focuses on gut health.