Ultra-processed foods have been in the press a lot recently. You might have heard about the Imperial College London study, which linked high consumption of these foods (which include many of the items we typically pick up in supermarkets – think fizzy drinks, ready meals, breakfast cereals and mass-produced packaged breads) with an increased risk of developing and dying from cancer.
Or, you might have watched the BBC’s Panorama show Ultra-Processed Food: A Recipe For Ill Health? which explored the link between convenience foods and a growing chronic illness epidemic in the UK. Perhaps you’re a follower of Professor Tim Spector, one of the UK’s foremost scientists on gut health and genetic epidemiology and a co-founder of Zoe, and have begun to understand just how significant a role our diet plays in dictating how healthy we feel and are.
Whether it’s all or none of the above, the truth is that as a nation we need to start seeing food as medicine, and understanding the power of diet to impact our health and wellbeing.
Eat 30 plants a week
One dietary rule that can help us steer clear of ultra-processed foods is to commit to consuming 30 different plants a week. Touted as the new “five a day”, this health advice came out of a large 2018 study by the American Gut Project (in collaboration with the British Gut Project, the UK arm of the study, which was led by Professor Spector), which found that participants who ate more than 30 different types of plants a week had more diverse gut microbiomes than those who ate 10 or fewer.
“They took poo samples from people in America, the UK and Australia and analysed their microbiome and dietary records,” explains Dr Federica Amati, medical scientist, public health nutritionist and one of Professor Spector’s colleagues at Zoe. “They were able to correlate what dietary patterns were best associated with the ideal microbes. What they found is that – even more than the quantity of protein we eat (which should be 30 grams a day) – people who were eating 30 plants a week had the highest amount of helpful, good gut microbes in their guts.”
Additionally, they found that the participants who ate more than 30 plants per week also had fewer antibiotic-resistant genes in their gut microbiomes than participants who ate 10 or fewer plants. Plants are packed with an array of vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein, as well as polyphenols and antioxidants which work to protect the body, neutralise toxins and feed the microbiota in our gut.
How to get your 30 plants a week
Thirty different plants?! It might sound daunting, but it’s “not scary when you realise that the word ‘plant’ includes whole grains, spices, herbs, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, nuts and seeds – it includes a whole host of foods,” explains Dr Amati. “Once you start getting used to adding these foods into your cooking, you reach that number pretty quickly.”
Easy ways to level up in the plant department include buying mixed nuts, instead of, say, a pack of almonds. Plus you can use the same trick with seeds and berries – opt for a mixture. Additionally, you can buy frozen vegetable and fruit mixes (although avoid anything with added ingredients), consume lots of beans and load up on herbs and spices – think chilli, turmeric and mint – in every meal… Adding basil on top of your evening meal isn’t just aesthetically pleasing. Swap your snacks out for nuts and seeds, load up on oats, and consider swapping white rice for brown.
It’s also worth noting that coffee beans count towards your plant quota, and contain lots of fibre and polyphenols to benefit your health, while dark chocolate (70 per cent or above, with no artificial additives) is also another plant-derived food.
Make it your mission to up the number of plants in your diet – the more you eat, the more full of good quality produce you will be, and the less processed food and sugary snacks you will want to consume. Eating better quickly leads to feeling better, plus it’s a more sustainable way to live too.
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