It’s rare to read a health article these days without tripping over the microbiome, the balance of microorganisms in your large intestine. A healthy gut and associated flora (bacteria) help create both a healthy body and mind. The list of conditions the microbiome may improve or prevent ranges from Alzheimer’s to irritable bowel (IBS). It also has a powerful impact on our mental health, especially depression.
The key to creating beneficial flora in the gut is to eat plant foods. In fact, research shows that a purely vegan diet is better than a vegetarian or omni one to create a healthy microbiome.
This CSIRO video shows how whole foods (such as beans, seeds, nuts, etc) feed the beneficial bacteria in the large intestine, releasing butyrate – an energy source and cancer-fighter.
The first step to a healthy gut
Probiotics are many people’s go-to product to improve gut health. But some plant foods also act as prebiotics and are the foundation of a healthy microbiome.
But how do you change your diet without it feeling like hard work? Resistance is a very human response to change, so I prefer to focus on adding to, rather than avoiding, foods.
When it comes to a healthy microbiome “variety is the spice of life”
A study of the Hadza people provided some interesting insights. It revealed that during the dry season, when fewer varieties of plant foods were available and people relied more on meat, their type and variety of gut bacteria was more like those who eat a Western diet, where the unfriendly bacteria begins to outnumber the beneficial ones. However, when the rain returned and their diet widened, their microbiome diversity and good health returned.
The great news is, most people’s microbiome can be rehabilitated. Eating not just a decent quantity of plant foods, but a wide variety of them as well, is the key to a happy gut.
The forty-plus plant food challenge
A colleague who is doing further study into gut health shared a great challenge – try eating at least forty different plant foods every week.
Loving a challenge, I gave it a go. The challenge encouraged me to diversify my diet, in particular by adding in more wholegrains and being conscious of the need to eat a wider variety of fruit and vegetables.
Tips for taking the forty-plus plant food challenge
- Plant foods are vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, beans, nuts and seeds you eat. For a healthy gut, these foods need to be unrefined (ie look like they do in nature). For example, some edamame (green soy beans) count but not soy milk. While brown rice is a whole grain, biscuits made of rice flour are not.
- Different plant varieties in the same family can increase your count, such as red and green cabbage, or a pink lady and a granny smith apple.
- Bonus points for fermented foods. Already eaten cabbage this week? Eating a serve of fermented cabbage in the kimchi or sauerkraut can grow your plant food count.
- No points if the food is deep fried! Sadly, chips don’t count.
What I learned from the challenge
My list of foods rapidly grew in the first couple of days. The muesli alone, rich in oats, seeds and nuts served with fresh fruit scored the first seven plants. I tend to eat a lot of vegetables, which had me ticking off the first 20 plant foods by the third day. But on subsequent days the list grew more slowly. The real challenge was expanding the total by half again before the end of the week.
As healthy as my muesli is, the challenge reminded me to add more variety to my first meal of the day. I added chia pudding (with some different nuts to those in the muesli) and fresh fruit a couple of times a week. If I’m eating out, it spurred me to add extra vegetables on the side.
Lunches too can be a trap if you eat the same thing most days. I lashed out on one of my away-from-home lunches with a vegetarian bento box, instead of sushi. There were nine different plant foods, including types I don’t tend to cook at home. The box also contained pickled daikon and other fermented goodies.
Buying a weekly seasonal organic vegetable box, can expose you to foods you mightn’t usually buy. Over the couple of weeks I road tested the challenge, my boxes included kohlrabi (grated into a slaw), beetroot (steamed and simply dressed with a little olive oil and a few walnuts) and a swede (added to a vegetable curry).
Bonus tips to diversify your diet
- Get out of the rut of eating the same things for breakfast and lunch every day.
- Take a break from leftovers, freeze them to eat another week rather than the next day.
- Explore your panty; the recipe archive has heaps of ideas on what to do with quinoa, millet and other under-used grains.
- Swap meals with a friend (even better, invite them to take up the challenge).
Are you up to taking the challenge? Let me know how it goes.