The Back To Basics Guide To Plant-Based Diets
Scientists are still discovering what it takes to keep our microbiome balanced, but there’s one lifestyle habit that keeps coming up trumps – and that’s a plant-based diet.
Um, What Is A Plant-Based Diet?
Descriptions vary, but we can think of a plant-based diet as one which is mostly made up of plant foods – fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, wholegrains, peas beans and lentils, herbs, spices and plant milks (like soy and almond).
Why Is A Plant-Based Diet Good For My Gut?
In recent years, scientists have started to investigate how the foods we eat affect the bacteria living in our gut.
As a result of their work, we now know that diets rich in fibre are important. This is because we don’t make the enzymes needed to break down fibre, so it travels to the large intestine, where it provides food for the bacteria that live there, encouraging them to increase in number and diversity.
Having a diverse microbiome seems important, because different bacteria carry out different jobs, and this seems to influence our risk of disease.
Quite magically, when your gut bacteria consume fibre they produce anti-inflammatory compounds (called short-chain fatty acids), which may protect against certain cancers and bowel disease.
Does Plant-Based Mean Being Vegan Or Vegetarian?
In a word, no. There is no single model of a plant-based diet – different researchers have investigated different types of plant-based diets. Some of these include animal foods like eggs and dairy foods.
In fact, research published this year suggests it’s not whether you’re a meat eater or a veggie – but the number of plant foods you eat which has the greatest effect on the diversity of your microbiome.
These findings come from ‘The American Gut (1)’ – the largest ever study to look at how diet and lifestyle affects the human microbiome. During the study, over 10,000 members of the public (mostly from the US, UK and Australia) sent in samples of their poo, along with detailed surveys about their eating habits.
Although this only gives a single snapshot in time (and we don’t know if the surveys were a truthful picture of long term eating habits) the results found that people who regularly ate more than 30 different plant foods each week had a more diverse microbiome than those who only consumed 10 or fewer plant foods.
This doesn’t mean you have to swear off meat and dairy – in fact fermented dairy products like yoghurt, kefir and cheese contain families of helpful bacteria that may populate the gut.
Meat, fish and dairy foods also contain various important nutrients like iron (in meat), omega-3 (fish) and calcium (milk), which more limited in an all plant-based diet.
The key is seems is to eat a mostly plant-based diet – and to mix up which plant foods you eat. Rather than fixate on hitting 30 types a week, simply aim to up the number of plant-based foods you’re currently eating.
Try eating two or three different veggies each day – switch up between salads and cooked veggies, mix up your fruits, and alternate between grains – try spelt flour, or alternate pasta with wholegrain rice, couscous or lentils. You could also experiment with meatless Monday, or eating a plant-based dinner every other day.
No idea how many plant foods you get through each week? Try this printable calendar to track your intake – pop on your fridge door for a bit of plant-based motivation and see how you get on. Need some plant-based inspo? Check this handy grocery list for starters.
Plant-Based Meal Ideas
Porridge with nut butter and banana
Avocado on wholegrain toast with seeds
Spelt pancakes with berries and yoghurt
Porridge oats with walnuts, raspberries and honey
Lentil salad with feta and peppers
Buckwheat pasta with broccoli and pesto
Baked sweet potato with hummus
Wholemeal wrap filled with spicy beans and cheese
Chickpea and couscous salad
Mushroom and lentil burgers
Chickpea and spinach stew
Coconut and butternut squash curry
Wholewheat pasta with green veggies and pesto
Black bean chilli with rice, sour cream and guacamole
Homemade pizza with wholewheat base, spinach, egg and ricotta topping