What Are Plant-Based Foods and Why You Should Be Eating them?

Recent stats suggest that one third of us have reduced our meat intake in favour of eating more plant foods, and with supermarkets dedicating whole shelves to plant-based alternatives, there’s no doubt the #plantbased movement is winning us over. So, what’s all the fuss about?

First Off, What Exactly Is a Plant-Based Diet?
Hmmm, good question. As it stands, there’s no official definition of a plant-based diet in either the medical or scientific community. Even experts don’t agree – some claim a plant-based diet is completely free from animal products (namely, a vegan diet) whilst others suggest it’s a diet which focuses on foods from plant sources.

For the purposes of this blog post (and because extremes generally aren’t helpful), we’ll be thinking of plant-based eating as ‘choosing more of your foods from plant sources’ – this means fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), wholegrains, nuts and seeds.

Why Bother Eating Plant-Based Foods?
One of the primary reasons we’ve become more interested in eating proportionally higher amounts of plant-based foods is planetary health. It’s well accepted that our eating habits can impact the environment through the effects of food production on water use, deforestation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Plant-based foods contribute fewer GHG emissions than meat and dairy, and therefore shifting to a plant-focused diet is one way we can reduce our environmental impact.

As well as planetary health, your own health can also benefit from eating more plant foods. Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains have long been linked with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer.

Do Plant Foods Have Benefits for My Gut?
Yes! Plant foods have several beneficial effects on your gut and its microbes. First, plant foods (in their whole form – think fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and wholegrains) are a good source of fibre.

Fibre is a type of carbohydrate which moves through the upper part of your gut without being absorbed and lands in the large intestine. Once there it is broken down by the resident microbes. This does two things – first, it ensures they have energy to thrive and second, when your microbes break down fibre they produce compounds known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which help to maintain the health of your gut lining. Research shows that the levels of SCFA found in stool samples is positively linked with the amount of fruits, veggies and legumes in the diet.

Secondly plant foods are a good source of polyphenols, a group of naturally occurring compounds in plants which protect them from damage. Typically, polyphenols give fruits and vegetables their bright colours. Some of the main food sources in our diets include coffee, tea, fruit and red wine (yep, you read that right!).

Just like fibre, these compounds are not absorbed as they move through the gut and so they land in the large intestine where they deliver nutrients to your gut microbes, who transform them into compounds which have anti-inflammatory effects in the body.

Overall, research suggests that a diet rich in plant foods helps to promote a diverse and thriving gut microbiome, which is a good thing.

Does This Mean I Need to Be Vegan?
Not at all. Eliminating all animal-based foods isn’t necessary to get gut health benefits. In fact, self-reported data from The American Gut Project (a large citizen science project investigating the human microbiome) found that it wasn’t the type of diet (e.g. vegan or a meat eater) that determined the diversity of a participant’s gut microbiomes, but the number of different plant types in their diet each week. Interestingly, individuals eating 30 or more different plant types per week had more diverse microbiomes than those who ate 10 or fewer.

It’s also worth remembering that choosing to remove animal foods from your diet completely means you would need to take special care with nutrients including vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine and omega-3, as these are found either exclusively or more readily in animal foods.

OK, so it’s adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains?
Yep! And don’t forget nuts, seeds and legumes. Herbs and spices are also a great way to add more variety. If you need a little extra motivation, why not try our plant-based challenge? It’ll help you track your intake of different plant foods each week. The goal isn’t necessarily to hit 30, but to increase the number of different plant foods you eat – even a couple of extra different fruits and veggies or trying a new grain is a plus! At the end of the week count up your total – then aim to up it the following week.


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References

The British Dietetic Association (BDA). (2018). Eating patterns for health and environmental sustainability: A Reference Guide for Dietitians. In One Blue Dot.

Tomova, A., Bukovsky, I., Rembert, E., Yonas, W., Alwarith, J., Barnard, N. D., & Kahleova, H. (2019). The effects of vegetarian and vegan diets on gut microbiota. Frontiers in Nutrition, 6(April). https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2019.00047

Seal, C. J., & Brownlee, I. A. (2015). Whole-grain foods and chronic disease: Evidence from epidemiological and intervention studies. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0029665115002104

Mcdonald, D., Hyde, E., Debelius, J. W., Morton, J. T., Gonzalez, A., Ackermann, G., … Kosciolek, T. (2018). American Gut : an Open Platform for Citizen Science. American Society for Microbiology, 3(3), 1–28. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1128/mSystems

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