‘Plant-based diets’ are set to be one of the fastest growing food trends this year. Praised by the likes of health practitioners, scientists, researchers and the general public; it’s safe to say that this popular nutrition craze is far more than a fleeting fad.
In recent years there has been a surge in scientific studies showcasing the numerous health benefits associated with a plant-based diet; from the prevention of heart disease to the management of diabetes. The evidence is clear and further strengthens the case for a global movement towards a plant-based way of life.
We are now living in an age of chronic illness yet diet and nutrition are some of the few modifiable lifestyle factors that we can control in order to prevent the onset of diseases and positively influence our health.
How do we define a plant-based diet?
There is no clear definition of a plant-based diet (PBD) to date. In general, they focus on foods primarily from plant sources such as vegetables, leafy greens, fruit, nuts, whole grains, seeds and legumes while MINIMISING the consumption of meat, dairy, added sugars and processed foods.
Plant-based foods boast an impressive nutrient profile incorporating essential vitamins (such as folate), minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, fibre and the three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats.
In a recent review published by the scientific journal Cell, researchers observed how dietary fibre interacts with our gut microbes in the large intestine. They showed that fibre-rich foods feed the trillions of beneficial bacteria residing in our gut, causing them to increase in number and diversity! Furthermore, our gut flora is particularly adept at breaking down and fermenting soluble fibre from plant matter to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs); a group of bacterial end-products needed for cellular energy production, regular bowel movements, a healthy immune system and inflammation reduction.
A general rule of thumb:
• Soluble fibre dissolves in water and is broken down into a gel-like consistency in the colon, which slows down the digestive process and feeds our microbes. Soluble fibre is found in apples, oats, nuts, seeds and beans.
• Insoluble fibre does not dissolve in water and remains undigested as it transits the digestive tract. Speeding up the movement and processing of waste, insoluble fibre is responsible for healthy and regular bowel movements. Think green beans, dark leafy greens, brown rice, flax seeds, fruit and veggie skins.
• Cooked and cooled potatoes, lentils, peas are sources of resistant starch, considered a third type of dietary fibre, which also give rise to beneficial changes in the gut microbiota. Studies demonstrate that resistant starch can improve insulin sensitivity; maintain and fuel the cells lining the colon; regulate the internal environment of the colon; and encourage a healthy microbiome.
Eat the rainbow:
The abundance of flavonoids and antioxidants give fruit and vegetables their distinct pigments – the deep purple of red cabbage, the bright orange of carrots and the vibrant red of tomatoes. Not only pleasing to the human eye, these brightly coloured fruits and vegetables have cell-protecting properties which scavenge for harmful free radicals associated with heart disease, cancer, age-related cognitive decline and oxidative damage!
Evidence from large-scale population studies have shown that adopting a plant-based diet reduces the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and inflammation. Although a high intake of red and processed meats has been linked to an increased risk of atherosclerosis and various types of cancer, a plant-based diet can still include small amounts of lean meat, like chicken and fish, and red meat every so often for a source of iron and B12.
The takeaway message:
Plants carry unique nutritional qualities which promote optimal gut function and a happy microbiome; protect us against disease; and optimise overall human health.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to declare yourself a fully-fledged vegetarian or vegan. A plant-based diet simply incorporates MORE vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains to benefit our inner environment.
Want to make the move towards more plants?
Start with baby steps and get creative! Here are out top tips:
- Meat-free Monday – try a new vegetarian recipe one night a week and double the amount for Tuesday’s lunch. Feeling brave? Try multiple meat-free days.
- Try a vegetarian version of your favourite meat dish – swap the mince with lentils in a Shepard’s pie or try a veggie-packed casserole or curry.
- Cram in the veggies – chop or blend extra veggies to your bolognese, soups and stir fries.
- Homemade hummus – blitz chickpeas, tahini, lemon, garlic and olive oil for a delicious plant-based snack. You’ll never look back.
- Snacks – carry nuts, seeds, chopped fruit and veg in your bag for a satisfying plant-based snack.
And remember, diets are never a ‘one size fits all’ approach and plant-based diets are no exception. We all have different nutritional needs, so always eat foods that are right for you and enjoy every mouthful!