Written by Associate Nutritionist Spela Horjak
Check by Registered Dietitian Nishti
In this blog, you are going to learn about the plant point system and how you can achieve 30 plants a week, and why it matters! But first…
What is the microbiome and why is it important?
Our microbiome is the community of 100 trillion species of microorganisms living in our intestinal tract, spanning from bacteria, fungi and viruses. The greater the diversity of bacteria in our intestines, the greater the health benefits.
Many factors play a role in shaping the composition of our microbiome, including the external environment, our age, diet and lifestyle, stress levels, medication use, and even how we were delivered at birth – either through vaginal birth or a caesarean section.
Some of these factors aren’t modifiable while others are. One of the factors that arguably most of us have some degree of control over is what we eat. The good news is that even if, for whatever reason, you haven’t had the best start in life when it comes to diet, you can still alter your microbiome by improving your diet. A healthy gut with a wide variety of beneficial bacteria is essential for a healthy immune system since around 70% of our immune cells are found in the gut!
The role of dietary fibre from plants
Plant groups like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes contain fibre. Dietary fibre is a type of carbohydrate that cannot be digested by the body and thus bypasses the stomach, and small intestine and enters the large intestine (the colon) almost intact.
We now know that in the colon, fibre gets fermented by healthy gut bacteria – in other words, fibre becomes food for the bacteria. The more fibre we consume, the more the bacteria will thrive and become greater in count and diversity.
The by-product of this fermentation process are so-called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which have been shown to help strengthen our immunity and lower inflammation in the body which if chronic can lead to serious diseases. They also play an important role in nourishing our gut lining which regulates the uptake of essential nutrients and acts as a barrier to harmful pathogens.
The most abundant SCFAs are acetate, propionate, and butyrate which make up 95% of these beneficial fatty acids.
Why diversity matters
Each plant group (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, pulses, legumes, wholegrains, herbs, and spices) contains different types of fibre, so to maximise the benefits obtained through a diet, it makes sense to include an array of plants in our diet. Diversifying the sources of fibre will contribute to a more diverse gut microbiome which will in turn then lead to the health benefits discussed above.
Why 30 plants?
As part of the American Gut project in 2018 researchers found that out of 10,000 participants in the study, those who had a higher plant diversity in their diet had a more diverse gut microbiome. Specifically, those that ate more than 30 different plant species a week had a more diverse microbiome than those who ate only 10 or fewer.
You may be thinking I’m already including my 5-a-day, is this not enough? Well, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive and in fact, the 5-a-day will help you reach your 30-a-week.
You could start on your 30 plants a week journey by diversifying your 5-a-day – have a wider variety of your fruit and vegetables in your week, instead of reaching for similar varieties day in day out (we’re all guilty of this!).
The plant point system
Different plants contain different beneficial fibres and nutrients so diversifying these sources in our week is beneficial. The point system allows us to count how many different plant species we have included in our diet in any given week. This includes all plant groups, not only fruits and vegetables.
This is how plant points are counted:
|Fruit and vegetables||Strawberries, bananas, broccoli, peppers.||1|
|Wholegrains||Quinia, buckwheat, rye, wholegrain rice.||1|
|Pulses and legumes||Beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya beans.||1|
|Nuts and seeds||Almonds, cashew nuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds.||1|
|Herbs and spices||Parsley, basil, turmeric, chili flakes.||1/4|
A few more guidelines:
- Focus on minimally processed foods.
- Products made of wholegrain flour (pasta, bread) also count towards the 30 plants, while white versions of rice, pasta, and bread don’t count as they have been stripped of fibre during processing.
- Plant-based milk alternatives don’t count as they are low in fibre due to the nature of the processing
- Different varieties of the same plant count as separate points e.g. white quinoa, red quinoa
- If you have the same plant more than once a week e.g. banana with your morning porridge, this still accounts for only one point
- Herbs and spices count as ¼ point each (due to being used in small amount for flavour or garnish) unless they are used as a stand-alone ingredient e.g. tabouleh salad which mainly consists of parsley
Easy ways to increase your plant points!
The best way to get started on this challenge is by first doing an audit on how many plant points you are getting in your diet at the moment. After keeping score for a full week, you can then start thinking of ways to increase that score.
Here are some easy ways to increase your plant points:
- Raid your stash: chances are you already have some plants sitting in your cupboard, pantry, fridge or freezer, waiting to be eaten. Nuts? Seeds? Dry beans or chickpeas? Half a pack of quinoa? Frozen spinach?
- Switch between varieties: next time you shop, reach out for a different variety of foods you normally buy – for example, red lentils instead of green or purple carrots instead of orange.
- Go for the mixed bag: foods can often conveniently be bought in a mixed variety – go for mixed nuts instead of just almonds, mixed peppers instead of just yellow, mixed quinoa instead of just white
- Make a soup or stew: these kinds of one-pot meals can include a huge array of plants – pulses, legumes, vegetables, herbs, spices, and even whole grains!
- Make a smoothie: another great way of getting in lots of plants – fruit, greens, nuts, seeds, and oats, for example!
- Snack on plants: why not cut up some vegetable sticks and dip them into hummus? Or mash up an avocado and add it to some wholegrain crackers and top with some mixed seeds? Nuts and dry fruits are also a good snack to help up your plant points.
The options are endless!
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BDA (2021) Fibre: Food Fact Sheet. Available at https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/fibre.html [Accessed 12 February 2023]
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