January is typically a time when many of our clients decide to start a new diet. After the overindulgence of the holiday period, it is no surprise that most New Year diets focus mostly on restriction. Reduce the quantity of food (calories) or specific foods/drinks. Restrict the amount of carbohydrates you eat. Cut out or reduce alcohol consumption. Avoid fats or animal-based food in your meals.
While all of these approaches have good intentions, they too often involve the feeling of deprivation. At TIGNUM, we look at things differently, so I want to propose a very simple nutrition challenge for you. The best part is, it involves eating MORE.
Our challenge for you is called the diversity challenge. It's an invitation to eat a wider diversity of plant-based foods each week. It calls for variety rather than the common trap of eating the same thing every day.
In an interesting recent study, a group of 111 women was asked to eat 9 portions of fruit and vegetables each day for two weeks. Half the group was given instructions to eat a wide range of fruits and vegetables, while the other half was given instructions to eat a more limited variety of fruits and vegetables.
Based on markers for oxidative stress, the group who ate the higher diversity had a significantly greater reduction in their oxidative stress than those who ate the lower diversity. What fascinated us about the study is that the “low-diversity” group ate what, by most people's standards, would be a large number of common vegetables and fruit. The list included spinach, Swiss chard, beetroot, artichoke, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, radish, carrot, aubergine, peppers, chickpeas, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, and lentils. However, the vegetables and fruit came from only 5 botanical families. In the "high diversity" group, there were 18 botanical families, adding other well-loved foods like berries, sweet potato, kiwi, mushrooms, cucumber, and courgette (zucchini). This diversity was critical because we know that diversity of plant-based food in our diet influences the diversity of our microbiome.
The American Gut study found that people who ate 30 or more different vegetables, fruits, and plants had greater diversity in their microbiome than those who ate less. The more we learn about the microbiome, the more we realize its role not just in our health, but in our resilience and cognitive function. In addition, maintaining microbial diversity is also thought to be a factor in preserving cognitive function and mental agility.
So practically speaking, what are some simple ways to add more diversity to your diet?
If you want to go deeper, start counting the different vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains you eat each week. A different variety of the same vegetable counts as a different one (e.g., red pepper & yellow pepper count as two, red lentils & puy lentils count as two).
The target is 30 different plant-based foods per week. If you achieve that easily, then stretch yourself and see if you can reach 40, and then 50, in a week.
By using this approach, you won't be thinking about the foods you want to take away. Instead, you will be searching for new, nutrient-dense foods that you want to add.
As always, I would love to hear what you think.
Flanagan, Emma, Daniel Lamport, Lorraine Brennan, Philip Burnet, Vittorio Calabrese, Stephen C. Cunnane, Martijn C. de Wilde, et al. ‘Nutrition and the Ageing Brain: Moving towards Clinical Applications’. Ageing Research Reviews 62 (1 September 2020): 101079. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2020.101079.
McDonald, Daniel, Embriette Hyde, Justine W. Debelius, James T. Morton, Antonio Gonzalez, Gail Ackermann, Alexander A. Aksenov, et al. ‘American Gut: An Open Platform for Citizen Science Microbiome Research’. MSystems 3, no. 3 (June 2018). https://doi.org/10.1128/mSystems.00031-18.
Thompson, Henry J., Jerianne Heimendinger, Ann Diker, Caitlin O’Neill, Al Haegele, Becky Meinecke, Pamela Wolfe, Scot Sedlacek, Zongjian Zhu, and Weiqin Jiang. ‘Dietary Botanical Diversity Affects the Reduction of Oxidative Biomarkers in Women Due to High Vegetable and Fruit Intake’. The Journal of Nutrition 136, no. 8 (August 2006): 2207–12. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/136.8.2207.