Dr Rupy’s 5 plant foods everyone should eat more of
Dr Rupy Aujla
Lots of nutritionally rich foods that play a starring role in a plant-based diet could be the key to better health for everyone. Food is a great way to make yourself feel better and stay healthier for longer – and these colourful ingredients bring lots of benefits. As an NHS GP and foodie, I’ve used my experience as a doctor, the years I’ve spent immersing myself in nutrition and my passion for recipe writing to bring you these easy and tasty ways to step up your diet.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are nutrition powerhouses, packing so many nutrients into a tiny space. Seeds were designed by nature to feed a growing plant, so it’s little wonder they are also good at feeding us.
In the past, nuts have had a terrible reputation for filling us with unwanted calories, but they have far more health benefits. They are an excellent source of protein and have a surprising amount of fibre. They undoubtedly have a high fat content, but these are largely healthy fats. Walnuts, as well as many seeds (such as ground flax, chia and hemp) also contain some essential omega-3 fatty acids that the body can’t make on its own. The combination of fat and fibre is excellent for keeping you from feeling hungry.
For those of us that still eat meat, there is growing research advising us to limit our red meat intake. Nuts and seeds, especially sprouted seeds, provide a source of iron in red meat’s place.
A serving of nuts or seeds is about 30g, but you can sprinkle them liberally on lots of meals. They add crunch and texture that’s frankly too delicious to skimp on!
Beans and pulses
Protein has become a buzzword for health, but in the UK only 10 percent of our protein intake is provided by beans, pulses and other plant-based sources, which have huge health benefits!
Beans and pulses work in partnership with grains to provide a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids. Lentils and beans (especially soya beans) are also rich in iron, which is ideal if you’re cutting back on meat.
Cheap and convenient, beans and pulses contain beneficial fibre, including insoluble fibre which is good for your gut and soluble fibre which helps reduce elevated cholesterol levels and promotes heart health.
On average, our fibre intake in the UK falls around 30 percent short of the recommended target each day. By eating pulses (as well as a variety of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables), you’ll not only boost your fibre, but also improve the health and diversity of your gut bacteria. This in turn will provide a broad range of benefits for your body, from your immune system to your mental health.
Recent research has shown that eating an 80g serving of beans and pulses three to four times a week can reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 33 percent. If a drug had that kind of result, we’d probably prescribe it!
Leafy green vegetables
When you read any list of foods for healthy eating, one ingredient stands out: leafy greens. They have it all! Peppery salad leaves, crinkly cabbages, trendy kale, crunchy broccoli, versatile spinach – there’s so many varieties to choose from that you’ll never be bored.
A source of fibre and high in vitamins, from vitamin A’s precursor beta-carotene all the way through to vitamin K, plus minerals such as magnesium and potassium, each green plant has its own special blend of nutrition. Watercress and kale, for example, are also sources of iron and calcium.
Many of these vitamins aren’t stored by the body, so consuming them regularly is a must. The fat-soluble vitamins (beta-carotene, E and K) need a little fat to help the body absorb them. My harissa polenta with vegetables sautéed in olive oil combines them perfectly.
I’m also interested in their phytochemicals. This broad range of chemical compounds have direct effects on your cells and can be converted by your gut microbes into beneficial metabolites that fight inflammation in the body. And the great news is that it’s a virtuous cycle – the more diverse plant-based whole foods you eat, the more diverse your gut bacteria will be, and therefore the more phytochemicals your body can use.
Calcium-rich plant-based foods
If you’re one of the growing number of people who are reducing or eliminating their dairy intake, it’s important to look for alternative sources of calcium in your daily diet. Women who don’t regularly get enough of this essential mineral are susceptible to osteoporosis in later life, and it’s particularly important for young women to maintain their calcium intake. Around 14 percent of teenagers and 8 percent of adults are calcium-deficient. There are some great plant-based foods you can easily include in your diet that are high in calcium.
One of the best sources of calcium is fortified plant-based milks. Not all non-dairy milks (or non-dairy yoghurts and cheeses) are fortified, so always check the label. A fortified plant-based milk will also provide you with iodine and vitamin B12. My cheesy-flavoured sauce for a delicious vegan pasta bake is a great way to work it into dinner.
Tofu is usually considered a protein alternative, but it can be rich in calcium too when it’s made using calcium sulphate (it will say on the label). Some tofu is made with magnesium chloride (also sometimes called nigari), which makes it a rich source of magnesium. It’s always good to check if you think you might not be getting enough calcium from other parts of your diet.
Tofu is also a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, plus minerals too. When it’s made into crunchy tofu fajitas, it speaks for itself!
Sesame seeds and tahini are also surprising sources of calcium. They contain lots of good fats, too.
Prebiotic fibre foods
If I haven’t made the case for looking after your gut bacteria quite enough, allow me one more chance. Good bacteria in your gut help regulate and train your immune system, unlock nutrients from foods, regulate body weight and appetite and more besides.
Giving your body foods that encourage good bacteria to flourish and crowd out bad bacteria is really important for your health. Your gut bacteria love foods that contain prebiotic fibres. These fibres are fermented and digested by microbes in the gut to produce helpful metabolites.
Foods that are rich in prebiotic fibres include:
• Oats, wholegrain and rye breads
• Members of the onion family including garlic, spring onions, leek and shallots.
• Vegetables, and don’t forget the often unused parts of vegetables including broccoli stems and cauliflower leaves.
• Beans and pulses such as chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, baked beans and soya beans.
• Fruits such as nectarines, watermelon, grapefruit, pomegranate, white peaches and persimmon.
• Nuts such as cashews and pistachios.