What is your idea of a healthy breakfast? We bet it is something to do with avocados, kale-packed green smoothies or, perhaps, an oat porridge. It is most certainly not a chocolate muffin. And yet, this is the very first recipe in Dr Megan Rossi’s new book Eat More, Live Well which is here to break down people’s perception of healthy eating.
Too often in our pursuits of health, we lean towards the ascetic idea of exclusion. We restrict our food intake to lose a few pounds, take up detoxes and fasting routines only to find ourselves back to square one a month or so later. We demonise individual food groups to achieve better skin, energy or digestion. And there is no time of year that brings all these tendencies to a head more than the January hype of New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all been there…
What if the answer was not in cutting things out but in embracing more? What if we don’t have to put all that pressure on ourselves? The mantra “eat the rainbow” or “veg is good for you” is familiar to many. But despite the rising popularity of healthy lifestyles, plant-based foods still have a pretty bad rep. They are seen as bland, boring and - perhaps most importantly - not filling enough. For these reasons few people are willing to forsake meat and fish. So, rather than being something we actively crave, veg is the kind of medicine that we feel pressured to tick-off our menu whenever we can.
We sit down with Megan (aka The Gut Health Doctor) to get to the bottom of these misconceptions and find out why plant-based ingredients should be a joyful foundation of everyone’s diet, whether you are a vegetarian or an omnivore. Spoiler alert: when prepped right, they are never boring!
Feed those gut bugs
In recent years, gut health has really been in the spotlight as a result of several publications, most notably Giulia Enders’ international bestseller aptly named Gut and Dr Michael Mosley’s The Clever Guts Diet. Megan Rossi’s philosophy is no exception. In her first book Eat Yourself Healthy she puts a lens on the inner workings of the gut and the trillions of microscopic bugs that inhabit our nine-meter digestive tract. Her new book goes a step further and shows us exactly what makes them tick, i.e. what they like to eat. So how can we keep them happy?
“Your microbes are foodies by nature,” explains Megan. “They love to sample as many different plant-based ingredients as they can. And you should let them, because the evidence shows that the more diverse your diet, the more diverse and adaptable your GM is likely to be.”
According to Megan, a well-fed gut microbiota (GM) can transform our health. And that doesn’t just apply to digestion. Research shows that the state of our gut microbiota has an influence on almost all aspects of our wellbeing from brain function to our mental and metabolic health.
The 30 plants rule
Despite her simple no-fuss approach, Megan is no stranger to setting a challenge. So, if you are really looking to make a dietary commitment to channel all that motivation, make it about this: aim for 30 different types of plant foods per week. It really helps that this includes nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, legumes, wholegrains, olive oil and even coffee.
But making any sort of dietary change is a big deal. The food we eat is one of the most intimate pleasures we have in life. So, it is comforting to know that Megan’s approach never advocates for rigid rules. A study that compared people who ate at least 30 different types of plants per week compared to those that ate less than 10 showed that eating more plant-based foods results in a more diverse gut microbiome. So, rather than going cold turkey on your preferred ingredients, simply introduce more (in some cases many more!) plant foods to what you eat already. An elegant, inclusive and sustainable formula. In her own words, “The clue to defining plant-based eating is in the word ‘based’. It means making plant foods the foundation of your diet. But what you choose to layer on top of that – literally or ideologically – is up to you”.
INclusion not EXclusion
Sure, eating more to boost your health might sound like an oxymoron. We are used to certain foods getting demonised left, right and centre for their links to specific health conditions and we are all too quick to jump on board with those theories. If you have been living in fear of eating a hint of dairy or gluten because of what it can do to your skin, you know what we mean.
“So many people are under the impression that they have to cut out their favourite foods and be very restrictive,” Megan observes. Indeed, this is the exact mindset of anyone taking up a detox or eliminating dairy or gluten. With detoxes, the willpower exercise is intoxicating. With elimination diets, we finally feel in control. But how beneficial and true are some of these self-perpetuating cycles of food anxiety? The sight of a flat white can set our alarm bells ringing. Will it wreak havoc on our acne-prone skin? A similar connection is often anecdotally claimed for gluten, with both theories disseminated at lightning speed on social media and beyond.
One of Megan’s ambitions is to fight this misinformation through solid research which suggests that only around 3% of the world’s population are genuinely gluten intolerant (or coeliac). So, the chances are - you will survive after eating those croissants unless you are actually diagnosed. It is a similar story with dairy.
Likewise, depriving yourself of certain foods for a detox can help reset your approach to food but “these periods of fast can do more damage to our gut bacteria which can explain why a lot of people see this yoyoing of fat”. To put it simply, reducing the fibre you consume, reduces the diversity of your gut bacteria which is important for metabolism. The result is that “when people go back, that gut metabolism is slightly damaged and therefore you are more likely to gain weight”. It certainly sounds like long-term detoxing might not be worth it. Not to mention that most studies that support the benefits of detoxes are based on animals with mixed results in replicated human-based studies.
Prep is key
Another obstacle to eating more plants for many is that often we don’t associate these foods with a hearty filling meal. This is typically a big turn off for those whose diets rely heavily on meat. So, what can we do to address that?
One of Megan’s key principles is “anything can taste bad, if you don’t prep it right”. Consider an overcooked steak which is all chewy and rubbery. Basic cooking principles should apply as much to veg as they do to meats. Another example she brings up are the ever-divisive Brussels sprouts: “There is a world of difference between soggy Brussels sprouts versus the ones that are turned into a delicious creamy pesto”. Indeed, Megan’s super pesto is a compelling example of how transformative prep can be. It is all about working with flavours and tweaking it to your own preferences which leads us neatly to the idea of our palate’s ability to evolve.
Taste buds change
Ever noticed suddenly not enjoying a certain food? Or discovering a new taste you like? Perhaps, that green pepper you used to find bitter is suddenly on your menu. Maybe it’s a new-found craving for sharon fruit. Apparently, it is all to do with our taste buds’ ability to change. And it isn’t just anecdotal.
“Our taste buds regenerate every ten or so days,” claims Megan, which means that you can develop a new appreciation for certain foods by slowly introducing more of them. Studies show that as the bacteria in our mouth changes, so does our taste perception, whereas after two weeks of eating veg people start wanting more of it.
If you want to experience this for yourself, Megan’s tip is to start substituting a third of the beef mince in such classic favourites as a homemade lasagne or cottage pie with lentils to create small changes over time. “And you won’t even notice the difference, because you still have the meat there.” Another great example is Megan’s deliciously juicy chicken ‘n’ veg meaty balls - the best of both worlds that will leave you craving more. There has never been a more indulgent and enjoyable way of eating well. It might seem like magic, but it is all based on science.
Dr Megan Rossi is an author, gut health expert and research fellow at King’s College London. Her book Eat More, Live Well is out now with more than 80 mouth-watering plant-based recipes.