carrots and other vegetables in containers on dark background

The Case for Eating a Variety of Plants

I read two food facts that blew my mind recently. Did you know that 75% of our food supply comes from just 12 plants and 5 animals?! And that most people eat only five different plant foods per week? Ugh, no WONDER people think healthy eating is boring! Eating a variety of plants makes healthy eating more fun, and also makes you healthier! 

A 2015 study looked at the diet habits of more than 11,000 people in 15 countries, then compared them to samples of fecal, skin, and mouth bacteria. 

Those in the study who ate a wider variety of plants had a wider variety of bacteria in the gut (which sounds gross but is actually thought to be a good thing!). Moreover, those who ate a more varied diet were less resistant to antibiotics than those who ate only a few different plant foods per week. 

So how much diversity are we looking for, here? Those with the greatest microbial diversity and lower resistance to antibiotics ate at least 30 different plant foods per week.

We still have a lot to learn about the gut microbiome, and about how microbial diversity impacts overall health. We do know, though, that more diverse diets provide a wider range of micronutrients and phytochemicals (bioactive compounds in plants that promote health). In other words, there are lots of great reasons to shake things up with your diet! 

How to Eat a Wider Variety of Plants

Let’s just assume that you’re not already eating 30 different plant foods per week (which is a safe bet because most people aren’t)! 

Any increase in variety is likely going to be a good thing, for your tastebuds and possibly for your health. However, eating 30 different plant foods per week will take time and effort for someone accustomed to eating only 10 different plant foods per week. 

Here are some tips for getting there. 

  1. Think in broad terms. Fruits and vegetables are great and you should be eating lots of those. Grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu, and other plant foods also count! 
  2. Don’t forget your favorite healthy condiments! Salsa and marinara contain tomatoes, hummus contains chickpeas, and guacamole is made from avocados. These all count!
  3. Does your dinner include a starchy carb each night? Mix it up! Use wild rice one night, roasted potatoes another night, quinoa the next. Experiment with ancient grains, like freekeh and amaranth, to keep it interesting. 
  4. Try to eat the rainbow each day. Include at least one plant food of each color (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white, black). This is a great way to get kids excited about eating healthy as well! 
  5. Hit up a local farmers’ market with your family, and look for plant foods that you’ve never tried before. 
  6. Swap out vending machine snacks for a one-ounce serving of nuts.
  7. Replace some of your animal proteins with plant-based alternatives. Tofu is a great sub for chicken or shrimp in a stir fry, while lentils are a good sub for ground beef in dishes like tacos or sloppy joes. 
  8. Roast up a blend of vegetables for dinner, instead of serving just one veggie. Carrots and parsnips play well together, as do broccoli and cauliflower. 
  9. Similarly, look for frozen veggie blends for busy nights! My kids love the corn/green bean/carrot mix. 
  10. Swap out your dessert with fresh fruit. 

With a little creativity, it’s easy to eat a wider variety of plants each week! 


Need a little help getting started?

Download my 30 plant foods per week challenge!

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