Want a healthy gut? Shake it up

Tasting

SPICE OF LIFE There are so many ways to prepare the massive variety of plants we can eat – raw, roasted, steamed, fermented, sprouted and more.

Mix up your diet with thirty different plants a week

Green Living
McKinley Neal

I hope you’ve had a good start to 2023! You’ve probably heard of Veganuary, the month of focus on encouraging people to try a vegan diet with lots of tips and recipes shared on social media. I like the focus on how we can all eat as many plants as possible, especially in a minimally processed form.
What I find exciting about eating mostly plants is the range of options available, as there are so many ways to prepare plants, from raw to roasted, steamed, fermented, sprouted and more. Variety is the key to sustaining a plant-based diet, for optimal nutrition and enjoyment. Many researchers specialising in the gut microbiome recommend consuming a minimum of 30 different plants – grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices and more – per week to maintain diversity of bacteria essential to immune health.
I like to plan meals by starting with seasonal vegetables, as what’s available close to us is generally the most nutritious. At this time of year, I’m using potatoes, carrots, parsnips, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, garlic and onions in most meals. At the weekends, we might simply roast the root vegetables and then sauté the sprouts.
On Sundays, it’s helpful to make a big pot of food for the week: soup can be made with brown or green lentils and all the veg, or curries can start with chickpeas or other beans, veg and various spices to taste. Any leftover veg is excellent on top of some kind of grain: rice, barley, buckwheat groats, polenta or millet, either served warm with a sauce or cold as a salad bowl with a vinegar-based dressing.
Then there’s the fun of experimentation, using some newer options you might not have tried. Dried fruits are great sources of iron and fibre when fresh fruits are limited, and can be used in energy bars, granola or to top salads or grain dishes. Olives, sundried tomatoes, seaweed  and dried mushrooms are all excellent sources of umami flavour, and they can be blended into hummus, pesto or even soups to add depth of flavour. Nutritional yeast flakes have a cheesy flavour, and are my substitute in pesto and sauces, plus they are usually enriched with vitamin B12.
Fermented foods like raw sauerkraut or kimchi are excellent in salad, sandwiches, on fried rice or as a side dish. Miso paste also adds flavour to soups and stews and noodles or rice dishes. Cultured vegan spreads and ‘cheeses’ can be made from nuts and seeds, and I like experimenting with those occasionally.
Spreads like nut (almond, hazelnut and peanut) butters are a great topping for bread or porridge, or perfect for dipping raw carrots, celery or apple slices into for a filling snack. Tahini, made from milled sesame seeds, is used in hummus – which can be made from any bean or lentil! – and salad dressings.
As with all foods, the more you can make yourself, the more you can influence the flavour and avoid additives, and discover great new meal options.

McKinley Neal is the owner of PAX Whole Foods & Eco Goods, a minimal-waste shop in Westport offering bulk organic foods, reusable goods, household products, eco-friendly personal-care items and gifts.