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Getting plenty of polyphenol-rich plant foods (fruits / vegetables / culinary herbs) in the diet is crucial for many different aspects of good health; not least for feeding a healthy gut microbiome.

In the last decade or so, research has been prolific in identifying how the balance of bacteria in this internal ecosystem impacts overall health, so when it comes to helping clients to improve their health through diet and lifestyle choices; nurturing this delicate internal balance of bacteria is always a key focus. In fact, one of the most important things I share with my clients is that a healthy gut microbiome is a diverse one; meaning it contains lots of different types of bacteria. And that all these different types of friendly bacteria can only thrive when there are lots of different types of plant foods in the diet.

A diverse gut microbiome is essential for good health and can only be nurtured when there is a rich diversity of plant foods in the diet.

That’s one reason why the message to eat 40+ different types of fruits, vegetables and culinary herbs each week is such an important one. Saying it is one thing however; actually putting it into practice is another! How can you actually eat 40+ different types of fruits, vegetables and herbs each week? Is it even possible?

In this article, we share some practical steps and simple tips to help you increase your dietary variety of fruit, veg and herbs (FVH). You might not get to 40+ straight away but the most important thing is just to get going, and keep increasing, from whatever your starting point may be.

1. Bring your full awareness to current habits
Awareness of what you’re doing right now is absolutely key for habit change of any kind. Before I see a client for their first consultation I ask them to record a 3-day food diary and send it to me along with their pre-consultation questionnaire. This food diary was originally designed to provide me with important information on current eating patterns, however I quickly realised that just the action of keeping a food diary was encouraging clients to make positive changes before they even arrived in my clinic! Writing down everything you eat and drink over a few days is a bit like shining a huge spotlight on your current habits. And bringing this ‘spotlight’ awareness to any situation is a brilliant way to bring about change. The first step to changing something about your diet / lifestyle is to become more familiar with what’s happening right now. Keeping a food diary for a few days is a great start. Notice how much variety of FVH you have in your diet? Estimate how many different types you are eating each week? This is your starting point. Could you improve on this?

2. Write a list of 40 different fruits, veg and culinary herbs that you like
I’ve heard people say it’s not possible to eat 40+ different FVH in a week. You’ll be surprised however at how quickly you can get to 40+ if you make a list. This is a simple exercise but a powerful one. Simply take 5 minutes, pen and paper and make a list of 40 different fruits, vegetables and culinary herbs that you like. Aim for an 80:20 balance of veg & herbs: fruit. This exercise is simply to challenge the unhelpful belief that it isn’t possible to eat 40+ different FVH each week. It totally is!

3. Set a realistic target, then make a plan
Once you know where you’re at currently, and believe that it is possible, you can identify a realistic target to aim for. If you’re typically eating 10 different types of FVH in a week, perhaps you can aim for 20 to start with? It’s important to be realistic so you’re setting yourself up to succeed, not fail. The week after, add a bit more, and so on. Once you have a realistic target, it’s time to make a plan. How are you going to achieve your goal? What’s going to change in your diet to enable greater variety of FVH? Where will you fit these in? Which meals will be easiest to change to begin with? The more consideration and detail you can put in at this stage, the more likely you are to succeed. Use the following tips to help you get started:

Simple tips to increase fruits, vegetables and culinary herbs intake

✔ Veg at breakfast
It’s a challenge to get to 40+ different types of FVH in a week if you don’t include some veg at breakfast. Challenge the assumption that you can’t have veg at breakfast, you can! Great ways to include veg in the morning are in an omelette, with scrambled eggs or tofu, or even in a smoothie. In a food processor, whizz up a handful of frozen mixed berries, a glass of nut milk, 1x tbsp ground seeds, ½ an avocado and a handful of fresh spinach – there’s at least 3 different types sorted already!

✔ Super salads
Salads are the perfect way to add significant plant variety into your diet. No longer does a salad need to be a limp piece of lettuce, sliced tomato and cucumber, nowadays anything goes and the choices of what you can put into a salad are endless! A salad base could be a mix of rocket, spinach, flat lettuce, red onion, cucumber, peppers, radish, fennel, fresh parsley, fresh coriander, fresh mint, grated carrot, grated beetroot, finely chopped raw garlic and a dollop of sauerkraut or kimchi – that’s at least 15 different types of veg and herbs in just one dish! Leftover roasted veg from dinner the night before work well too; perhaps some spiced roasted cauliflower and butternut squash…

✔ ‘Never miss an opportunity to add some veg’
Get into the habit of mentally ‘upselling’ yourself some veg every time you plan or prepare a meal. Now ingrained in my head (sadly some might say!) is the mantra, ‘never miss an opportunity to add some veg’, so if I’m making any meal I’ll always try and squeeze in an extra portion of something different. Most recipes can be adapted to suit different types of veg; if you usually serve two veg with a roast, make it three; add a side salad to your favourite pasta dish, add an extra side of veg in a restaurant; you get the picture. Over time these ‘little extras’ soon add up.

✔ Stir fries
Stir fries are similar to salads in terms of endless opportunities to add more plant food variety into your diet. And because the veg are lightly cooked in a stir fry, you’ll be introducing different types of veg than you have in your salad. Opt for a stir fry for dinner at least once a week and you’ll soon supercharge your weekly ‘variety’ total.

✔ Challenge yourself to try something new every week
Food shopping trips / online orders often follow habitual patterns, with the same fruit and veg on the list every week. Increasing FVH variety in your diet starts by changing your food shopping habits. Challenge yourself to try a different type of fruit / veg / herb every week and your FVH repertoire will soon increase.

✔ Seasonal veg box
A seasonal organic veg box is a brilliant way to introduce more variety into your diet; rather than picking what you want, you can opt to receive a box of mixed seasonal veg that’s a bit different each week. This is a great way to introduce flexibility and change into your eating habits. Riverford Organic deliver a wide range of organic fruit and veg boxes weekly.

✔ Recipe box
Many companies now offer recipe boxes, where you get everything you need to cook a specific recipe delivered to your door. This again is a great way to try new dishes and introduce more FVH variety into your diet. It’s also a great way to encourage children to be more involved in cooking too. As well as fruit & veg boxes, Riverford Organic offer delicious recipe boxes too.

✔ Grow your own herbs
One of my best achievements at home during lockdown was finally growing my own culinary herbs! They’ve really taken off and are growing just outside my kitchen door which means I’m constantly reminded to add lots of different types of fresh herbs to all my dishes. I’ve grown basil, coriander, rosemary, dill, thyme, parsley, tarragon, mint, sage and lovage, and I chop up a different mixed handful to add to our lunchtime salads every day. It doesn’t matter how much space you have, you can grow culinary herbs anywhere from a windowsill to an allotment. It’s a lot easier than you might expect and a really great way to introduce more plant variety into your diet.

Need more variety? Just make a start…
Getting more plant variety into your diet not only makes for more enjoyable meals, but has the power to dramatically impact your health. 40+ different types of FVH per week may seem like a huge target but once you get going you’ll realise that it’s actually much more achievable than you think. As with any goal in life, the most important thing is to just make a start towards it, no matter how small, and keep chipping away at it. Soon enough you’ll have created new healthy habits that support your dietary goals.

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