5 Reasons Why Plants Are So Nutritious

You’ve probably heard that eating more plants is good for you, but have you ever wondered why? Here are 5 reasons why plants are so nutritious!

1. Plants are high in fibre

Fibre is one of the most underrated nutrients. It’s well known for its ability to keep you regular, but that’s not all it has to offer. Fibre has been linked with many other health benefits including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer and type 2 diabetes (1) – just to name a few!

Despite all these known benefits, the average diet in the UK is still too low in fibre. Specifically, we are only eating around 2/3’s of the current recommendations (2).

The good news is that it’s pretty easy to reach the recommended 30g/day when you increase your plant intake. Beans, lentils, nuts, vegetables, fruit and whole grains are all high in fibre, whereas meat, eggs and dairy don’t contain any.

Finding ways to add these plant foods to your diet, as well as swapping out animal-based proteins for plant-based ones, will help you reach the recommended fibre intake.

2. Plants are packed with vitamins and minerals

Plants are packed with vitamins and minerals that are essential for keeping our bodies healthy and functioning optimally.

As an example, dark leafy greens (e.g. spinach and kale) are one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat, as they are loaded with vitamins A, C and K, as well as manganese and folate.

Eating a variety of whole plant-based foods can ensure that you are getting all of the nutrition you need to thrive.

However, if you want to eat an exclusively plant-based diet, be mindful that there are some nutrients to consider that are difficult to obtain from plants (e.g. vitamin B12), so supplementation might be needed to fill these gaps.

3. Plants contain beneficial phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are compounds found naturally in plants.

Different coloured fruits and vegetables contain different types of pigmented phytonutrients – this is one of the reasons why we’re encouraged to ‘eat the rainbow’. Here’s a quick lowdown on what different coloured fruits and vegetables contain:

  • Purple/blue: anthocyanins – have anti-oxidant properties
  • Green: chlorophyll (and cruciferous greens: indoles, isothiocyanates, glucosinolates) – being studied for a wide-variety of health benefits
  • Orange/yellow: carotenoids (such as beta carotene) – converted to vitamin A in the body
  • Red: lycopene – has anti-oxidant properties

A group of phytonutrients called polyphenols are believed to have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the body (3). There are thought to be several hundred different types of polyphenols found in plant foods, all of which have the potential to influence our health (4).

Plant-based foods rich in polyphenols include fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, cocoa, wine and seeds (4). You may have heard stories about the benefits of eating dark chocolate or drinking wine and coffee – this is likely to be related to their high polyphenol content. Though this doesn’t mean you need to drink a whole bottle of wine – remember, balance is key!

Studies suggest that polyphenols could play a beneficial role in protecting us against heart disease, some cancers and neurodegenerative diseases (3). However, there’s still a lot more research needed before we can fully understand their benefits.

But for now, there’s still so many reasons to add a variety of colourful plants to your plate – starting with the fact they’re delicious!

4. Plants are good for our gut health

Plants contain certain fibres (also known as prebiotics) that feed the trillions of micro-organisms (aka microbes) living in our digestive tract. These microbes include bacteria, viruses, fungi and other life forms (5).

They might sound scary, but some of these microscopic bugs are actually thought to play a beneficial role in human health, as they produce a variety of different nutrients in our gut (6).

These are just a few of the things microbes do in our body, which can influence our health:

  • Communicate with our brain
  • Modulate of our immune system and gut barrier
  • Balance blood sugar levels

So how does eating more plants help?

Researchers from the American Gut Project found that people who ate 30+ different plants a week had a more diverse gut microbiome compared to those who ate 10 or less different plants a week (7).

This is important because studies suggest that having a more diverse gut microbiome is associated with greater protection against disease (8).

So, one way to keep your gut thriving with a diversity of microbes is to eat a variety of plants within your diet.

However, this area of nutrition is very complex and science has only discovered the tip of the iceberg. Personally, I find this quite exciting and I’m looking forward to seeing what future research uncovers!

5. Plants are low in free sugars

Free sugars are the type of sugar we should be reducing in our diet (maximum 30g/day), as they are linked with an increased risk of tooth decay and excessive energy intake (9). Free sugars are any sugars that have been added to food and drink, as well as the sugars found in honey/syrups and fruit juices, purees and pastes.

Plants in their unprocessed form are naturally low in free sugars and don’t cause as big of a spike in blood sugar as a bag of sweets, or even fruit juice.

Want to know why? Let’s break this down using fruit as an example…

When fruit is whole, the sugars are packaged within the cell wall. This means that digestion is required to access the sugars and provide us with energy. However, as soon as you process fruit in some way, such as blending it into a smoothie, these sugars are released from the cell wall and are ‘free’ to be absorbed much easier. Hence, the sharper spike in blood sugar.

These big spikes, followed by a blood sugar crash, can make you feel tired and sluggish. You’ll know this feeling if you’ve ever experienced the afternoon slump after a not-so-balanced lunch.

In the long term, regularly eating foods that cause a big spike in blood sugar may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (10, 11).

I don’t want to scare you away from your favourite foods – I enjoy cake and chocolate too! But this is another reason why balance is so important.

References:
  1. Barber, T.M., Kabisch, S., Pfeiffer, A.F. and Weickert, M.O. (2020). The health benefits of dietary fibre. Nutrients12(10), p.3209.
  2. Public Health England (2020). NDNS: results from years 9 to 11 (combined) – data tables. Accessed: November 2022.
  3. Zhang, H. and Tsao, R. (2016). Dietary polyphenols, oxidative stress and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Current Opinion in Food Science8, pp.33-42.
  4. Pérez-Jiménez, J., Neveu, V., Vos, F. and Scalbert, A. (2010). Identification of the 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols: an application of the Phenol-Explorer database. European journal of clinical nutrition64(3), pp.S112-S120.
  5. Gill, S.R., Pop, M., DeBoy, R.T., Eckburg, P.B., Turnbaugh, P.J., Samuel, B.S., Gordon, J.I., Relman, D.A., Fraser-Liggett, C.M. and Nelson, K.E. (2006). Metagenomic analysis of the human distal gut microbiome. science312(5778), pp.1355-1359.
  6. Singh, R.K., Chang, H.W., Yan, D.I., Lee, K.M., Ucmak, D., Wong, K., Abrouk, M., Farahnik, B., Nakamura, M., Zhu, T.H. and Bhutani, T. (2017). Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. Journal of translational medicine15(1), pp.1-17.
  7. McDonald, D., Hyde, E., Debelius, J.W., Morton, J.T., Gonzalez, A., Ackermann, G., Aksenov, A.A., Behsaz, B., Brennan, C., Chen, Y. and DeRight Goldasich, L. (2018). American gut: an open platform for citizen science microbiome research. Msystems3(3), pp.e00031-18.
  8. Lozupone, C.A., Stombaugh, J.I., Gordon, J.I., Jansson, J.K. and Knight, R. (2012). Diversity, stability and resilience of the human gut microbiota. Nature489(7415), pp.220-230.
  9. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (2015) Carbohydrates and Health. Accessed: November 2022.
  10. Beulens, J.W., de Bruijne, L.M., Stolk, R.P., Peeters, P.H., Bots, M.L., Grobbee, D.E. and van der Schouw, Y.T. (2007). High dietary glycemic load and glycemic index increase risk of cardiovascular disease among middle-aged women: a population-based follow-up study. Journal of the American College of Cardiology50(1), pp.14-21.
  11. Bhupathiraju, S.N., Tobias, D.K., Malik, V.S., Pan, A., Hruby, A., Manson, J.E., Willett, W.C. and Hu, F.B. (2014). Glycemic index, glycemic load, and risk of type 2 diabetes: results from 3 large US cohorts and an updated meta-analysis. The American journal of clinical nutrition100(1), pp.218-232.