What is science saying about what to count when making food choices? Should we count calories, macros, micros, or grams? Well, not another fad or marketing claim, but the result of continuous studies on the gut microbiome and its relation to nutrition and health is that we should all be counting plants. It seems that the magic number to keep a healthy body (please include the brain) is to eat 30 different plants per week.

By this, we are not suggesting changing your eating style, becoming plant-based or dropping animals from your plate, but charging up to 30 your plant intake per week to help your gut maintain a balanced microbiome to support your health and build a stronger immune system.

A bit of science.

Let’s give a bit of science and then, some background. The gut microbiome is the community of good bacteria and other amazing bugs that live in your gut. It happened that the gut, located in the large intestine or colon, feeds its bacteria community from fibre; and fibre is only available in plants (please do not fall for the “high fibre” claims in the cereal aisle). Evidence shows that 70% of our immune system, for example, relies on the balance of our gut microbiome. So, if this bacteria community (microbiota) is so powerful and holds a key to our health, then, why not feed it what it thrives with and start counting your plants?

Some background.

Now, here’s a brief story that I think may give you more background. Back in the 90s, researchers from King’s College in London decided to start a study they called “The Twins Study”.  They wanted to do some research to understand why in sets of identical twins one of them will get sick and the other would be healthy.  Originally, the research was meant to address things such as osteoporosis, rheumatoid illnesses, and other diseases. The research, however, has continued and expanded to many other areas of health, including nutrition and the microbiome.

One of the interesting findings during the research was that subject to the same conditions and food offerings, identical twins had very different reactions. For instance, one twin had an optimal reaction to eating carbs, while the other responded negatively. Researchers concluded that genetics played a minor role in determining how each person responds to food. The reaction was for the most part directed by the gut microbiome which is unique to each of us. Your gut microbiome is never going to be the same as anyone else, not even your identical twin if you have one.

Continuous research on the gut microbiome and specialized technology to be able to process information has shown the importance of this community of bacteria in our gut and its relationship with health and other bodily functions. After working for several years with volunteers, research concludes that the healthiest individuals eat at least 30 different plants per week. While we will not tell you what to eat, we can help you make the best decisions so you can keep your gut microbiome balanced which will impact your physical health, brain functions, your mood, and most importantly, your immune system.

The challenge.

So, the challenge is, can you make it to 30 plants per week, for 4 weeks in a row? And by plants, we mean vegetables, greens, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, herbs, and spices. That is a lot of options to feed your bacteria from. But the thing is, if you eat spinach every weekday, this counts as one plant, not five, so no cheating or your gut bacteria will know. The key is to eat a diversity of species and colours because not all the bugs like the same plants. Download the Plant Tracker below to get ideas for your next visit to the store and start tracking your plant intake.

A day in plants.

It is not as difficult as you may think! Picture a breakfast smoothie (which is not the same as juice because juicing extracts the fibre, and fibre is what bacteria feeds on): add banana, blueberries, spinach, nut butter, hemp seeds and cinnamon – there you have a count of 6 plants. Pack it the night before in a container and blend it in the morning. Then, have a simple lunch with a protein plus a salad with two greens, tomatoes, and cucumbers (you have 4 counts of plants), and a handful of pecans plus ginger tea for a snack (2 plants). And, finally, you eat dinner which can have broccoli, brown rice or quinoa, and some fresh herbs such as oregano or thyme over baked fish.  And that is 15 different plants in just one day!

Here are three interesting strategies that may help you achieve this challenge.

Canned beans (with no added ingredients) are cheap and convenient and when cooked at home with other vegetables, can make for a full and tasty meal. Most frozen vegetables and berries are great options, convenient for every occasion. Plants do not always need to be eaten raw. Cooking does not deplete the nutrients in plants, it breaks them down and may transform their structure, but other equally valuable nutrients become available.

The fact is that most people, in this fast-paced modern world, are eating less than 10 different plants per week, relying on ultra-processed foods, starving the microbes in the gut, leading to many health issues that could be very easily prevented.

Move away from calorie counting. Count plants.

As Dr. Tim Spector, leader of the Twin Study in the U.K. and founder of Zoe Nutrition, said: people need to “move away from the old-style calorie counting.”* No one denies that calories exist, but it has been proven that calorie counting is not a pathway to healthy living (and is usually not a sustainable path to follow either). The idea that you can describe food by calories is a way for food companies to be able to sell these products with health claims on them, but no correlation has yet been proven between the quality of food and the number of calories. A blueberry has never been seen doing marketing, nor does cauliflower claims healthy labels in its packaging. Or do they?

Counting 30 plants per week, using the guide provided below, is a way of reframing your relationship with food. By becoming aware of what you are eating and focusing on the quality of whole foods and plants, you may find yourself crowding out processed foods, improving your digestion, having more energy and focus, sleeping better and even losing weight as an added benefit. After all, we are what we eat!

Power up your week and go for 30!