4 plant-based foods to eat every week
A nutrition expert reveals the four plant-based foods she includes on her shopping list every week, along with the reasons why scientific research suggests they’re good for you.
As a laureate professor in nutrition and dietetics, people often ask me – what do you eat? Plant-based foods are good sources of healthy nutrients. These include different types of dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and a range of “phytonutrients”. Plants produce these compounds to help them grow or protect them from pathogens and pests.
A review of research published in May 2021 looked at 12 studies with more than 500,000 people who were followed for up to 25 years. It found those who ate the most plant-based foods were less likely to die from any cause over follow-up time periods that varied across the studies from five to 25 years, compared to those who ate the least.
Here are four versatile and tasty plant-based foods I have on my weekly grocery list, along with recipe ideas and the research that shows why they’re good for you.
Tomatoes are a berry (not a vegetable). They’re rich in vitamin C and lycopene, which is a carotenoid. Carotenoids are naturally occurring pigments that are produced by plants and that give fruits and vegetables their enticingly bright colours.
A review of six trials asked people to consume tomato products equal to 1-1.5 large tomatoes or 1-1.5 cups of tomato juice daily for six weeks. The researchers found people who did this had reduced levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in blood that increases heart disease risk). They also had lower total and “bad” cholesterol levels compared to those who didn’t have any tomatoes. These people also had increased levels of “good” cholesterol.
Another review of 11 studies tested the effect of tomatoes and lycopene on blood pressure. Researchers found consuming any tomato products led to a large decrease in systolic blood pressure. This is the first number that measures the pressure at which the heart pumps blood. However, there was no effect on the diastolic pressure. This is the second number, which is the pressure in the heart when it relaxes.
In the group who had high blood pressure to begin with, both systolic and diastolic blood pressure decreased after eating tomato products compared to placebos.
Yet another review of studies, which included 260,000 men, found those with the highest intake of cooked tomatoes, tomato sauces and tomato-based foods (equivalent to one cup per week) had a 15-20 percent lower risk of developing prostate cancer compared to those with the lowest intakes. Keep in mind correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.
Keep canned tomatoes in the cupboard and add to pastas, casseroles and soups. Make your own sauce by roasting tomatoes and red capsicum with a splash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then purée with a spoon of chilli paste or herbs of your choice. Keep in the fridge.
Pumpkin is rich in beta-carotene, which is also a carotenoid (plant pigment). It gets converted into vitamin A in the body and is used in the production of antibodies that fight infection. It’s also needed to maintain the integrity of cells in eyes, skin, lungs and the gut.
A review of studies that followed people over time looked at associations between what people ate, blood concentrations of beta-carotene and health outcomes. People who had the highest intakes of foods rich in beta-carotene (pumpkin, carrots, sweet potato and leafy greens) had an 8-19 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease, stroke or dying from any cause in studies over 10 years or more compared to those with the lowest intake.
Pumpkin soup is a favourite. Try our design-your-own soup recipe. Or heat oven to 180°C, chop pumpkin into wedges, drizzle with olive oil and roast till golden. Speed it up by microwaving cut pumpkin for a couple of minutes before roasting. You can also try this recipe from Three Blue Ducks chef Darren Robertson for roasted pumpkin salad.
Mushrooms are rich in nutrients with strong antioxidant properties. The body’s usual processes create oxidative stress, which generates free radicals. These are small particles that damage cells walls and cause the cells to die. If these aren’t neutralised by antioxidants, they can trigger inflammation, contribute to ageing and the development of some cancers.
A review of 17 studies on mushrooms and health found people who ate the most mushrooms had a 34 percent lower risk of developing any type of cancer compared to those with the lowest intakes. For breast cancer, the risk was 35 percent lower. Though, again, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. Across the studies, a high mushroom intake was equivalent to eating a button mushroom a day (roughly 18 grams).
Check out our mushroom and baby spinach stir-fry recipe. It makes a tasty side dish to serve with scrambled or poached eggs on toast. You can also try this mushroom, sage and ricotta crispy filo tart, these easy mushroom recipes for comfort food cravings, this recipe for mushroom and chive gyoza and this recipe for spicy fried ‘shroom burgers.
A review of 10 studies tested the effects on blood sugar and insulin levels from eating intact oat kernels, thick rolled oats or quick rolled oats compared to refined grains.
These found eating intact oat kernels and thick rolled oats led to significant reductions in blood glucose and insulin responses, but not after eating quick rolled oats. This is likely due to the longer time it takes for your body to digest and absorb less processed oats. So it’s better to eat whole grain oats or rolled oats rather than quick rolled oats.
Oats are a good source of beta-glucan, a soluble fibre that lowers cholesterol levels. Across 58 studies where people were fed a diet containing 3.5 grams of oat beta-glucan a day, “bad” cholesterol levels were significantly lower compared with control groups.
The impact of oats on blood pressure has also been tested in five intervention trials, which showed a small but important drop in blood pressure.
You can eat rolled oats for breakfast year-round. Save time by making easy overnight oats, whip up a comforting porridge in winter, or try these sweet and savoury breakfast recipes. You can also add oats to meat patties, mix with breadcrumbs for coatings, or use them in banana bread recipes, in fruit crumble toppings or in bliss ball recipes.
For more on plant-based foods, check out this advice on making the switch to a plant-based diet, these ideas on how to make plant-based versions of your favourite dishes, these 5 reasons to eat more plant foods and this research on the power of plant protein.
This article was written by Clare Collins, Laureate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Newcastle; and was originally published by The Conversation. It has been edited for style and content.