We’re all used to being told we need our 5-a-day to support good health, but lots of people stick to the same selection of 5-a-day without realising that variety is vital. For some people their 5-a-day could be five of the same eaten every day, i.e. five varieties in a week, but for others their 5-a-day could be 30 or 35 different varieties in a week! Read on to find out why it’s important and how it can affect your psychological wellbeing.
I’ve often seen articles about a varied diet and how it affects gut health or supports the immune system, but I was interested to find a research paper from 2019 reporting their findings of dietary diversity increasing psychological wellbeing in older people. Psychological resilience can be described as an ability to adapt and cope with stress and adversity. This is partly related to the heavy toll stress plays on the body. Some research has shown an association with psychological resilience and positive outlook, less depression and greater happiness and overall satisfaction with life. When in a more positive frame of mind we are more likely to interact with people socially and be more active and physically fit, thereby contributing to healthy ageing. Bearing this in mind, dietary diversity is a good thing to aim for!
In this particular research, the participants who were found to fare better psychologically were more likely to regularly eat more than five-a-day of fruit and veg, as well as regularly eating various nuts. The benefit of nuts is partly due to their composition of ‘healthy fats’, i.e. mono and polyunsaturated fats. By eating nuts they are contributing to a daily intake of these ‘healthy’ fats which may be lacking in those who consume most fats through meat and dairy products. This eating pattern was likened to a Greek or Italian style of Mediterranean diet with frequent consumption of vegetables and olive oil, which has also been found to improve psychological resilience.
Do you think you eat a varied diet?
It is probably less likely to be as varied as in previous generations for various reasons:
- We no longer need to eat seasonally because most fruit and veg are available all year, hence, variety is not forced upon us as it once was.
- Supermarket deliveries offer a quick and easy button to reorder the same food every week, which saves time but leads to lack of variety.
- Even for those who manage to eat their 5-a-day, often they stick to a limited selection.
- There are fewer varieties available than there used to be, such as with different kinds of apples and lettuces. Supermarkets tend to stock the same selection so we miss variation in that way.
- It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and, with lack of time and energy, people tend to eat the same breakfast every day or to cook the same foods week after week.
- Food phobias are relatively common today, whereas in the past it was quite unusual.
- There tend to be a lot more food intolerances these days which lead to people avoiding certain food items or food groups, thereby reducing diversity.
We largely rely on supermarkets for our food and whilst on first sight they appear to be bursting with choice, the selection is based on profit margins, shelf life, transportability, packaging to prevent damage and easy stacking etc. This method of shopping provides convenience which we have come to rely on, however, it can now be difficult to obtain variety elsewhere other than growing our own fruit and veg. It is worth seeking out local farm shops or farmer’s markets which provide fresh and local produce, and often offer alternative varieties.
Our ancestors, on the other hand, were hunter-gatherers and were bound to the food that was available at different times in the year. Depending on where they lived, they’d probably have eaten meat and fish, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables. Meat would have meant eating the entire animal which would have involved obtaining a wider variety of nutrients from different parts, whereas it isn’t uncommon today for people to only want chicken breast meat or only certain cuts of beef.
In later years dairy products and grain came along with the development of farming. There are so many different types of grain but just think how wheat dominates the modern Western diet: bread in many different forms, breakfast cereals, pizza, pasta, wheat flour in cakes, pastries and biscuits. Whole supermarket aisles are dedicated to wheat products!
Why are they good for us?
In terms of diversity, it’s advisable to include all the major food groups, although of course allowing for allergies and intolerances, as well as religious and ethical beliefs. These include meat and fish, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, pulses, grains, fruit and vegetables. Despite the 5-a-day message for fruit and veg being around for a long time now, there is still a great proportion of the population not managing that. I mention this particularly because the variety is so enormous and the wealth of nutrients we can obtain from fruit and vegetables is hugely beneficial to health. As well as the vitamins and minerals we are familiar with, such as Vitamin C being common in lots of fruit and vegetables, they also provide phytonutrients which are compounds that help to protect the plant. By eating a wide range of plant foods we can also benefit from these compounds. The various types of phytonutrients show up as different colours, so by ensuring you eat lots of different coloured fruit and veg, you can benefit from a wider range of these amazing compounds. For example, they provide antioxidant benefits, support your immune system and dampen down inflammation.
When thinking of fibre for gut health and ‘to keep things moving’ we often first consider grains, but fibre from vegetables is hugely beneficial and for some people it is easier to digest. We need to encourage a wide variety of bacteria in the gut because they carry out lots of important functions, such as producing some vitamins, supporting our immune system, balancing mood, and even weight management. These bacteria need food to eat, and the type of food that we feed to them through our own diet choices, determines the strains of bacteria that we end up with. This can then have an impact on our health or our ill health. By eating lots of different kinds of fruit and veg we can encourage a healthy variety of gut bacteria.
How can we increase diversity?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Try new kinds of fruit and veg that you haven’t had before. As for cooking, it is easy to look up ideas on how to cook various veg online. Perhaps buy one new fruit and/or vegetable each week.
- Even for vegetables that you know you do like, break the habit of frequently buying the same ones, e.g. different types of cabbage or lettuce, or buy purple sprouting broccoli instead of the regular kind.
- Try a different variety of apples or pears each week.
- Do you use herbs and spices? These can provide lots of different nutrients so it’s worth the time to experiment with these and introduce some different flavours into your meals.
- Eat a portion of mixed nuts each day, about 40 g. Preferably plain nuts, not roasted or dry roasted etc. Keep trying different types as that way you will ensure a wider variety of nutrients along with protein, fibre and healthy fats.
- Making new recipes takes longer than familiar ones, but you could try one new recipe each week on a day when you won’t be tired or rushed.
- Smoothies can be a tasty and easy way of including more diversity. Be sure to include vegetables and not to make them solely of fruit otherwise they can be high in sugar. Spinach is great in smoothies as it blends in well and doesn’t have a strong taste.
- Try different cuts of meat or organ meats because these tend to be higher in nutrients, e.g. liver or kidneys, and these cuts tend to be cheaper as well. It may be helpful to find a local butcher who can give you some ideas.
- Try having a box of organic vegetables delivered weekly, e.g. Abel & Cole, or Riverford. You can choose what you get but it is also interesting to have a delivery of things that you haven’t tried before.
It’s reassuring to learn of the positive effects for psychological wellbeing by eating 5-a-day, but to take this a step further, the benefits we can gain from eating a wide variety of fruit and vegetables are huge. Ensuring you include 5-a-day into your diet is a good idea, but the benefits to your health of making that into 25 or 30 different varieties in each week is immense!