All plant foods are not created equal. The more I’ve researched over the years, the more I’ve come to realize that healthy foods are not necessarily interchangeable. Some foods and food groups have special nutrients not found in abundance elsewhere.
Dr Michael Greger, Nutrition Facts
You probably feel like you already have a good grasp of what it means to ‘eat healthily.’ That is, even if you’re not always the best at actually sticking to it a lot of the time.
It’s been drilled into you since childhood to eat your 5 a day and go easy on the sugary snacks. You know that it’s best to avoid overly-processed junk foods (even as you’re secretly slipping another pack of cookies into the supermarket trolley). But is this really all there is to it?
Well, these things will certainly go a long way to improve your general health and put you at a distinct advantage over traditional Western diets, which are notoriously lacking in dietary fibre and essential nutrients. Even the simple act of switching out your daily packet of crisps for a piece of fruit will have compound effects that you’ll be thanking yourself for later down the line.
I don’t know about you though, but it all just feels a bit… vague. It’s like going to the gym having been told that it makes you healthier, but with no real plan of attack to get the most out of your workouts.
So with this in mind, let’s take out the guesswork and look at the scientific evidence. In this post, I’ll share with you the general food groups that you should add to your weekly shopping list as a permanent fixture. Then we’ll deep-dive into some shining superfood stars and how you can easily incorporate them into your diet.
What Food Groups Should You Eat Daily?
Let’s not beat around the bush: when it comes to your health, you want the most bang for your buck. And if you’re going to spend time cooking healthy and nutritious meals, you want to know with certainty which foods will have the biggest impact.
There’s also a lot of marketing now around ‘superfoods’, so it can be tricky to work out the truth from the empty promises. I sympathise if you’ve ever found yourself asking questions like:
What do I need to eat regularly to satisfy my nutritional needs? To have a flourishing gut microbiome? To build up my immune system to protect me from illness and the onset of chronic disease?
In short, forget calorie counting and fad diets, just give me the nutritional facts!
In Dr Greger’s comprehensive book How Not to Die, he gives you a framework for the food groups you should try to eat every day, as well as very handy serving suggestions. I apologise if I sound like a broken record, but his app The Daily Dozen has been such a practical checklist in my daily life.
I had no idea, for example, how important it is to eat a serving of cruciferous vegetables every day (broccoli, cauliflower, rocket, or radishes, to name a few). These super-veg contain sulforaphane, an “amazing liver-enzyme detox-boosting compound” which is almost entirely exclusive to this food group.
There will always be days where it’s more difficult than others to follow these guidelines, so be flexible and try to use them as the structural foundations of your diet. For maximum results, incorporate beans, berries, fruits, cruciferous veg (and other veg), greens, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, and whole grains into your diet. And don’t forget your daily side of exercise plus B12 supplement!
12 Superfoods You Should Eat More Regularly
Try to keep an open mind when it comes to the foods I’m recommending in this list – even if you’ve never bought or cooked with them before! I know firsthand that it can feel intimidating experimenting with new ingredients, but these are all easy to prep once you know how, and you can transform them into delicious meals in no time!
Perfectly unassuming, the blueberry is a small but mighty little fruit. Low in calories and high in nutrients, blueberries are believed to have one of the highest antioxidant levels of all common fruits and veg. So it’s safe to say that they truly earn their spot at the top of this list! As a quick visual test, the more pigmented the fruit or vegetable, the more phytonutrients they contain. In the case of black, blue and purple whole foods, not only do they look visually appealing on your plate, but they also contain powerful antioxidant properties that can help lower your risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer, improve brain function, and even aid in exercise recovery. So if you usually opt for family favourites like apples or bananas, then why not try blueberries for a change this week?
Serving suggestion: Half a cup of fresh or frozen blueberries.
How to enjoy: Give them a rinse, then sprinkle liberally over your morning bowl of porridge, blend into a smoothie, or bake into some breakfast bars.
2. Ground Flaxseed
It may be one of the world’s oldest crops, but I’ll admit that I’d never even heard of flaxseed when I first went hunting for it! Flaxseed is a superfood because it averages up to a hundred times more anticancer lignan compounds than other foods. A tablespoon serving of ground flaxseed contains a good amount of protein and fibre, Omega 3 fatty acids, as well as other important vitamins and minerals. Rich in ALA, flaxseed supports heart health. There are numerous benefits packed into each tiny grain, and the best bit is that flaxseed is ridiculously easy to incorporate into your breakfast routine.
Serving suggestion: 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed.
How to enjoy: You can buy ground flaxseed from most large supermarkets, or simply pop into your local health store (for example, if you’re in the UK, try Holland & Barratt). You’ll want to ensure you purchase ground flaxseed, otherwise you won’t receive all the amazing benefits it has to offer. Stir into your porridge or blend into your smoothies for a subtle nutty flavour.
Avocados are a fatty, fleshy anomaly of the fruit kingdom. It’s wise in general to be wary of fatty foods, but the monounsaturated fats found in nuts, olives, and avocados, are very different to the saturated fats predominantly found in meat and dairy. Healthy fat sources like avocado help to increase absorption when it comes to fat-soluble nutrients like beta-carotene, lutein, and Vitamin K. There’s no point eating your greens if these nutrient-dense foods aren’t readily bioavailable (i.e. able to be used by your body), so adding just a handful of healthy fat like avocado to your lunch is a great idea. They also contain important vitamins and minerals in their own right, aiding in disease prevention, helping to manage cholesterol, and keeping your skin healthy.
Category: Other fruits
Serving suggestion: Half an avocado. Remove the stone and peel off the skin. Try to keep as much of the darker flesh that is close to the rind intact, as this is where many of the nutrients are concentrated.
How to enjoy: Add to salads, wraps, tacos, and Buddha bowls. Blitz into guacamole, or smash it with a fork and load onto wholegrain toast.
Dark green leafy vegetables are a must when it comes to improving your daily eating habits. As we briefly touched on, cruciferous vegetables contain sulforaphane, which is what gives broccoli its slightly bitter taste. This phytochemical may remove airborne toxins like cigarette smoke, as well as provide anti-inflammatory benefits, such as the reduced risk of certain types of cancers (for example, prostrate cancer). Studies suggest that it may also support gut health and help to fight off infection.
Category: Cruciferous vegetables
Serving suggestion: Around 8 broccoli florets per individual serving. Don’t forget to cut up the stem to make use of the whole vegetable.
How to enjoy: Steam, boil, or saute with oil and garlic. You can also experiment with different varieties like tenderstem.
5. Sweet Potatoes
Remember what we said about high-pigmentation foods? Well, sweet potatoes are no exception. The common white potato may be more popular, but sweet potatoes have a more nutritionally dense profile. The predominant protein found in them is a type of protease inhibitor that may have cancer-fighting properties, and they are also high in fibre which promotes a healthy digestive system. Like carrots and other bright orange whole foods, sweet potatoes are rich in beta-carotene, which the body converts into Vitamin A (particularly important for eye health). Readily available, cheap, and filling, sweet potatoes make a delicious snack on their own, but can be cut into chunks and added to curries and stews, too.
Category: Other vegetables
Serving suggestion: 1 medium-sized sweet potato. If possible, scrub rather than peel for maximum fibre and nutrient intake.
How to enjoy: Wash, rub in a little oil, season, and bake. You can also mash them like a normal potato or cut them into wedges (add some spicy seasoning, if you like).
Whatever higher power you believe in, let’s take this moment to thank them for garlic (although not so much for garlic breath… I suppose there had to be one downside!). Not only does it instantly improve a sauce, but this antibacterial little bulb in fact also lowers blood pressure, regulates cholesterol, and stimulates immunity. Many of its healing properties can be attributed to a sulphur-containing active compound called ‘allicin’, which accounts for its particularly pungent smell and taste. It may even help to prevent the common cold and cancers.
Category: Herbs & spices
Serving suggestion: Use 1-2 cloves as the basis of your dishes.
How to enjoy: Mince with a garlic crusher or cut into very small pieces, then fry for just a minute or so. If you’re feeling particularly lazy, or just short on time, you can buy jars of garlic or even purchase from the frozen aisle.
Quinoa or ‘keen-wa’ (not to be confused with ‘quin-owa’, as I rather embarrassingly called it for far too long), has been grown in South American countries like Peru, Chile, and Bolivia for thousands of years and formed a staple of the Incan diet. Interestingly, it is actually a seed rather than a grain, hailing from the same family as beets, chard, and spinach. It is a source of all nine essential amino acids, will keep you fuller for longer, and releases energy slowly. Another food that is high in anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, quinoa may help you to manage your weight, lower the risk of chronic diseases, balance blood sugar, as well as improving overall gut health. It is also suitable for those with coeliac disease and gluten intolerance.
Serving size: Around 100 grams per person.
How to enjoy: Jazz up your salads or include in a healthy grain bowl.
If you only crack out the jar of nuts at Christmas, then you’re missing out on a tasty snack as well as a lot of amazing health benefits! Two handfuls of nuts a week may protect against pancreatic cancer (one of the deadliest), support eye and heart health, manage blood sugar levels, and promote healthy weight maintenance. They may also be the best food for jet lag! Pistachios, not only in the nut world but also in general food records, contain a ridiculous amount of melatonin. Oh, and if you’re concerned about the high-calorie content, then I wouldn’t panic too much – studies show that people don’t put on as much weight as expected when consuming nuts, so if you stick to a small daily serving, you shouldn’t notice anything other than the many health benefits.
Category: Nuts & seeds
Serving size: A handful of pistachios.
How to enjoy: Take care to remove the hard outer shell. You can also buy them ready-shelled if you prefer, although I actually enjoy the ritual of deshelling as I eat!
You may not have heard of this lesser-known spice. Part of the ginger family, you can find it alongside your more regular herbs and spices (it’s recognisable for its bright orange pigment). This pigment is curcumin, which is particularly potent when it comes to preventing and treating a myriad of health conditions. For example, cancer prevention, treating brain disease, alleviating the pain of arthritis and inflammatory conditions like lupus, and maintaining the remission of bowel issues. All in all, a pretty miraculous powder that you’d do well to introduce to your daily routine!
Category: Herbs & spices
Serving suggestion: 1/4 teaspoon a day.
How to enjoy: Add to curries, sprinkle some into your rice water (it turns it yellow!), or enjoy in a spiced latte.
Full disclaimer: I used to hate mushrooms. Slimy, fleshy, and chewy, I couldn’t understand how anyone could stomach them, let alone enjoy them. Thankfully, tastes change, and I now can’t get enough of this fungus! Belonging to a different biological classification than other plant foods, mushrooms contain some nutrients like ergothioneine that are difficult to find anywhere else in the plant kingdom. Mushrooms provide one of the few non-animal sources of Vitamin D, activate your immune system, and may even have medicinal healing properties.
Category: Other vegetables
Serving suggestion: Around 1/2 – 1 cup of mushrooms.
How to enjoy: There are so many different types of mushrooms to enjoy – giant field mushrooms, small button mushrooms, chestnut mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms… Try frying them in a pan with some oil and garlic.
If baked beans are the start and end of your current bean journey, then, I get it. I didn’t realise the importance of beans in my diet, and, in all honesty, I didn’t really know what to do with them either! But what if I told you that you should try to get a least three servings of legumes a day as part of a balanced diet? And chickpeas are a great place to start! Chickpeas can modulate your microbiome to promote intestinal health, and they’re also an excellent source of protein and fibre in vegan diets. They may even help to prevent some chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, promote brain health, and safeguard against iron deficiency.
Serving size: Half a tin of cooked chickpeas or a couple of tablespoons of hummus.
How to enjoy: Add to curries, roast with your favourite spices, or blend with tahini into a creamy and delicious hummus. Pro tip: you can purchase legumes ready-cooked and cheaply in tins if you want to skip the hours of soaking and cooking – they’re just as good for you.
Okay, so I mostly used to associate this leafy green vegetable with Popeye the sailor. Spinach is a superfood which enables the body to deal better with the oxidative stress seen after exercise. The anti-inflammatory properties of spinach mean quicker recovery times, which in turn means that athletes can get back to training sooner. So, in a sense, the cartoon didn’t get it far wrong! Spinach can indeed help you to grow stronger. Nitrate-rich vegetables boost oxygen efficiency, lower high blood pressure, boost cognitive function, and may even enhance your lifespan. The dark green colour indicates high levels of chlorophyll and healthy carotenoids. It is also a good source of Vitamin K, Vitamin C, and other vital minerals.
Serving size: 60 grams raw or 90 grams cooked.
How to enjoy: Add to wraps and salads, wilt into sauces and curries, or juice a couple of handfuls into a healthy smoothie.
How to Transform These Superfoods Into Supercharged Meals
It’s all well and good knowing on a theoretical level which foods are the healthiest, but how to incorporate them into quick, healthy, and nutritious meals is another thing entirely. Have a browse of some of my favourite tried and tested recipes below for some delicious recipe inspiration:
Start your day on the right foot with a choice of sweet and savoury options:
Spice up your normal sandwich routine with salads, wraps and grain bowls:
Batch cook these yummy one-pot meals for plenty of plant-based goodness:
Stop reaching for the crisps and ice cream when you have nature’s pantry at your fingertips:
A handful of nuts or berries
Heal Your Body & Fight Disease With Simple Whole Foods
If I’ve inspired you to make even one change to your shopping list this week, then I consider this a successful post. Knowledge is personal power when it comes to your dietary choices. To get to the root cause and take preventative measures against the most common non-curable diseases, take responsibility for your own food choices today. Otherwise, you’ll be treating the symptoms later on in life when it may be too late.
Being disciplined with your diet is, I believe, one of the highest forms of self-care. And the beauty is that when you look after yourself and your body first, you are so much better equipped to serve others and be an active citizen in the world at large.
If you’ve only dipped a toe into the rich and varied world of whole-food plant-based living, then have a further read into the benefits here. And to learn more about building your minimalist meal plan, explore more in my in-depth post here or try an easy vegan meal recipe kit to take the stress out of food prep.