Food & Drink

How to eat 30 plants a week, according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (and why it’s easier than it sounds)

The River Cottage and TV chef talks to Lauren Taylor about increasing diversity in our diets – and why he’s eating more plants than ever before.

Pulses, nuts seeds, herbs and spices all count towards your total plant number, says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall Pulses, nuts seeds, herbs and spices all count towards your total plant number, says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

It’s become part of the national conscience to eat ‘five-a-day’ but recent research is now suggesting that a different approach is better – to eat 30 different plants a week.

“Five-a-day hasn’t transformed the health of the nation,” says TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Even people who do eat five fruits and vegetables a day are “often eating the same ones over and over again”. But it’s become clear how important diversity of plants is in our diets.

Dr Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, has led the recommendation, after conducting research for the American and British Gut Projects of 11,000 people’s eating habits. It showed those who ate 30 or more different plants per week had more diverse gut microbiomes than those who ate 10 or less.

“It’s a fantastic way of nurturing the diversity of your gut biome, which we know more and more makes a fantastic contribution to our overall health, to our immunity to lowering our risks of heart disease, of diabetes of some cancers, and boosting our mental health,” the 59-year-old says.”People who are eating the most plants have the best health outcomes.

“I’ve always enjoyed my veg but as I’ve gotten older, and a little bit more interested in looking after myself, I have been motivated to find lots more fun and delicious ways to cook veg.”

And 30 might not be as challenging as it sounds – when you consider that pulses, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, all count towards your total number.

“I’m sure I get over 50 fairly regularly when my best garden’s overflowing, and maybe I make a massive spicy curry that’s got 12 spices – you can’t help getting there sometimes!” says the chef, who rose to fame on Channel 4’s River Cottage – cooking at his Gloucestershire house.

“But 30 is a number that’s really worth going for because it’s achievable, it gets you right up there at the highest percentile of of good gut health, you’ll feel the benefits and it’s fun.”

So how do you reach the heights of 30 plants a week in practice?

1. Shop wisely

“Don’t just rush out and buy a whole lot that you’re not familiar with,” he warns. “The key reminder here is that it is not 30 fresh vegetables. So a lot of your plants are coming from the store cupboard – tinned pulses are completely fine.

“A simple tin of butter beans or chickpeas and lentils, that’s all good stuff. It’s just been cooked. We’ve been [preserving food] for centuries and those things remain very healthy, they deliver a huge amount of goodness and fibre.”

His new book, How to Eat 30 Plants a Week: 100 recipes to boost your health and energy, has a tick list of 220 plant ideas. There’s nothing on it that’s “weird and wacky and unfamiliar”, he notes.

“You’re not going to go and suddenly all the fruit and vegetables, you’re going to buy one or two more than you did last week, the next one or two more – little by little.”

2. Make minor adjustments

“Remind yourself there’s a whole bunch of plant foods that actually you really like but for whatever reason, [out of] sheer habit it’s totally fallen off your radar, or fallen off your shopping list,” he says.

For instance, “Buy butter beans [if you only] buy kidney beans – that’s kind of mental adjustments that you make. Just go shopping with a wider pair of eyes, casting around for things that are slightly different to what you’d be having normally, or adding an extra thing.”

If you like peanut butter, try almond butter, he suggests – “It’s a different plant, it’s good for you.”

3. Use breakfast as an opportunity for plants

Many of us are creatures of habit when it comes to breakfast, but according to Fearnley-Whittingstall, the morning is an absolutely wasted opportunity not to pack more plants into your day.

“I like fruit and nuts for breakfast,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall. “Or a little compote of fruit with yoghurt sprinkled over.” The fatty, fibrous nuts slow down any sugar spike from the fruit so they’re perfect together.

He recommends making your porridge multigrain – with barley or spelt flakes, along with quinoa, flaxseeds and chia seeds cooked into it. In his book there’s a ‘porridge loaf’, an easy-to-make mix of dried fruit, nuts and seeds and perfect for grabbing a slice on the go, and ‘lunchbox overnight oats’ that’s packed with carrot, pear, nuts and seeds.

4. Make veg exciting

Before Fearnley-Whittingstall’s family moved from London to a farmhouse with a beautiful veg garden when he was a child in the Seventies, he too was eating boiled peas and carrots as a simple (if boring) accompaniment to meals. “My dad, from that point on, became a keen veg grower and he still is,” he says, reminiscing about times in the garden picking peas straight from the pods as a seven-year-old.

“We’ve all got a bit better at is recognising that you can use the same techniques to make vegetables exciting that you use to make meat or fish exciting.

“You can burn vegetables on a BBQ and they become delicious, or roasted in the oven – and I don’t just mean parsnips, potatoes and the old carrot, I mean, brassicas sprouts and fennel. And even little gem lettuces can be barbecued, cut them in half or quarters and you put them [face down] on the barbecue to get a char, take them off, trickle them in olive oil.”

Some new recipes include Sichuan aubergine with tofu and black beans, purple panzanella (made with beetroot) and beef and squash tagine – and even a spotted dick packed with seeds and ground nuts. While some of the recipes include so many plants you only need to make three in a week to make it to 30.

He also recommends counting your plants at first, or every other week. “When I first started doing it, I was counting all the time,” he says, now though it’s become automatic, and simply part of his diet.

“It’s really about just resetting the way we’re doing things to embrace plants,” says Fearnley-Whittingstall, who went vegetarian for six months a decade or so ago.

“If you get them out of the picture for a while, you really learn to be much more appreciative of the many, many delicious textures and flavours and aromas that you get from different plant foods.

“So even though I’m still an omnivore, getting meat and fish out of the way for those six months shifted my axis in terms of the way I cook, and it did it permanently. I’m much more thrifty around meat now.”

How to eat 30 Plants a Week by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is published by Bloomsbury, priced £25. Photography by Lizzie Mayson. Available now.