Diversity is king
By Joanna McMillan
I have spent much of the last year studying the microbiome and its impact on our health and wellbeing. The key aspect that stood out from all of the researchers I interviewed around the world is that microbiomes vary dramatically, depending on many factors including diet and lifestyle, but the healthiest are those that are the most diverse.
When we look at the planet as a whole, diversity brings a healthy environment. A rainforest houses a vast diversity of plants, insects, birds and animals. The ocean is home to a diversity of algae, fish, seaweeds, mammals and so on. In each of these environments, diversity is crucial for the functioning of the whole system.
“When we look at the planet as a whole, diversity brings a healthy environment”
The same is true of a farmed environment. We know that the modern farming tendency towards large areas of land being used for single crops leads to depletion of soil nutrients and an increasing reliance on manmade fertilizers and pesticides. Once again, farming systems that adopt diversity with crop and animal rotation leads to an entirely healthiest system.
“Farming systems that adopt diversity with crop and animal rotation leads to an entirely healthiest system.”
It shouldn’t come as much or a surprise therefore that diversity remains king when it comes to your diet. Diversity maximises your chances of getting all the nutrients you need and provides a vast array of phytochemicals (protective plant compounds), while minimising the chances of you getting too much of any one thing.
Walking around the supermarket, you might think we do have diversity. Never before have we had such a huge number of food products available to us. But scratch beneath the surface and you realise many of them are made from the same key ingredients. Wheat, corn and rice dominate breakfast cereals, corn, rice and potatoes dominate snack foods. You get the idea.
Even within a particular food we now lack diversity. Go back a few generations and there were a multitude of different varieties of a crop such as wheat. Yet today modern industrialised wheat dominates with only a handful of varieties.
“Go back a few generations and there were a multitude of different varieties of a crop such as wheat. Yet today modern industrialised wheat dominates with only a handful of varieties.”
Think of what foods you pop into your basket every week. Do you buy pretty much the same vegies and fruits every time? Do you buy the same cuts of meat that you are confident in cooking? How often do you try a new recipe and utilise an ingredient you are less familiar with?
There is much to be gained from diversifying your diet. Not only are there huge potential nutrition gains, but your tastebuds might just love it too! Here are a few ways to get more diverse:
Embrace the ancient grain trend and try spelt, emmer or Kamut bread or flour. These are ancient varieties of wheat that are undergoing something of a resurgence. Anecdotally many people who find they have problems digesting modern wheat products report that these ancient grains sit better with them. There just might be something in that.
Try something new
Pop a vegetable or fruit you have never tried before into your shopping basket. Find a recipe that uses it and give it a shot. I had never tried mangosteen until I came to Australia and what a treat that was when I first popped that fragrant treat in my mouth!
Vary your menu
If you had brown rice last night, try a different smart carb tonight. What about quinoa, sweet potato, wholegrain pasta or bulgur wheat? Think ahead and plan a menu that includes a combination of different meats, seafood and at least one vegetarian meal.
Stock your pantry with glass jars so you can see what you have to hand. Fill with different nuts, seeds and grains and ensure they all get used regularly.
Build up a selection of dried herbs and spices and use them ubiquitously in your cooking. These don’t just add flavour, but some pretty serious protective nutrition at the same time. They rank at the top of the antioxidant power charts!
The traditional cuisine of most countries is pretty darn healthy. It’s only modern highly processed food that is damaging our health. So, take inspiration from different cuisines and cooking styles and get creative in your kitchen. From Indian curries and dhal, to Mexican fajitas and Nordic fish dishes, you’ll never be bored with dinner. Perhaps a Scottish salmon dish might make it onto your menu!
Wild foods are pretty incredible nutritionally – go back far enough and it’s all our ancestors ate after all. It’s not possible for every one on earth to only eat wild foods, today we have to farm in order to produce enough food to feed us all. However, we can ensure we incorporate wild foods when possible. Look for wild greens, game meats such as kangaroo or crocodile, wild seafood or learn to pick (carefully as some are highly poisonous) wild mushrooms.