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Eat 30 Plants a Week - Tim Spector speaks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Highlights from the Hay Festival 2024

I love living close to Hay-on-Wye, the world famous ‘town of books’ and the home of the Hay Literary Festival. This year I went to more events than ever and I feel inspired by hearing so many viewpoints. I’m inwardly digesting their ideas.

The first talk I attended links directly to my Sacred Vessel holistic weight loss approach. I was lucky enough to be in the second-row for a conversation between celebrity cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and champion of nutritional science Professor Tim Spector.

Tim outlined his early work on the gut microbiome. In studying twins he was curious that their identical genetics couldn’t explain differing health issues. The discovery that even in identical twins their gut microbes differed widely gave him a clue which led him to look more closely at the impact of the microbiome, a new field of study emerging around 2009.  This is still a relatively fresh and fast developing area of research.


The idea of maintaining a diverse microbiome for good physical and mental health has moved quickly into the mainstream and promoted interest in fermented foods – the pair shared a bottle of locally brewed cider on stage, Tim saying it’s, ‘practically a health food.’  


Tim’s work now focusses on personalised nutrition. He explains that these differing microbes means there is no ‘one size fits all diet’. A calorie isn’t just a calorie, what the foodstuff is made of really matters for the health of your gut microbes. He talked of each of us as having a microbiome as unique as our own fingerprints and pointed out that we evolved alongside the microbes in our gut. It’s estimated that we contain as many microbes as human cells – we are a community – and how we feed them directly impacts the balance, boosting either the more helpful, or more harmful, microbial population. We cannot thrive without our microbes; they help us digest food and produce vitamins and brain chemicals.


Hugh put this in fun layman’s terms, “They are having a party in our tummies and reproducing – it’s that kind of party. We want them to have a good time!”


Tim recommends eating 30 different plant foods a week to give your gut microbes a varied feast and highlighted eating whole plant foods, making the point that we have very little information so far into the complexity of natural substances in plants and their possible health benefits, for example a humble carrot has around 800 different chemical components. It’s estimated that we may consume a possible 50,000 chemical constituents from plant foods – plenty to get our microbes excited in the busy processing work they do for us.


Hugh has written a new cookbook with exactly this target in mind: How to Eat 30 Plants a Week, 100 recipes to boost your health and vitality. He spoke of the swap he has made from plant foods being an ‘afterthought’ to go with the ‘tyranny of meat and fish’, to plants becoming the main event. His new cookbook does have fish and meat sections, but the plant ingredients shine through and I am looking forward to trying some new recipes out.


I’ve been eating a diverse range of plant foods to support my microbiome for a few years now and include this way of eating in my Sacred Vessel programme. I learnt to cook more meals from scratch, which has been fun, and I am still broadening my repertoire and enjoying a slower, more mindful approach to getting dinner on the table. I love this way of eating and I have found it supports my body in maintaining a healthy weight. My husband has also made the adjustments. He lost the excess weight he put on when he stopped smoking. More importantly he feels a lot better and more energetic – it isn’t so much about what the scales say, as how you feel. I think of this approach as filling your plate up with the ‘good stuff’. It’s not prescriptive, nothing is ‘banned’, however you are giving your body, and importantly your gut microbes, plenty of variety.


We’ve been running our own plant food challenge in our ‘Sacred Vessel’ group. Compiling a running checklist of all the different plant foods you eat over the week is quick and simple. We use this exercise periodically as a ‘reset’ to check in with ourselves and our diets and bring our awareness back to our theme of plant diversity. Try it as a fun exercise – if you don’t normally eat many plant foods build up your repertoire gradually – your gut microbiome needs some time to adapt and you could get alarming amounts of wind if you go for 30 plant foods from a ‘standing start’!


I was glad to hear Hugh and Tim confirm that even small quantities of herbs and spices count towards your 30 a week total. I’ve found keeping a well-stocked spice cupboard has elevated my cooking more than anything and throwing a few fresh jars of spices a week into your shopping basket is relatively affordable and quickly builds your store.


I am currently making my way through Tim Spector’s latest book on Audible: Food for Life, Your Guide to the New Science of Eating Well. To be honest, although I love audiobooks, I think I have picked the wrong format for this one. I’d go for the paperback so that you can easily reference key points.

I lined up and asked Hugh to sign his cookbook for me. It's very colourful and there are plenty of appetising recipes. I'm looking forward to digging into some of these recipes. This porridge loaf may be the first I try...

If you are interested in my Sacred Vessel approach to holistic weight loss and improved body image you can read more here and express your interest in the next course.


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