Meghna had just landed a dream job. What was even better was that she had found her Mr Right too. Suddenly, her future seemed very exciting. But for some reason, Meghna did not feel so. The 28-year-old bride-to-be was plagued with perennial fatigue, sluggish metabolism and poor sleep. Initially, she blamed it on the demands of the new job, then the protein rich diet she was following after a friend’s recommendation. But when Meghna did not notice any improvement in her health, she decided to take her mum’s advice: exercise and eat home-cooked meals made with a variety of grains, fruits and vegetables.
A year since Meghna embarked on this journey of change, she feels “restored”, she says. Her skin glows with health and her hair has the lustre no expensive product can give.
A new book by Australian gut doctor Dr Megan Rossi, is proof that Meghna’s mum’s advice is exactly what is needed to reclaim our gut health. Instead of insisting that we take up fasting, or become vegan, Rossi wants us to eat at normal times – with almost any food on the menu – and not to single out superfoods to fixate on.
Her focus is on eating well and, above all, enjoying what you eat. Her new book Eat More, Live Well offers recipes, menu plans and easy diet hacks. It’s designed to help us develop the robust gut health we need to support our immune system, our hormones, to fight off disease, lose weight and live a longer, happier and more comfortable life.
“I call it the Diversity Diet, it’s based on facts, not fads,” Dr Rossi explains. It couldn’t be timelier: 70 per cent of our immune system lives in the gut.
“The science shows us that eating well puts you in a better position to fight a virus like Covid,” she points out. “It may also help afterwards as our tastebuds regenerate every 14 days, so a flavour-packed diet full of different plants, aka the Diversity Diet, may help support your sense of taste and smell.”
When Dr Rossi arrived in London six years ago, she was “struck by the amount of ultra-processed food around” and how few “varieties of produce people were eating”. Pre-packed sandwiches were described as healthy “because they had a bit of lettuce in. My patients were of the impression that eating plants equalled boring and flavourless. It was a culture shock for me.”
Back on the north-east Queensland farm on which she grew up – where three generations of the originally Italian family lived together – 33-year-old Rossi recalls eating all kinds of plants, including a wide range of wholegrain, pulses, fruit and veg daily. And “once I started working here as a dietitian, I saw all this amazing research work coming out... [yet] people were being led to believe that they had to go on overly restrictive diets that were near impossible to maintain to achieve their health goals. That just led to disappointment, and made people feel like failures. The science shows being healthy is much easier, I promise.”
Dr Rossi started sharing her ideas via social media and was “blown away by the interest” especially when she noticed her followers included Jamie Oliver and Davina McCall. The area that most were taken by was the gut microbiome – our natural gut flora that contains trillions of different bacteria. Scientists are finding that a varied microbiome is essential to many different areas of health, from the obvious – problems such as IBS and weight gain – to the basics of fighting off every disease that hits the body, including viruses but also cancer and dementia.
Creating a healthy gut flora is simple, Dr Rossi adds, and requires no self-denial or drugs. “We need to focus on eating more plants,” she says. But not exclusively plants; a style of eating that places much greater emphasis on what you’re adding in rather than cutting out, and consuming the widest possible choice of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, seeds, nuts and pulses.
She wants us to all be eating 30 different types of plant a week, which she refers to as “plant points”, to ensure that different types of gut bacteria are nourished, multiply, and knock out unhealthy bacteria.
“This is not about a boring diet,” she says. “The more variety we introduce, the tastier the meal, and ultimately the better we feel.”
She’s put her ideas in practice on her husband Rory, an NHS doctor. He was a “massive meat eater” when they met, so she “upped the plant content of his food subtly – adding lentils and mushroom in his lasagne and reducing the mince for example – and he didn’t even notice, it was also much cheaper”. This recipe is one of more than 80 in her new book. “I am a foodie by nature. I’m not anti-meat, just passionate about plants.”
Dr Rossi isn’t pro-vegan either. “The science doesn’t support that being healthy, necessarily,” she says. “The processed mock meats and fake cheeses have the plants’ health benefits stamped out of them.”
The key point is that there is a hugely mutually symbiotic relationship between what we eat and the bacteria inside us that craves it. So if we eat herbs, certain bacteria will benefit from breaking them down in the microbiome, at the same time releasing chemicals from the herbs – such as polyphenols, which promote cell renewal – that otherwise we’ll be unable to absorb.
Fibrous foods are another example. Unless we have the right gut bacteria to digest fibre we can’t digest it properly. Fibre is particularly crucial to ensuring a healthy microbiome, which in turn is linked with better mental health, heart health, metabolism and so on.
It’s also crucial to the relationship between our gut and our metabolism, she explains. Gut bacteria and the chemicals they make when they digest the fibre we eat from plants can help us feel full, halting the production of hunger hormones such as ghrelin, and boosting the “I’m full” hormones such as leptin.
So how do we get this large variety of plants into the daily diet? “The goal is to enjoy something from each of what I call the super six categories: wholegrains, nuts and seeds, fruit, veg, legumes and beans, and herbs and spices. Note how many different varieties you eat in one week.”
One of the benefits of plant-based eating, she says, is that you can easily reach your weight goals without dieting. But nuts and avocados are full of calories, so how does that square up?
“This is where the importance of diversity comes in,” Rossi says. “We need to move away from the idea of fixating on super foods and loading up your plate with one variety - for example, avocados. When you’re getting your 30 plant points you won’t have room to eat one in excess.”
The same holds true for fruit, she says. “There are so many myths and a lot of confusion about how much sugar there is in fruit. There is a world of difference in drinking refined fruit juice, which is high in added sugars and low in fibre (the part our guts love) and eating apples which not only contain fibre, and an array of plant chemicals, including the feel-good hormone, dopamine, but they also contain millions of bacteria.”
The benefits of fasting can also be confused for outweighing those of a varied microbiome, she says. “A long fast can make it hard to get 30 plant points in, so you could end up doing more harm than good. I don’t think it is the panacea some suggest.”
Hers is not a fad diet, she reinforces. “It’s about tapping into the latest scientific discoveries about how our bodies, and gut bacteria, work best.”
The Daily Telegraph