Sunday, March 26, 2023

Eating a variety of plant-based foods

 It's fairly easy to eat healthfully in Cyprus. Fruit and vegetables in season are generally inexpensive; I have often bought a crate at the outdoor fruit market, typically two or three kilograms (sometimes more) of tomatoes, plums, peaches or apricots, when they are plentiful, for a couple of euros. I lightly stew and then freeze the ones I don't use immediately in 400g portions, so I have them available at other times of year. 

In the winter, citrus fruit is excellent value. Large, delicious Merlin oranges are currently 79 eurocents per kilogram, for instance. Lemons are even more prolific, and most years someone offers us a large bag of lemons from their tree. If not, a crate of about 15-20 lemons costs around a euro. The juice can be frozen in ice cube trays, or other containers for use all year round.

So it's pretty easy for us to get our 'five-a-day' - usually it's nearer eight or nine portions of fruit and veg - as well as the recommended 30g fibre, much of which is in the fruit and vegetables we eat. I do this not to be virtuous, but because I like fruit and veg, and also because I appreciate the related health benefits. 

What I hadn't come across until recently was a newer recommendation that, in addition to the above guidelines, we should aim for at least 30 different kinds of plant-based foods each week. A friend on Facebook mentioned this and I checked various links; it seems to be from a legitimate study. It's different from the 'five-a-day' principle (which should still be followed) in two significant respects:

(1) We don't just count fruits and vegetables, but other plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn can also be included.

(2) Each kind of food is only counted once in each week.  

I am aware that being able to do this is a 'first world' privilege. We're fortunate to live in a country that offers a wide selection of high quality produce at affordable prices. In many parts of the world, food products are seriously limited, or highly priced, and it may be impossible to eat more than one or two different kinds of food in a week. 

I have to admit, too, that my first question was whether coffee, cocoa and sugar would count; all are, after all, plant-based. But they're not mentioned in any of the lists I looked at on this topic, so I assume not. Herbs and spices can be included, but each is only worth a quarter of a food 'point' as the quantities are generally so small.

Out of curiosity, I decided to keep a record of a week of typical eating for us, some weeks ago, without making any deliberate adjustments, to see if we reached the goal. 


We're rather predictable as far as breakfasts go. I had my typical basic breakfast with freshly squeezed orange juice, and home-made muesli, which contains oats, coconut, almond meal, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, raisins, dried apricots and dried cranberries.  I had a cup of coffee, too. We don't use dairy milk; instead I make both cashew milk and oat milk. I can't count oats again, but cashews can be added to my list. Oh, and I always eat a brazil nut. 

So that was twelve at the start of the first day, but I couldn't count any of them again for the rest of the week.

Richard, meanwhile, had a glass of orange juice, half an apple, a banana, a pear, a little pot of mixed nuts (brazil, peanuts, walnuts, almonds) and a cup of coffee with the same two plant-based milks.  

So he started the week with ten different plant-based products. 

Sunday is the only day we usually have a cooked lunch. I used a previously made lemon chicken from the freezer (which, in addition to the chicken, contained onions, mushrooms, yellow peppers and lemon juice). We had roast potatoes, carrots and broccoli with it. 

That made seven more plant-based foods to add to our weekly inventory.

Our friends were coming over for an afternoon of games followed by a shared meal.  So I made a couple of loaves of bread in the breadmaker (with wholewheat flour, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds and chia seeds), and soup (which contained onions, tomatoes and courgettes, all pureed together after caramelising with garlic and spices, then simmering). For dessert I made an apricot crisp, which contained previously frozen apricots, some lemon juice, and an oat-based topping with some raisins in it. 

Already we were getting into duplicates which didn't count in the '30-a-week' guideline. but I think that made an extra five for me, and an extra eight for Richard as he didn't have apricots or seeds with his breakfast. 

During the meal, we ate some raw carrots, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and peppers brought by our friends. Only the cucumber is counted as a new food, but in all that made 25 different plant-based foods for me, and I think 26 for Richard on our first day. I decided not to count garlic, herbs or spices at all, just treating those as a bonus. 


I went to the fruit shop first thing, to buy the vegetables needed for Tuesday evening, some fruit that we were running low on, and one or two other things. I was pleased to see locally grown strawberries at €1.49 per 500g. They looked and smelled good, so I bought a pack. And since cherry tomatoes were on offer (two for the price of one) I bought some of those too.

Just under nine euros bought me this lot: 

Our breakfasts were the same as Sundays, with the addition of about ten strawberries each. 

For lunch we had some cold turkey and mushroom pie left over from the end of last week, with cherry tomatoes, and the leftover apricot crisp. No new plant-based products there. However we then opened some new dairy-free chocolate from Lidl, with coconut and pecans. Even if the cocoa doesn't count, the nuts do. 

On Monday evenings we usually have something fairly quick to make and vegan. Since I had an avocado which was just right for eating, bought a week earlier, I made some guacamole to eat with black bean fajitas. The tortillas were whole-grain, with rye as well as wheat, and the filling, in addition to the black beans, contained onions, mushrooms and peppers... all of which were included in Sunday's lunch. We also had some tomatoes, cucumber and mixed lettuce and cabbage. 

So we only added seven different plant-based foods on Monday, but if I was counting correctly, it means I had already reached 32 and Richard 33 different plant-based foods in just two days.  


A pear was an extra plant food for Richard for breakfast, but everything else was the same for both of us. Lunch was leftover bread and soup from Sunday, with more of the coconut and pecan chocolate. 

On Tuesday evenings we usually have some kind of fish, with roasted vegetables. This time I cooked baked salmon with lemon slices and roasted sweet potatoes, carrots, garlic cloves, red peppers and broccoli.  The only one we hadn't eaten earlier in the week was sweet potato, and I decided to add in garlic this time, since we ate four or five roasted cloves each, rather than just using a sprinkling. 

Still trying to keep track, I counted 34 for me by this stage, and 37 for Richard.


In the morning I cut up the mango I'd bought at the froutaria on Monday, and we had that along with our usual breakfast foods. At lunch we ate leftover fajita filling and salads, so nothing new there. In the evening I made vegan sausages for me, which are mainly chickpeas; Richard had meat sausages, made a few months ago by a friend. We had them with potato wedges, roasted mushrooms and cauliflower,  and some home-made baked beans, which used haricot beans

Total plant-based foods so far: 38 for me, 40 for Richard.


We had some more of Monday's strawberries with our breakfasts, and more leftovers at lunch. In the evening I heated up a container of chili con carne which I'd made and frozen a couple of months earlier, along with a few of Wednesday's baked beans. I used the microwave and the air fryer to make jacket potatoes, with carrots and broccoli, also air fried, which worked well. I also microwaved some frozen peas which I thought would be the only additional plant food for Thursday, until I remembered that my chilis always contain a good amount of red lentils

So I'd reached 40 plant foods, Richard 42. 


I took my trolley to the local fruitaria first thing, and bought this selection of fruit and veg for the next few days - enough to last us until Wednesday:.

That lot came to just over 15 euros.  The most expensive item was the three peppers; there weren't any in the reduced section, so they were full price, and I paid nearly a euro per pepper (about 300g each). Next highest is the pears. The oranges - lovely large, juicy ones - were still just 69 or 79 cents per kilogram and I bought two different kinds. 

Breakfast on Friday was as before, likewise lunch, with the addition of some apple pastries that were on sale at Lidl, where we went later in the morning (and spent rather more than €15 on items such as cat food, canned coconut milk and honey). And while the pastries were not exactly healthful, I realised that I hadn't had any apple so far this week. So that took me to 41. 

I was going to make spanokopitta in the evening but was quite tired, and we'd had pastries at lunch-time anyway. So we decided on our favourite local fast-food, Souvlaki Express. Chicken with salad in a pitta for Richard, falafel for me. I was losing track, but we had both exceeded 40 different fruits and vegetables, without having taken any added herbs and spices into account. 


I made chicken jalfrezi in the slow cooker first thing, then breakfast and lunch as before... Saturday is our curry night, and we had the jalfrezi with wholegrain pittas, raisins, coconut, mango chutney, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, apple and banana. I don't think there was anything 'new' to the week's plant-based foods, other than the banana for me, as I hadn't had one at breakfast.

Having eaten, without any effort, considerably more than the 'ideal' number of different plant foods during the course of a week, my main feeling was an overwhelming thankfulness at living in a place with such an abundance of high quality, inexpensive foods. 

The following week

During that first week, we had eaten some foods that we don't eat every week, such as the strawberries and mango. We don't eat avocado every week, either or black beans (which we had twice), or baked beans... 

So I logged another week, less rigorously. We didn't have a fresh mango, but still had mango chutney with our Saturday curry. No avocado or baked beans, but we had some canned pineapple when I made sweet-and-sour cheese. We also had some brown rice, which is another one (white rice doesn't count - but I never buy it anyway).  

I don't know that we reached forty during the second week, but we ate well over thirty different plant-based foods. It's not as if we're vegans or even vegetarians, although we don't eat meat every day. And we don't eat a huge number of different fruits or vegetables. But the articles I read implied that many people don't even manage twenty different kinds. 

Rather than continue tracking, I decided to list what we eat by different types of plant-based food. 

Typical groceries

I go to the fruitaria at least twice every week, sometimes three times. A couple of typical purchases are shown above. I'm not very adventurous, which makes it easy to shop without making a list. Every week I buy, and we both eat:

Oranges - apples - bananas - pears 

Potatoes - sweet potatoes - carrots - broccoli - tomatoes - onions - mushrooms - peppers - cucumbers - garlic cloves

Also, we always have and eat at least once:

Peas - french beans

Every six weeks, we go to a lovely little shop that sells nuts and various dried products.  Between €50 and €60 buys us sufficient of the following to last for the next month and a half, mostly eaten at breakfast:

Almonds - brazil nuts - cashew nuts - peanuts - walnuts

Sunflower - flax - chia

Dried fruit:
Raisins - dates - apricots - cranberries 


With the addition of wholewheat (in bread) and oats (in milk, and my granola) I make that 31 plant-based products which we both eat almost every week.  I also eat a large courgette each week, and Richard has a portion of broad beans at the same time.  Even if we don't have a fresh mango, we have mango chutney. We always seem to have something containing lemon juice, too, whether used fresh or frozen. 

I could also include quarter portions each of: chili powder, sweet paprika, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, ginger, turmeric, parsley and basil, all of which we use pretty much every week - and other herbs and spices less frequently. 

At least once or twice a month we also eat:

cauliflower - spinach - cabbage - lettuce - avocado

brown rice - pineapple (canned) 

chickpeas - lentils - black beans - haricot beans 

And, when they're available in season:

clementines - apricots - peaches - strawberries - plums 

It's not a competition; the only 'prize' for eating lots of plant-based products is an increased chance of longevity, with good health as we age. There are, of course, those who eat almost no fruit and veg and still live to be elderly and free of disease. There are also those who are extremely fit and eat very healthfully, but who still develop serious diseases or life-threatening conditions at a young age.  

But I'm not a fatalist. I'd rather increase my chances of good health even if, in the end, environment or genetics beat lifestyle. I know some people have allergies or specific foods they don't like. But there are many more fruits and vegetables than the 50 or so that I've mentioned. So I'm a bit puzzled how anyone in a developed country with widely available (and reasonably priced) produce could NOT eat thirty or more different plant-based foods in a week.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this post Sue, despite the lists etc - I love data! I shall have to do a little survey of my own. Love Lynda