About a year ago, I was sat at Grayshott Spa in Surrey, listening to a lecture by Clinical Nutritionist Stephanie Moore. As she talked about how eating fat is surprisingly good for reducing stores of fat in the body, and how fasting is crucial to maintaining a healthy gut, I nodded along feeling, quite frankly, a bit smug at already knowing all about most the maxims that she claimed were instrumental in achieving optimum digestive health. Then she dropped a clanger: "And you should also be aiming to eat AT LEAST 50 different foods a week - and all healthy - a McDonalds doesn’t count in the food groups!"
The idea behind the 50 foods thing? That by sticking to the same foods day in, day out, we "miss plenty of the micronutrients that are fundamental to immune and brain function - healthy cavemen would’ve been eating foods rich in nutrients that we simply can’t get because of the way we farm and process food now, so packing in as wide a variety as possible is really important."
Nutritionist Rosemary Ferguson agrees: "Different fruit colours tend to denote different antioxidants, so by eating a rainbow every day you’re more likely to get a good variety of trace elements like iodine, iron and copper. Also, on a macro level, you won’t necessarily get all the good fats and amino acids you need in one meal, so you need to mix things up."
After a spate of exhaustion of late, I decided to give the whole 50 different foods a week thing a whirl to see if it’d perk me up. Though I’ve embarked on a lot of challenges in the name of my job, the prospect of doing this completely filled me with dread; as a pretty boring eater who likes similar things at similar times of day, I suspected it might be a challenge to incorporate all those different foods weekly. I was also dreading the cost - most my foods are repeated because I buy a bag and finish it, so I suspected that mixing it up this much was going to hit my bank balance pretty hard.
Scroll down to see how I got along, and if you want to try it, here are the broad rules:
1) Foods must be ‘real’ foods. The aforementioned McDonalds Big Mac therefore wouldn’t count as five foods. It has to be stuff like 1) capers, 2) tomatoes, 3) chick peas, etc.
2) … But different colours and variations count. Green peppers, for example, hold different nutritional values to red, so I counted that as two foods. In the same vein, white onions and shallots contain different micronutrients, so I also considered them to be two different types of food.
3) Try to be guided by sensible eating habits. Dr Moore suggests bearing in mind that most of your diet should be comprised of plant-based foods, with the bulk of the rest coming from good fats and bacteria and protein.
The Food Diary:
I start the day with my usual millet porridge but add goji berries, nut butter and coconut flakes to up the food count, bringing breakfast to a very respectable 5 foods. Suspect this might be easier than I first thought.
… Alas, lunch has proven difficult. I am eating out, and the mozzarella and tomato salad I order comes woefully ungarnished. I beg the waiter for basil to up my food numbers and he obliges me, clearly thinking me very odd indeed.
Dinner is easier, basically because I eat a huge amount, starting with a spinach and broad bean molinata, moving onto a carrot and aubergine bake, and finish with green olive pasta.
Number of Different Foods Consumed: 15
Breakfast is the same as yesterday, so I’m stuck at 15. Balls.
Lunch is broad beans with tomatoes and lentils, so I can add two points to my tally, but feel a little defeated come dinner so chuck a whole lot of not wholly complementary ingredients into my green salad like hazelnuts and shredded beetroot and handfuls of pomegranate.
And then I decide I simply *have* to have pudding, because I need more variety. But I fall down slightly here - my Booja Booja ice cream contains only four ingredients and I’ve had three of them before. Oh well, I decide, the ice cream is just a vehicle for the almonds, and they’re new…
Number of different foods consumed, excluding previous days: 8
Today is the triumph of Planet Organic, where I found some lovely berries to add to my porridge (+2), a bean and rice stew for lunch (+4, including the shredded kale and peas in the stew), and some ginger root to have in my tea. Dinner is beetroot, goat’s cheese and tomato, so only one point to be gained there.
Number of different foods consumed, excluding previous days: 8
I am now on 31 different foods and suspect hitting the big 50 will be far easier than previously thought, so I let things slip at breakfast, merely swapping my usual almond milk for the rice variety.
Lunch is also repetitive - beetroot with salad and feta (+1, though I’m not sure of how much different kinds of cheese count, though have decided they do and that if things get desperate, I’ll just consume an entirely cheese board with glee). Dinner is a pizza, so I don’t get to add anything but bread which I also suspect may not be considered vital nutrition by those in the know.
Number of different foods consumed, excluding previous days, including potentially-contraband bread: 3
I’m in Paris today, so think that cheese board may be the way things are going to go. Turns out that suspicious is right - breakfast on the Eurostar is a quiche (+1 for eggs), lunch is a goat’s cheese salad (+0, sob), and dinner is leeks in a creamy sauce (+1 for leeks) followed by chocolate pudding (I add a point for chocolate, reasoning that it has lovely antioxidant properties, conveniently ignoring that when heated the health element goes out the window). Contemplate adding the red wine I've had to my list, but think that might be pushing it...
Number of different foods consumed, excluding previous days: 3
I’m now on 37 food types and am convinced that I can find 13 more over the weekend. I start with pickles on my cheese sandwich that’s hastily grabbed on my way back to London, then eat another quiche (zero!), chomping the limp radishes on the side in my quest to add at least a point at lunch. I get home and throw some things in a pot to up my numbers, resulting in a really weird smorgasbord of mushrooms, peppers, lentils, manchego, and coriander.
Number of different foods consumed, excluding previous days: 6
Only seven to go! Today, I am a woman on a mission, but stumble at breakfast - I’ve already eaten everything that’s in my fridge at least twice, so make do with adding no newbies and vow to redouble my efforts at lunch. This I do with aplomb, going to Farmacy on Westbourne Grove where I eat three new things: sauerkraut, avocado, and watercress.
I go to the supermarket and peruse foods I like in the search for the hallowed remaining four, but struggle. I am a picky eater, clinging to the foods I like and know. I grab broccoli, courgettes and bok choi, reasoning that if I whack them into a wok with some soya noodles, that would take me to 50.
Number of different foods consumed, excluding previous days: 7
While I was delighted to have (just) made the 50 foods, I was much more pleased when taking stock that I felt a lot more energised - especially in the mornings, when I usually hit snooze five times and then have to haul myself out of bed at the last minute.
By the end of the week, I was about £20 out of pocket for all the extra foods I'd been buying, which I feel is a relatively small price to pay for better health overall. That said, it was a challenge - and remembering to add different foods definitely was out of my comfort zone.
As it transpired, it could've been an awful lot harder; I check back in with Dr Stephanie to tell her I’ve done it and she worryingly responds ‘excellent. You’re lucky you spoke to me, though - my colleague Elaine [Slater] likes to suggest people try their hand at 50 a day for maximum results.’ Now that is one challenge I won’t be taking on…