The 100 trillion microorganisms living in your gastrointestinal tract make up the gut microbiome. Building a collection of good bacteria has been linked to fewer health issues ranging from metabolism, arthritis and depression to cancer, cardiovascular disease and lifespan.
“Gut health impacts so much more than digestion,” says Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist. “A healthy gut microbiome is important to your overall health.”
Pectin, the soluble fiber in apples, improves insulin resistance, lowers cholesterol and slows down digestion, helping you feel full. A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Microbiology found pectin is also a prebiotic that promotes the growth of good gut bacteria. “Fiber, lots of fiber, is so important for gut health,” Moore says.
The popular tropical fruit is a top-logged food for MyFitnessPal users. Bananas are known to have high levels of potassium, and they contain two kinds of fiber: pectin, which helps with digestion, and resistant starch, which serves as food for beneficial gut bacteria. Resistant starch is higher in unripe bananas so opt for green bananas for optimal gut health.
Look for opportunities to add more beans to your diet. Black beans are among the fiber-rich foods that have been shown to improve intestinal barrier function or the ability for your body to fight against disease-producing compounds. “Different beans have different nutrients,” Moore says. “Aim for a diversity of beans in your diet like black beans, pinto beans and lentils.”
Chickpeas are a versatile legume that’s delicious roasted, added to salad or crushed for hummus — and that’s just for starters. “There is pasta made from chickpea flour that tastes great,” Moore says. Thanks to the protein and fiber, chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, are a great source of plant-based prebiotics. Skip canned chickpeas, which have lower levels of prebiotic fiber than dried chickpeas.
The fermented milk drink, like yogurt, contains probiotics. Kefir, which comes from the Turkish word for “feeling good,” is made by adding kefir grains to milk. The nutrient-rich drink contains protein, calcium, magnesium and vitamin B12; it also contains 61 strains of bacteria and yeast that contribute to good gut health. “Kefir is lower in lactose than yogurt so it’s a good option if you’re lactose intolerant,” Young says. Pour kefir over cereal, add it to smoothies or drink it like a glass of milk.
Almonds, walnuts and pecans are all good sources of fiber, which helps gut bacteria break down foods while providing important nutrients your body needs for digestion and overall health, Moore explains. Research published in The Journal of Nutrition found that eating one-third of a cup of walnuts over a six-week period increased the abundance of three specific bacteria that have a positive impact on the gut microbiome.
The root vegetable, also known as a Jerusalem artichoke, is considered a prebiotic, which is a type of dietary fiber that feeds good gut bacteria. Sunchokes could help lower blood cholesterol, prevent cell damage and manage blood sugar. Moore loves roasted sunchokes but warns that the tasty vegetables can make you gassy. Her advice: Don’t overdo it.
Unsalted seeds, including sunflower seeds, are excellent sources of fiber, which aids in digestion. Sunflower seeds also contain antioxidants like selenium and vitamin E to help protect cells and prevent chronic disease. Eating sunflower seeds five times per week was linked to lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation that is associated with heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Eat raw seeds, add them to the tops of salads for extra crunch or cook with sunflower oil to get all of the benefits.
A diet rich in whole wheat, bulgar, oats and brown rice helps improve gut microbiota. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that whole-grain diets helped increase the variety of gut bacteria, boosting the immune system and reducing inflammation compared to a diet rich in refined grains. Young recommends whole grains like oatmeal and quinoa if you’re on a gluten-free diet.
Yogurt is a probiotic powerhouse that contains good bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which help maintain digestive health. Yogurt is also chock full of calcium, protein and vitamin D. Lisa Young, PhD, RN, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim,” advises eating plain yogurt made with no added sugar and steering clear of low-fat yogurt; research shows sugar and artificial sweeteners can destroy beneficial bacteria.