You are what you eat. The old saying rings true now more than ever with the latest research that’s coming in hot on gut health. Science is emerging on the benefits of a healthy gut microbiome but the biggest benefit seems to be centered around inflammation control. You may be asking yourself, gut micro-what? The microbiome is a network of trillions of bacteria living in the gastrointestinal tract, and we are learning the types of bacteria in the gut may be a risk factor for diseases such as diabetes, cancer, asthma, heart disease, obesity and Alzheimer’s.
When it comes to gut health, many people first think about popping a pill of probiotics as evidenced by the $37 billion probiotic industry. But while supplementation can be part of the strategy, a holistic approach to gut health needs to be considered as a healthy gut is more complex.
The bacteria in the gut are influenced by the type of foods we eat — or don’t eat. Probiotics, “the good bugs,” are the first line of defense when it comes to forming a healthy gut. There are different types of good bugs and experts suggest it’s important to consume multiple strains to diversify the bacteria in the gut as each strain has a different role to play — some help with restoring good bacteria after antibiotic use and others play a role regulating digestion, metabolism, immunity and mood.
The amount of good bacteria in a food is measured in colony forming units (CFUs), but the problem is not all labels can be trusted in that the bugs are actually alive when consumed. Your best bet for balancing the gut with the good guys is to consume fermented foods daily, while reducing foods (refined carbs and added sugars) that feed the bad guys.
TOP SOURCES OF PROBIOTICS
- Fermented grains (e.g., sourdough bread)
- Fermented pickles (not vinegar-based)
- Kimchi (a spicy Korean cabbage)
- Kefir (fermented milk that tastes like a drinkable yogurt and has 3-times more probiotic cultures than yogurt)
- Kombucha (check the label for live probiotic or kombucha culture)
- Miso (fermented soybean paste that naturally has probiotics. Heating can kill the bugs. Miso is very salty and works great in a dressing.)
- Sauerkraut (refrigerated, not canned)
- Tempeh (fermented soybeans, a protein that packs a probiotic punch)
- Yogurt (check label for live active cultures)
There are also many probiotic-enhanced foods on the market that are made with “shelf-stable” probiotics like sauerkraut chips
A plant-based diet is receiving even more attention because of its health benefits. Aside from the disease-fighting antioxidants and enzymes found in plants, plants also provide large amounts of fiber. The sad news is the standard American diet only contains half of the recommended daily fiber, which ranges from 25–38 grams per day with the upper end for men. Fiber is found in all plant-based whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, but not all fiber is prebiotic fiber that fuels the good bacteria. You may be eating probiotics (or taking a supplement), but to keep those bugs alive, they need food (aka prebiotics). In general, prebiotics that are fermented by the bacteria in the gut produce beneficial short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which provide the health benefits.
READ MORE > WHAT 33 GRAMS OF FIBER LOOKS LIKE
According to prebiotic gut health expert Kara Landau, “Prebiotics are predominately found as prebiotic fibers, however they can also be found as resistant starches, and more recently discovered, in the form of polyphenols and polyunsaturated fatty acids.”
TOP SOURCES OF PREBIOTICS
- Broccoli with stalks
- Asparagus with stems
- Carrots with peel
- Apples with peel
Prebiotics are higher in plant foods that have the skin and seeds intact, and the cooking process may break down some of the fibers, so eating these foods raw may help keep prebiotics intact. Instead of tossing the stems, chop them really fine and toss them into a chopped salad, slaw or stir-fry — not only will you get more prebiotics in your diet, but you’ll also cut down on food waste.
While diet supplies and feeds the gut microbes, in probiotics and prebiotics respectively, bacteria needs to be nurtured in a supportive environment. Lifestyle factors like stress reduction, daily movement, pet ownership and even gardening can help support a diverse and happy gut.
“Gardening exposes you (and your kids, if you’re getting them involved) to more bacteria, viruses, etc.,” says Brierley Horton, Food and Nutrition Director at Cooking Light. “And that exposure may be good for boosting the diversity of your gut bug makeup. Research shows that people living hunter-gatherer “lifestyle” have a more diverse microbiome — and diversity is one key element to a healthy gut.”