Eating your way to a healthy gut

Dr Tim Crowe

You are what you eat. It is a common saying, but when it comes to your health, especially your gut health, what you eat has a profound impact on keeping you and your gut bugs – the bacteria and other microorganisms that live inside your gut – in good shape. That’s important because a growing field of research is finding that our gut bacteria play a crucial role in our health. Feed these microbes well and your digestive system will work at its peak capability.

Food for your gut bugs

You really are what you eat because the different strains of bacteria in our gut can change depending on the types of food eaten. And with 100 trillion bacterial cells in our gut, that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

The bacteria in your gut play an important part in our health and fiber is especially important as this is their key fuel. Particular types of fiber, called prebiotics, are especially important as these fuel the growth of particular groups of the beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus

Some of the benefits of feeding your healthy gut bacteria include improving the functioning of the gut wall, boosting immune function, and making sure you have regular bowel movements. By providing plenty of prebiotics for the beneficial bacteria to ferment, you help reduce the amount of potentially damaging bacteria.

These benefits are principally brought about by the fermentation process. This produces a group of compounds called short chain fatty acids. These increase the acidity in the bowel, making it harder for potentially harmful bacteria to thrive, they keep the cells of the gut lining healthy and they help us to absorb more nutrients such as calcium and magnesium.

What to eat for a healthy gut

To keep your gut environment thriving, aim to eat more foods high in different types of fiber including soluble, insoluble fiber and resistant starch. Fiber is nourishment for good gut bacteria and can be found in an array of everyday foods. The simplest advice is to eat a wide variety of nutritious whole foods from all food groups, which would naturally contain different types of fiber.

Some of the key prebiotic foods include:

  • Aromatic vegetables such as onions, garlic, leeks, celery and Jerusalem artichokes. These are high in a type of carbohydrate called inulin which bacteria use to promote healthy colon cells and other health benefits
  • Barley and oats are a rich source of the soluble fiber, beta-glucan. Beta-glucan acts as food for your good gut bacteria and helps lower cholesterol levels.
  • Starchy foods such as cooked and cooled potatoes, beans, lentils, and firm bananas are a great source of resistant starch to fuel good gut bacteria.
  • Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and yoghurt contain a good supply of healthy bacteria to add to your own, along with products of fermentation that may boost gut health.

While researchers have yet to work out what the ‘perfect’ diet may be for gut health, we already know that the worst way of eating for your digestive health is consuming too many highly processed foods, too much sugar and not enough fiber. The good news is that a shift to a healthier diet can change the bacteria mix in just a few short days.

A recent study involving African Americans who swapped their meat-heavy, highly processed diet for a diet typical of African foods rich in beans and vegetables saw a positive change in gut bacteria within just two weeks. And the reverse swap saw that when rural Africans switched to a typical American diet, their microbe profile was more in line with one known to be associated with a higher risk of colon cancer.

Two weeks is a short time, but long enough to make changes to the microbe population that can reduce your risk of disease. But to make the changes permanent you have to keep eating your new healthier diet. Revert back to your previous way of eating and your gut bugs will also revert back to their previous profile.

Stick to the better food choices and you’ll reap the benefits of a healthier, more balanced and diverse range of gut microbes. To do this, approach it is a long-term game where you make small changes and healthy food swaps over many weeks to months to make the changes sustainable. Something as simple as eating two pieces of fruit each day and opting for whole grain foods over more refined grains is a great way to start. Then look at adding in more of the variety of prebiotic foods available to us. Think of it as feeding not only yourself, but your own unique collection of gut bugs, too.

And what better way to feed your gut with cake… or muffins rather! These Apple Cheddar Cornbread Cups using our prebiotic muesli are the perfect way to start you on your journey. Click here for the recipe!


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