The food you put into your body not only satisfies your taste buds – it also nourishes the trillions of organisms that live in your gut. If you eat the right things, you’ll reap the rewards for physical and mental health, and feeding your gut the wrong things may actually harm the little creatures that live in your digestive tract.
The idea of microorganisms living in your tummy might sound a little unsettling, but it’s beneficial — aka the good bacteria. In case you didn’t know, gut bacteria help your body digest food and thus absorb the nutrients you need. Not only that, but digestive health plays an important role in immune function and even mental health.
We spoke with registered dietitians—Tamara Freeman, a registered dietitian at New York Gastroenterology Associates and author of the upcoming book, Normal—and Alyssa LaVey, owner of Alyssa LaVey Nutrition & Wellness, a private practice focused on digestive health—about the importance of gut health and the best foods to fuel your microbiome.
What is gut health?
The term “gut health” is trending on social media, but you might be surprised to learn that there is no real definition for the phrase. When experts discuss gut health, they usually refer to the microbiome or the trillions of microorganisms in the gut that have an impact on overall health.
“The composition and health of the gut microbiota is linked to a variety of health conditions, both digestive and otherwise,” says Ducker-Freumann. “[Poor gut health] It is associated with an increased risk of inflammatory bowel diseases, gastrointestinal cancers (particularly colon cancer), and conditions such as weakness, mood disorders, and metabolic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease,” Ducker-Freumann adds. On the contrary, it may A healthy gut reduces the likelihood of developing chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and cardiovascular disease.
How do you make sure you have a healthy gut?
There are several ways to control the composition of your gut microbiome, including what you do and don’t eat. “The American Gut Project, the largest study that looked at the human microbiome, found that increased plant diversity within the diet was associated with increased microbial diversity,” says LaVey. Research indicates that more diverse microbes are more resilient and stable. Conversely, diets high in ultra-processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats have been linked to a lower gut diversity and favored bacteria that is highly associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that the best foods for gut health are plant-based and low in saturated fat and sugar. But Docker-Freumann asserts, “It’s the habitual consumption of these foods that promotes gut health; eating beans once in a blue moon doesn’t have a magical transformative effect on gut health.”
According to nutritionists, you should regularly fill your plate with these 8 types of food to build a healthy gut.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate known for its role in keeping the digestive system moving. There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble fibre. Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into a gel during digestion. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to the stool and helps food pass through the digestive tract. Both types of fiber are essential components of the diet and contribute to good gut health.
Fiber is found in a wide variety of plant foods, and is especially powerful in:
- Vegetables, especially broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, potatoes with the skin on and turnips
- pulses (beans, lentils, peas)
- Fruits, especially pears with skin, apples with skin and berries
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole grains, such as brown rice, farro, barley, quinoa and wheat
Two plant foods that contain notable fiber include:
Oats are known for their soluble fiber, which can improve stool consistency and bowel regularity. “They also contain beta-glucan, which is a type of soluble fiber that is thought to reduce cholesterol,” says LaVey. A review of the research claims that eating oats increases the number of bacteria in the gut, reduces intestinal permeability and leads to more inflammatory-fighting short-chain fatty acids.
This delicious green fruit contains vitamin C, potassium, and 2 grams of fiber per kiwi. In addition to fiber, kiwi contains another compound that may help keep you regular. Recent research shows [kiwi] It may be helpful in improving motility and stool consistency, which is likely due to actinidin, an enzyme found in the fruit,” LaVey says.
Probiotics are microorganisms that live in the gut and may have health benefits. The most common types of probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. They develop during the fermentation process that occurs when making foods like tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha. Microbes are also added to milk to break down the lactose sugar into lactic acid.
The following foods are rich in probiotics:
Yogurt / kefir
Have you ever noticed that one of the ingredients in yogurt are “live active cultures”? This is the live bacteria that ferments the milk product to produce yogurt or its familiar refreshing cousin, kefir. “Fermented foods contain their own unique and diverse microbial populations, which can have transient health benefits as they pass through our guts on their way out the proverbial back door,” says Docker-Freumann. Additionally, research has found that fermentation can lead to the release of bioactive peptides (Organic substances), which may reduce cholesterol.
Sauerkraut and kimchi
Each of these tangy condiments is made from cabbage fermented in a savory mixture. The end result is a crunchy topping that’s perfect for sandwiches, french fries, and more. Both sauerkraut and kimchi contain probiotics that increase immune response and reduce inflammation. Not to mention, a study in mice suggests that the probiotics in kimchi may help treat inflammatory bowel disease, but more research is needed.
If you’ve never had tempeh before, say hello to one of your new favorite plant-based proteins. Tempeh is a fermented soybean product that is mixed with a grain – usually rice – and formed into a solid mass. It’s easy to slice, season, and cook, and it’s also packed with probiotics. Research on tempeh is limited, but one study suggests that eating this soy product increases beneficial bacteria in the gut. Another interesting study gave elderly participants tempeh-derived probiotics in supplement form for 12 weeks. Researchers found that one of the probiotics in tempeh increased memory, language, and spatial awareness in participants.
Prebiotics are fibers that feed the microbes in the gut. Consuming this probiotic fiber helps the intestines to thrive and grow. Fortunately, they are found in many plant foods, including beans, artichokes, garlic, onions, asparagus, barley, and wheat bran.
Here are three distinguishing features rich in prebiotics:
“Beans support healthy gut microbes specifically through prebiotic fiber, which feeds certain microbes that produce short-chain fatty acids,” says Docker-Freumann. “These short-chain fatty acids lower the pH of the colon, which plays a role in preventing colon cancer, and they also inhibit disease-causing bacteria,” adds Ducker-Freumann. In addition, recent research suggests that some types of beans may also improve the integrity of the intestinal barrier, which prevents bacteria from getting too close to the inner layers of the intestinal wall and triggering immune cells. Not to mention, beans are affordable and very versatile.
Artichokes are also rich in prebiotic fiber, which “selectively nourishes the health-promoting members of our microbiota, including species in the genus Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria,” says Ducker-Freumann. She adds that these microbes induce intestinal cells to secrete mucus, which improves mucosal barrier function. They also produce short chain fatty acids, which promote an anti-inflammatory environment throughout the gut.
It’s time to stop avoiding these starchy fruits, which are good for gut health. Not only are bananas packed with potassium, a nutrient that lowers blood pressure, but they are also known to treat constipation. Bananas contain prebiotic fiber and resistant starch, which is a type of carbohydrate that is absorbed slowly in the large intestine and leads to fermentation.
“It makes more sense to think of holistic dietary patterns for good gut health rather than specific foods,” says Ducker-Freumann. In other words, these foods are great for gut health but you don’t need to try to limit yourself to them. Just incorporate it into your meal plan.
Duker Freuman also points out that a varied diet full of plant-based foods is best for your overall gut health, so choose the high-fiber foods you enjoy most. “It’s your consistent, regular eating habits that promote long-term gut health, and there are no short cuts here,” says Docker-Freumann.