Having a healthy gut is one of the secrets to living a happier life.
The human gastrointestinal tract, often referred to as the “gut,” is home to about 100 trillion bacteria plus other microorganisms collectively known as the gut microbiota. The mix of these microorganisms determines how well we digest our food, absorb nutrients, fight intestinal infections, and much more.
The gut also affects the digestive problems we might experience after eating — like wind, constipation, diarrhoea, especially for people with functional gut disorders or diseases, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome(IBS). Research is now starting to show how gut health can influence other health conditions such as mental health conditions, heart disease and diabetes. So, having a healthy gut really can impact how you experience life.
Your gut microbiota is affected by a range of factors, including your:
- Age or life stage (i.e. pregnancy)
- Location (rural vs urban)
- Environmental factors (i.e. cigarette smoke)
- Medications (especially antibiotics).
The good news is that you can look after your gut microbiota by looking to include certain foods in your diet.
We spoke to Tina Yan, a gut health researcher and PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia.
Tina is carrying out research looking into a specialised formula of dietary fibre and the influence on gut microbiota, sleep and mental health in people with medically diagnosed IBS and following a low FODMAP diet. Go here to read more.
Here are five types of foods she recommended:
1. Include Whole-Grains
Dietary fibre is part of plant-derived foods which can’t be completely digested. Fibre can be broadly classified as soluble or insoluble and both have an important role to play in gut health. Including plenty of plant foods and choosing unrefined varieties will help you consume adequate dietary fibre to support a healthy gut.
Choose to eat:
- Brown or wild rice
- Bread packed with wholegrains.
2. Include a variety of fruit and vegetables
The “Go for 2 & 5” message is an oldie but a goodie. Fruit and vegetables are naturally high in dietary fibre and different types will have different types of fibre. Think of this as providing your gut with a balanced diet. Fruit and vegetables are also high in vitamins, minerals and other compounds called phytonutrients which are absorbed throughout the gut.
Choose to eat:
- A variety of colourful vegetables
- Leafy green and cruciferous vegetables (such as spinach, kale and broccoli, Brussels sprouts)
- Legumes/pulses (such as chickpeas, kidney beans and lentils)
- A variety of fresh fruit (choose whole fruit rather than juices).
3. Foods with resistant starches
Resistant starch is a component of dietary fibre. Some foods are naturally high in this and other foods can have the content increased by cooking and allowing to cool before eating.
Resistant starch “resists” being broken down in the small intestine, so it slips right through to your large intestine. Resistant starch is fermented in the large intestine and can produce short chain fatty acid, such as butyrate, which is great fuel source for the gut lining. A healthy gut lining means better ability to protect against cancer and other digestive problems. After promising findings in animal studies, further research is needed to establish whether butyrate also has a positive influence on reducing abdominal fat and improving sleep patterns.
Choose to eat:
- Pulses/legumes (eg. Kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils)
- Nuts and seeds
- Green bananas and plantains
- Cooked and cooled potatoes*
- Cooked and cooled rice or pasta*
- *Make sure to cool food in the fridge and eat within 2-3 days.
4. Fermented foods
Sorry folks, we’re not talking about beer here. Fermenting foods has been used to preserve foods for years and there are examples from several countries around the world. More research in randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are needed to uncover which foods, which bacteria strains or which metabolites may provide health benefits. In saying that, the examples of fermented foods below also assist in consuming foods which are suitable to include daily so the potential benefits might be worth the switch.
Choose to eat:
- Fermented milk such as pot set yoghurt or kefir
- Fermented tea such as kombucha
- Fermented cabbage such as kimchi or sauerkraut
- Fermented soy products such as tempeh, natto and miso
- Sourdough bread.*
*Sourdough bread doesn’t contain living bacteria, but the longer fermentation time prior to baking can break down some poorly digested carbohydrates and make it more digestible for some people.
5. Eat plenty of fish
Fish is abundant in Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids, which our bodies need but don’t produce for themselves. Omega 3 increases bacteria that produce anti-inflammatory chemicals in the gut and have been linked to protecting us against diseases like bowel cancer, diabetes and depression.
Aim to have around 150 g of fish 2-3 times per week. Plant sources of omega-3 are not as potent but include walnuts, quinoa and flaxseeds.
Remember, when making changes to fibre in your diet this is best done slowly so your gut can adjust. Increasing fibre too quickly may cause painful wind, diarrhoea or constipation.
“What you feed your gut can determine your mood, your sleep, your stress response — it really does act like your second brain — so it’s really important to fuel your gut with beneficial food,” she said.