Every bite you take, every meal you eat, feeds the approximately 100 trillion bacteria in the gut and other organs. Throughout the last decade, there has been a deluge of new research and theories about how these microbes that inhabit our gut microbiome affect everything from whether we are getting healthy sleep to staving off heart disease to maintaining our mental health. We now know that our intestinal flora affects how our bodies process food, how our immune system functions, and how our bodies regulate inflammation.
These hard-working little good gut bacteria aren’t just hanging around in our digestive system, doing nothing. They are helping it digest fiber and help change it into a source of energy that our bodies can utilize vitamins, crowd out bad bacteria, and make the molecules that help our gut function.
Close to 1,000 bacterial strains live in our intestines. But, we don’t all have the same mix of microbes in our internal microbiome. Each is as unique as our fingerprints, with different bacterial strains in different amounts. Factors such as genetics, age, environment, and the type of birth (cesarean vs. vaginal) play a role in shaping our microbiome. One of the most crucial factors influencing gut health is diet.
3 Ways to Eat to Improve Gut Health
Our knowledge of how the human microbiome works is still very limited. But what we do know is that keeping your gut healthy is one of the best things you can do to achieve and maintain optimal health. Below are three ways you can eat to improve your gut health.
Eat a Wide Variety of Fiber-Rich Whole Foods
Eat a wide variety of fiber-rich, plant-based foods every day, such as whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruit, and vegetables. While eating meat may not be bad for your gut, eating a vegan diet could be the key to a healthy gut. This doesn’t mean you have to stop eating meat completely, but that incorporating more plant-based meals into your diet can help improve your gut health.
Staying away from processed foods, especially if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can help calm stomach issues. In addition to causing inflammation, skin issues, and weight gain, processed foods can trigger IBS.
Add Prebiotic Foods to Your Diet
Prebiotic foods are rich in the type of fiber that helps good gut bacteria thrive. This makes your digestive system work better.
Prebiotic foods include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains such as:
- Leafy greens
Prebiotics are carbs that your stomach can’t digest. They remain in your digestive tract where they feed the healthy gut bacteria grow. Without prebiotics, the probiotics in your gut suffer.
Eat More Fermented Foods
Fermented foods get their distinctive tang from lactic acid-producing bacteria that survive the journey through your digestive tract and help populate your gut. These foods are not exactly probiotics. They can help keep your digestive system healthy.
Yogurt with active cultures is a common source of probiotics, but there are many other delicious options you may not have realized are fermented or may not have tried. Experience the power of kimchi or other fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut pickles, try kombucha tea, unpasteurized miso, and tempeh (fermented soybean cake).
Be sure to choose kimchi or pickles from the refrigerated section of your grocery store to ensure they contain live bacteria. Shelf-stable versions have been heated, and this kills the good bacteria your gut needs.
How Our Diet Affects Our Gut
Researchers have uncovered important differences in the gut bacteria of formula-fed babies and breastfed babies. In addition, our gut microbiome undergoes a dramatic shift with the introduction of solid food, and somewhere between 2-3 years of age, our gut flora has become more similar to that of adults.
In addition, different gut bacteria species thrive on different types of food, so our diet alters our gut microbiome. For instance, research shows that the average Western diet, high in fat and protein, has more bacteria in the Bacteroides genus. And a high-fiber, high-carbohydrate common in traditional rural populations have more Prevotella bacteria in the gut.
It’s early days in microbiome research, and although there are theories, scientists haven’t definitively established what a healthy gut pattern is, or if one even exists. The evidence indicates that the more unique bacterial strains present in your gut – the more diverse the gut microbiome – the more protection it may give you.
Low gut microbiome diversity has been connected to insulin resistance, obesity, heart disease, and gastrointestinal disorders. Adding more fiber to your diet may be one of the best things you can do to create a more diverse gut microbiome since diets high in fruits, vegetables, and other fiber-rich foods have been associated with more unique bacteria strains in the gut.
Boost Your Gut Health with Diet
Changing up our diet for a few meals can temporarily change our gut microbiome, but if we return to our regular eating patterns, so does our gut microbiome. It takes more than a few meals to establish new bacterial strains. This means you’ll have to stick with eating more higher-fiber food long-term if you want to permanently change your gut microbiome and enhance the diversity of bacteria in your gut.
Fortunately, eating a more plant-based diet is in line with general healthy eating recommendations. It is associated with numerous other benefits, including lower cholesterol levels, decreased blood pressure, and reduced risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and other chronic conditions. Isn’t it nice when nutrition advice overlaps?
Right now, we don’t know enough about our microbiome to make precise dietary recommendations. Sticking to a high-fiber, low-fat diet based on whole foods, fruits, and vegetables can help create a more varied gut microbiome by powering up beneficial bacteria.
Bottom line: Pile on the fiber and give the bacteria in your gut something to be happy about.