From my last blog post Why Gut Health is Good Health, you’ll know a healthy gut is critical to good health, disease prevention and chronic illness management. That’s because our gut is responsible for the digestion and absorption of essential nutrients, for our immunity, and for our physical and emotional wellbeing. This vital work is orchestrated by our gut microbiome: a delicate balance of trillions of tiny microbes inhabiting the length of our gut.
While taking regular exercise, getting enough sleep and managing stress all play a role, there are important dietary steps you can take to optimise your gut microbiome.
1. Focus on fibre
Soluble fibres and resistant starch are a great source of energy for your good gut bacteria to feed on. Many of these are classified as prebiotics, as they are proven to benefit your health indirectly, through the stimulation and growth of good bacterial species. Good sources of prebiotics include:
- Vegetables (e.g. Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, garlic, onion, leeks, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel, cabbage, green peas and sweetcorn)
- Legumes (e.g. soybeans, chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans)
- Fruit (e.g. apples, nectarines, white peaches, watermelon, grapefruit, pomegranate and dried fruits)
- Nuts (e.g. cashews and pistachios)
Just remember, as you increase your fibre intake, drink more water too, or you may end up feeling a little bunged up.
2. Choose fats wisely
The quality and quantity of the fat you eat could have an effect on your gastrointestinal ecosystem. Experimental studies show a diet high in fats, particularly saturated fats, reduce good gut bacteria while increasing bad gut bacteria. Conversely, a lower fat diet, or one that is high in unsaturated fats (especially from fish oils) was found to increase beneficial bacterial species.
3. Favour plant proteins
Some preliminary evidence suggests that moderating your intake of animal protein in favour of plant-based proteins could make a difference to your gut microbiome. A high intake of animal proteins has been found to negatively impact the composition of the gut flora, when compared to plant-based proteins, such as soy, legumes, nuts and seeds. Whether this is strictly due to the protein composition, or their association with different types of fats and carbohydrate sources, remains to be seen with further research. Regardless, if you favour plant-based proteins, you’ll be improving your gut health and doing your bit for the environment at the same time.
4. Consider probiotics
Probiotics are live, friendly bacteria taken orally, that survive the digestion process to populate your gut. They have shown real promise in modulating the gut microbiome and, in turn, influencing health outcomes. By promoting beneficial gut bacteria, they can indirectly increase the production of anti-inflammatory markers, which is particularly relevant in chronic inflammatory conditions. While further research is needed to better understand efficacy of different bacterial species and optimal dosing, they are generally regarded as safe and could well be worth a go. Probiotics are also naturally present in some fermented foods, so you can boost your intake by consuming live yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, miso, tempeh and pickles (e.g. gherkins).
5. Fill up on polyphenols
Dietary polyphenols might be hard to say, but they are well known for their antioxidant properties. In addition to protecting us from oxidative stress, they promote the growth of friendly bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. And, as if by magic, nature packages these little beauties in some of the best tasting healthy foods you can find: fruits, vegetables, seeds, tea, cocoa, and even wine. Herbs and spices, such as oregano, black pepper, cayenne pepper, ginger, rosemary and fenugreek are rich in phenolic compounds. They also exhibiting prebiotic potential, by selectively stimulating good bacterial species. Why not spice up your life and your gut health with some of these delicious, antioxidant polyphenols!
In summary, for us to optimise our gut microbiome, all the evidence – once again – highlights the need for us to move away from our typical Western diet, high in refined carbohydrates, processed meats and saturated animal fats, in favour of a balanced and diverse diet, packed with fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, with some probiotics and polyphenols thrown in for good measure. Delish!