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Did you know that your gut bacteria has a profound affect on your overall well-being? Well it does, which is why looking after it, is an essential attribute of what you chew.
The billions of bacteria (about 1.5kg) that live inside our bodies are called the microbiome – we all develop different microbial communities depending upon our genes, diets and any other bacteria we come into contact with. Over 95% of our bacteria live in our gut, mainly in our large intestine. Together they help regulate our immune system, our weight, and can also affect our mood.
Unfortunately, many of us do not have a healthy gut microbiome. In the short term, the implications of this are not too much really, mainly because it leads to things like food intolerances, but doesn’t kill you.
However over the long term, the implications of generalised inflammation are more serious and can lead to an increased risk of developing a host of chronic diseases including; type II diabetes, obesity, asthma, and so forth. It also leads to the not so obvious inflammatory bowel diseases including colitis, chrone’s and different types of cancer. And we see this reflected in the explosion of chronic disease rates the world over.
So why do many of us have such unhealthy guts? There are lots of reasons, but much of it has to do with what you eat…
The problem with processed foods:
To look after our gut microbiome, we really need to do two main things:
a) Maintain a diverse array of bacteria in our gut. Tasty, interesting, varied food is the way to go.
b) Eat foods which end up in our large intestine – You need to have the fibre to feed the bacteria.
Unfortunately, in today’s fast paced and ever time poor way of living, processed foods seem to have replaced a healthy and balanced diet. Here’s the problem; if we are eating processed foods, then;
a) We are not feeding our microbes, so our gut ecosystem becomes less diverse. This is because most processed foods are all the same – high in sugar, salt, artificial colours, flavours, preservatives and contain no beneficial bacteria. It’s essentially dead food. And,
b) Processed or sugary foods are usually absorbed into the body before they even make it to the large intestine, meaning they starve our healthy gut bacteria whilst feeding the bad bacteria.
How to look after your gut:
Your microbiome somewhat settled within the first 3 years of life, and broadly speaking you inherent it from your mum. The good news is that you can change what lives in your gut and you do this by changing what you eat. There are lots of foods which provide the nutrients which those little microbes need.
Pre-biotics vs Pro-biotics:
Whilst they may sound the same, they are different. So what is the difference between the two?
Prebiotics are simply the food source for probiotics. Probiotics are good live bacteria and yeasts essential for our health – especially gut health. Therefore prebiotics are needed for probiotics to flourish.
Foods high in dietary fibre are the best prebiotics – these include things like leeks, onions, garlic, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes and chicory root.
Foods high in resistant starch are also great for your gut. Resistant starch can’t be digested by your body and becomes food for your gut bacteria. It is found in starchy plant foods such as beans/legumes and rice, fruits such as bananas and vegetables such as potatoes.
Ensure to introduce any of these foods into your diet slowly, as they may cause bloating and gas in the beginning. You may also need to drink more water (about 2ltrs per day on average) if you are consuming more fibre. As a rule, you should be aiming to get around 25grams of fibre per day, and most Australians are about half of that – with many below 5 grams per day.
In regards to probiotics, the best forms are fermented (or cultured) foods. In-fact, fermented foods actually contain both pre and pro-biotics making them synbiotic – meaning the prebiotic specifically acts on the probiotic present. Some of the most common and best fermented foods include:
Yoghurt – which is fermented milk with lactic acid bacteria.
Kefir – is a probiotic beverage made with grains or a starter culture which is usually added to either dairy, coconut or rice milk, and even coconut water.
Sauerkraut – is finely cut cabbage which has been fermented in a brine made of its own juice with salt.
Kombucha – is a fermented probiotic drink, made from tea, sugar and a scoby (synbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). Kombucha is fast becoming super popular, especially with the hipsters and for good reason. It’s easy to make, delicious and packed full of goodness. It’s something I drink all of the time!
Other great fermented foods include things like;
Kimchi – a fermented vegetable product from Korea.
Miso and Natto (Japanese), as well as Tempeh (Indonesian) and are all fermented soy products.
Probiotics are also available in pill or capsule form, however natural sources are always best.
The best diet for improving gut bacteria:
I often get asked, is there just a simple diet I can follow to help me improve my gut bacteria? And the answer is yes, just as long as you can stick to it over the long term. There is no one diet that fits all but the Mediterranean diet is still the best for gut bacteria – and not one which is rich in pizza and pasta but rather one which has whole grains, vegetables, legumes, oily fish, red wine, yoghurt, seeds, and so on. Then you can just throw in some of the best of the fermented foods which I just mentioned.
Some diets which promote intermittent fasting have also been shown to promote great intestinal health. This would typically involve eating normally for five days a week, then restricting your calorie intake to 500–600 calories on the other two days.
No one diet fits all – everyone is different:
Each person reacts uniquely and differently when eating the exact same foods, so whilst this is great general advice, always consult professional medical advice when making any changes to your diet. In the future, you will be able to get a personalised diet to restore your microbe/gut bacteria, but for now the best advice I can give you is to eat the above foods and a wide variety at that. Also, try to choose organic where possible, but I’ll talk more about that another time.
The take home message:
What is clear is that an awful lot of diseases and other conditions where the body is effectively attacking itself, have all dramatically risen over the past 50 years or so and continue to do so at an alarming rate. And this is largely because our guts are not as full of the right sort of microbes as they once were.
But the good news is that many of these diseases and conditions can be avoided simply by looking after your gut bacteria. And as an added bonus, all of the good foods which feed your gut microbes, are also associated with slimness, meaning if you eat them, then you are less likely to put on weight – something which most of us need a helping hand with today.
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So tell me, have you tried using any pre or probiotic foods and have they assisted you to overcome any health issues?