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You Are What You Eat: Nutrition and Gut Health

"Gut health" is a trending topic in the nutrition and wellness world lately, and as registered dietitians, we're here to give you all the facts.


What does it mean to have good or bad gut health?


We have trillions of microscopic organisms - a.k.a. bacteria - living throughout our digestive tract. You may have heard these referred to as 'gut microbes' or the 'gut microbiome'.

These microbes are mostly bacteria, but they are not the bad kind. In fact, we need these microbes to help digest our food, produce certain vitamins, boost our immune system, and create new cells for healthy growth and development. The types of bacteria that are linked with health benefits have been named 'probiotics.' When we have healthy gut microbes, the rest of our body can thrive!

What causes the gut to become unhealthy?

Many factors can influence the health of our gut microbes, especially diet and lifestyle. Different microbes thrive based on the types of foods we eat. A diet low in fiber and high in refined sugar and saturated fat (like the typical American diet) can stifle the growth of beneficial gut microbes. Ultra-processed convenience foods are high in refined sugars, saturated fat, and salt, all of which contribute to poor gut health.

Antibiotics are used to treat infections of harmful bacteria, but they can also kill good bacteria in the process, negatively affecting gut health. Antibiotics are life-saving medications, but we should work to optimize gut health before and after use to mitigate the negative effects. Excessive alcohol consumption causes inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, which damages the environment where microbes grow. Psychological or physical stress can also cause inflammation that is harmful to gut bacteria.


How can I improve my gut health?

Dietary fiber is necessary for healthy microbes to grow and thrive. Fiber can be found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. The typical American diet is notoriously low in fiber - no wonder we have gut problems! Aim to eat at least 20-30 grams of fiber daily to give your gut microbes the fuel to keep them happy and healthy.

Some types of fiber are exceptionally good for our gut - these are called prebiotics. Prebiotics can be found in asparagus, bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, jicama, and Jerusalem artichokes. Probiotics can also be very beneficial to increase the population of good bacteria living in the gut. (More on this later!)

Limit the amount of highly processed foods you consume. Sugary foods, fried foods, processed meats, and many packaged convenience foods contribute to an unhealthy gut. Additionally, limit alcohol consumption and reduce stress to reduce inflammation and keep your gut bacteria healthy.


What about probiotics?

Probiotics are live bacteria cultures that are found in fermented foods and probiotic supplements. Probiotics are the good types of microbes that have health benefits, and you can increase the population living in your gut when you eat probiotic foods. Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, Greek yogurt, cultured cottage cheese, and kombucha are all great options to incorporate daily to increase probiotics in your diet. Probiotic supplements are also an option, but you should ask your registered dietitian what types and brands would be best for you. Remember that probiotics need prebiotics to thrive, so make sure you are eating adequate fiber to allow the probiotics to flourish.

The saying, “You are what you eat” is especially true for gut microbes. Different types of bacteria thrive based on what we eat. Choose foods that will optimize gut health, limit the ones that don’t, and your entire body - including the trillions of microbes - will thank you!

 

References

1. Bishehsari, F., Magno, E., Swanson, G., Desai, V., Voigt, R. M., Forsyth, C. B., & Keshavarzian, A. (2017). Alcohol and Gut-Derived Inflammation. Alcohol research : current reviews, 38(2), 163–171.

2. Madison, A., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2019). Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: Human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 28, 105–110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2019.01.011

3. Thursby, E., & Juge, N. (2017). Introduction to the human gut microbiota. Biochemical Journal, 474(11), 1823–1836. https://doi.org/10.1042/bcj20160510

4. Zhang, Y.-J., Li, S., Gan, R.-Y., Zhou, T., Xu, D.-P., & Li, H.-B. (2015). Impacts of gut bacteria on human health and diseases. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 16(12), 7493–7519.https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms16047493


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