You are what you eat.
More accurately, you are what you feed the trillions of gut bacteria residing in your intestines.
There are approximately 40 trillion bacteria in our body, most of which call our intestines home. Known as gut microbiome, they weigh up to 5 pounds and act as another organ that is hugely important to our health. These cells affect our body from birth, controlling the digestion of our food, our immune system, heart health, and brain function.
The food we eat has a great impact on the diversity of gut bacteria (high microbiome diversity is good) and can be a key indicator of good health. Here are six ways food can be used to help improve your gut bacteria:
Minimally Processed Whole Foods
There are many types of bacteria in our intestines, each one playing a diverse role and requiring different nutrients to flourish. Due to this, eating a wide variety of minimally processed whole foods will lead to more diverse microbiome, which will improve gut bacteria and often times greater health benefits.
Eat Your Veggies (and legumes, beans, and fruit)
These foods are all known to be excellent sources of fiber.
Fiber isn’t actually digested by our body. While that may seem surprising, fiber plays an even more important role in the proper functioning of our GI tract: when digested by certain bacteria in our gut, it stimulates growth of important gut bacteria.
But before you load up on fiber one bars, here is a short list of high-fiber foods that are actually good for our gut:
Beans (the best sources are kidney, pinto, or white)
Whole Grains (such as oatmeal or brown rice)
If this reminds you of the least favorite food you were forced to consume at dinnertime as a kid, you are likely not alone. But your parents were on the right track with serving you a food that was so good for your GI tract.
Fermented foods (like sauerkraut) are rich in a type of bacteria that can benefit our health while at the same time REDUCE the amount of disease and inflammation causing bacteria.
Some good fermented food choices include:
Yogurt (as long as it is PLAIN – flavored kinds are loaded with sugar)
Kombucha (like yogurt, watch the added sugar contained in a lot of kombucha beverages)
Avoid Artificial Sugars
Let’s circle back to that fiber one bar. This is just one example of a packaged food that contains added fiber. The problem with this and many other highly processed foods that are marketed as “high fiber” is that they trick consumers into eating a food full of sugar and artificial ingredients that have been striped from any sort of nutritional value.
What’s more, artificial sweeteners can be detrimental to our valuable gut microbiota. Your best bet: stick to minimally processed whole foods for your source of fiber.
Don’t Forget Prebiotics
Not to be confused with PRObiotics, which contain live organisms that directly add to gut microbiome; prebiotics are critical substances from types of carbs (again, mostly fiber). You can read more on these differences HERE. Like fiber, humans also can’t digest prebiotics, but rather they are eaten by the good bacteria in our intestines, stimulating growth. This is important because foods high in prebiotics may help reduce the symptoms of metabolic syndrome in obese people. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good sources of prebiotics.
Drink (a Little) Red Wine
Yes, that wasn’t a typo. Red wine (along with dark chocolate, grape skins, green tea, almonds, blueberries, and broccoli) are polyphenols, micronutrients we get from plant based foods. These can help reduce blood pressure, inflammation, and cholesterol, but since they often aren’t able to be digested by human cells, they are processed by our gut bacteria.
DISCLAIMER: While a MODERATE amount (about 5 oz) of red wine may provide health benefits, consuming too much alcohol of ANY kind contains a lot of extra calories and could cause dependence. Your best bet is to stick to 1 glass a day, and take a few days off from alcohol altogether a week.
The bottom line: gut bacteria is extremely important to our health and our ability to function well while avoiding chronic disease. The best way to keep it happy and healthy is to feed it a wide variety of nutrient dense, minimally processed whole foods.