Foods for a Healthy Gut
Healthy eating is an ongoing debate. It seems that every week ‘experts’ contradict themselves by telling us that last week’s superfood is this week’s no-go. But one constant remains in their advice: their recommendations are always aimed at boosting the health of our hearts and brains. But what about our guts? Poor gastrointestinal health has huge implications on our weight, mood and immune systems, so surely it’s crucial to have a tip-top tummy?
The good news is that achieving a happy, healthy and trim stomach is done through food. That’s right; eating can help you lose weight! But not just that, consuming the correct food will also boost your immunity and help you stave off a plethora of fatal illnesses.
The crux of it all is that the food you consume needs to aid digestion and promote the growth and development of ‘friendly bacteria’ in the gut. By doing these two things, you can boost your metabolism (leading to weight loss), reduce inflammation of the gut and fight diseases more effectively.
There are two types of food that you will need to achieve a healthy gut: ‘Prebiotic’ and ‘Probiotic’. Both effectively ‘feed’ the friendly bacteria in our gut, but probiotics go one step further by delivering our resident gut bacteria a fresh ‘shipment’ of transient bacteria. All of this creates a healthy and diverse ‘ecology’ in our gastric systems, which promotes health and wellbeing.
Katherine Tallmadge, author of Simple Diet states that ‘Research is finding that a healthy microbiome may play a role in reducing inflammation, a risk factor involved in illnesses ranging from colds to cancer, heart disease, arthritis and cognitive decline. In addition, the bacteria may help to burn body fat and reduce insulin resistance.’1
In order to stay slim and healthy, you may want to consider more prebiotic and probiotic foods in your diet. The list is not extensive, but we will show you a few to start you on the right path.
The foods we will recommend here have been collated through our own research. As non-medical professionals, we would like to emphasise that these suggestions are merely a reflection of our findings. For tailored health advice, specific to your needs, we would always recommend that you speak to your doctor or a certified nutritionist.
When you first read the words ‘friendly bacteria’ in this article, we would hazard a guess that a large percentage of you automatically thought of probiotic yoghurt. In recent years, the health benefits of live yoghurt cultures have been, thankfully, extolled. The general public are now savvy with the concept of drinking or eating live cultures in order to boost their health. Whichever type of yoghurt you opt for, make sure that the label does say ‘live active cultures’.
If you are lactose intolerant, certain soy yoghurts and soy milks also boast live active cultures. Many of these products are fortified with calcium and vitamin D and are alternative sources of good bacteria for vegans. For even more variety, you could try almond milk or coconut milk, which are also rich in probiotics.
Whilst some yoghurt with live cultures is better than none, more than often shop-bought yoghurts are not ideal. Many are high in sugar and fats. The bacteria in these yoghurts are often heat-killed too and then some bacteria is added back in, so the yoghurt is actually weaker in friendly bacteria content. But there is a solution to this: Make the yoghurt yourself! ‘Kefir’, as it is known, is easy to make (watch this video to find out how: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHJpJ23iaSc) and is far richer in bacteria. It’s also 99% lactose free, so is kinder for intolerant tummies to consume. You can of course buy kefir from most supermarkets, in the form of probiotic drinks.
Did you know that the average age expectancy in Japan is 83? Their western counterparts, namely the UK and USA, have age expectancy rates of 81 and 78 respectively, so what are the Japanese doing differently? Although it’s not completely proven, many experts agree that diet is the key difference and suggests that a gut-healthy diet will not only help you lose weight, it can also prolong your life. There are several ‘Asian flavours’ on our list, but the first we will tackle is ‘miso’.
Made from fermented soybeans, miso paste is bursting with probiotics. There are a variety of different types of miso available, all differing in taste, which are low in fat and calories and can be used in soups, stir-fry’s and as glazes for simple fish and chicken dishes. Miso is also rich in protein, fibre and vitamin K- so all in all it’s a winner! You can buy miso online or from most Asian supermarkets. Some larger, mainstream, supermarkets are starting to stock it too, so keep your eyes peeled in the ‘International’ section.
Sharon Palmer, author of Plant-Powered Life says that ‘While we need to more research about how these types of fermented foods contribute to health, it’s a good idea to start to introduce more of them into your diet.’1 One warning though: Miso is high in sodium, so be careful not to exceed your daily limits and be extra careful if you suffer from high blood pressure.
Sticking with the Asian theme, we move slightly west to Korea and to one of our favourite dishes: Kimchi. This spiced cabbage is a Korean staple and is packed full of vitamin C. The lactic acid based fermentation process makes this dish a gut-boosting must. It’s also delicious and can be used in soups, a flavoursome addition to bland rice and vegetables or even as an accompaniment to meat. You can make your own, but we would recommend sourcing pre-maid kimchi at your local Asian supermarket or Korean restaurant.
They may be over 5,000 miles apart, but evidently the Germans had the same idea as the Koreans when it came to cabbage. Normally found atop of a not-so-healthy hotdog, sauerkraut is fermented in the same way as kimchi and can be great for boosting the friendly bacteria in your gut. However, there is a huge difference between fresh sauerkraut and the pre-packed product found in a vinegar solution. For the most probiotic power go for the fresh option.
6. Tempeh and Natto
Back to Asia, but this time to Indonesia. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and grains and then moulded into a cake like shape and inoculated with beneficial bacteria, which gives it a slightly mushroom/meaty taste. This can then be cut into slices and eaten in a variety of ways. It’s rich in protein and iron and is, or course, great for your gut! An alternative to this is the Japanese ‘Natto’, which is similar but does not have the added bacteria and is slightly gooey in texture. The medical benefits for both these fermented soy products has become widely recognised, and include the prevention of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, osteoporosis and digestive disorders.
Back to something recognisable on the list! Gherkins (known as a ‘pickles’ in North America) are simply a pickled cucumbers. In their own right, the crunchy cucumber is a generally regarded as a healthy food, but pickling it ramps up its effectiveness. Pickling cucumbers, and many other vegetables, such as carrots, beetroot and green beans, encourages good bacteria to develop. I would recommend pickling your own veggies though, so that you know exactly what is going into the pickling solution. It’s easy enough to do: Simply use water, salt and spices to naturally culture your chosen vegetable. Delicious as a side dish, or a beneficial addition to a homemade burger (for those treat days!) However, once again, go easy on the salt intake, especially if you have high blood pressure.
8. Leafy Greens
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, but leafy greens are good for you! Aside from the iron and vitamins they provide, they are also excellent at growing the micro-biome within your gut and encouraging increased metabolism. All leafs have different benefits, but all are generally beneficial to your gut. So listen to your mother and eat up your greens!
9. Berries and Fruit
According to Dr. Gerard Mullin, ‘The Food MD’, ‘when you think about foods that are good for your gut, you think about foods that are fibrous.’ One of his top choices are berries. He says ‘They’re loaded with fibre, so help to feed the good bacteria.’1 They also contain anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, which are disease fighters. Different berries have different benefits, for example, blueberries have been linked to heart health whereas strawberries have been reported to help protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
But it’s not just berries that pack a gut-boosting punch; other fruits are beneficial to your health too, for example Dr. Mullin recommends seedless red grapes. He states that ‘some people have intolerances to apples because they are high in fructose, but if you bake it, it’s full of pectin and pectin is great for your gut bacteria.’2 Grapefruits are also another surprising source of pectin, as well as being rich in anti-oxidants, folic acid and vitamin C.
There are of course many schools of thought that suggest you shouldn’t eat too much fruit, owing to the sugar content. I would recommend that if you wish to start introducing fruit into your diet you consult an expert first, or, as a general piece of guidance, keep everything in moderation.
Nuts are high in fat content, but don’t let that completely put you off. The fats found in nuts are loaded with anti-inflammatory properties, so are good for your gut. They have also been associated with a reduction in the rates of colon cancer. Whilst nuts should be consumed in moderation, the best way of introducing them into your diet is by swapping them with unhealthy, saturated fats. Instead of snacking on crisps, try replacing these with a handful of nuts instead.
The radish is an underplayed vegetable in our minds, which sadly seemed to fall out of fashion in the 90’s. But did you know that this beautifully coloured vegetable is packed full of potassium, folic acid, antioxidants and sulphur compounds that aid digestion? Delicious in salads and readily available, next time you’re shopping, throw some radishes into your basket for good measure!
Who would have thought that bread would be named as a food to help you lose weight and live longer?! For years the experts have been telling us that bread is bad, but thankfully there seems to be some compromise! Whilst we’re not telling you to run out and stuck your faces with crusty baguettes or butter laden crumpets, I am putting forward a healthier option.
Sour Bread, made with sourdough, is made with a lactic acid starter that contains strains of a friendly bacteria called ‘lactobacillus’. So, evidently, there are some gut-health benefits to eating it (again, in moderation!) For those of you at risk of diabetes, sourdough has also been linked to a reduction in sugar spikes, compared to its yeast-based counterpart. Experts credit this effect to the lactic acid present in sourdough.
Back to more international flavours now with something from Russia. ‘Kvass’ is a traditional Russian drink made with fermented beetroot juice or fruit or vegetables. The beetroot version is arguably the most beneficial to your gut, as this distinctive root vegetable is naturally rich in nitrates and has been linked to boosting oxygen flow to the muscles. Kvass is low in calories, low in sugar and a great source of vitamin C. It can be hard to source, so instead try the home-pickled beetroot we’ve discussed as an alternative.
With so many Asian items already on the list, we felt it would be rude not to conclude our findings with an amazing drink from India. Many of you will already be familiar with the ‘lassi’, as it is a firm fixture on the menus of many Indian restaurants across the globe. This smoothie is made from milk, yoghurt, fruit, honey and cardamom and is, in our minds, delicious! The yoghurt used is often probiotic, so is of course beneficial for your gut. More than that though, the cooling effect of this drink will help to reduce any inflammation or aggravation of your stomach, especially if you’ve eaten one of the hotter dishes at your favourite Indian restaurant!
That brings us to the end of our list for now, but as I mentioned there are many foods out there that can help with your digestive health. In general, look for fibrous, prebiotic foods, like, almonds, asparagus, bananas and kiwi fruit, which will provide sufficient nourishment for the friendly bacteria in your gut. This tact should be complemented by adding probiotic rich foods, which are generally fermented, such as fermented soybeans, cultured dairy products (or soy substitute alternatives) and fermented vegetables, such as pickles.
Whether you’re trying to lose weight or boost your overall health, looking after your gut should be a top priority.