Why do we need to think about gut health? Does gut health affect our whole body health? How can I promote/optimize my gut health? Can I eat my way to a happy gut?
What is our Gut?
First things first, our gut is the non-fancy word for our digestive system. Quite literally our intestines. When discussing “gut health” and our gut microbiome/microbiota, the focus is primarily on our large intestine aka bowel aka colon.
Our colons are so much more than a poop shoot! They house the vast majority of our microbes. Humans have trillions of microscopic living things on our skin and in our intestines. In fact, we house more microbial cells than human cells! There is a lil pocket in our colon, called the cecum, where you can find the lion’s share of our microbiota.
Crazy to think that this pocket of bacteria could be such a vital determinant of our whole body health!
The Gut Microbiome & Why It Matters
We each have anywhere from several hundred to more than 1000 different species of bacteria in our intestine. But our bacterial profile is different- something like a fingerprint- unique to each individual. The types of bacteria that make up our gut “fingerprint” impact our predisposition to different diseases, affect our mood, affect our immunity, and can even impact how much weight we gain. With each passing year, researchers are learning more and more about just how impactful our gut microbiome is to our health.
The quickest and most direct way we populate and influence the health of our gut is through our diet. What we eat feeds us and our bacteria. When we have our guts populated with good bacteria, we reap the benefits. Good bacteria produce metabolites and short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) which are anti-inflammatory. However, the opposite is also true. Bad bacteria produce metabolites that are pro-inflammatory. When your gut has more pro-inflammatory microbes, you experience dysbiosis. Dysbiosis leads to damaged colon walls, and increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut). Inflammatory endotoxins can then leak into your bloodstream causing mass inflammation. These endotoxins have been linked to chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, coronary artery disease (CAD), type 2 diabetes, autoimmune diseases (Crohn’s, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, autism, etc) and other metabolic conditions (obesity, chronic kidney disease, gout, etc).
Eat Your Way to a Healthy Gut
So what do our gut microbes love to eat? Fiber! Our bacteria live and thrive on dietary fiber. And what nutrient are Americans severely deficient in as a whole? Fiber. Our modernized, western society has completely changed the food we eat and the way we eat food. Salt, sugar, artificial sweeteners, chemical preservatives, additives, highly refined carbs, and an abundance of grain-fed animal proteins comprise many of the foods we eat today.
The rates of irritable bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have been steadily increasing in western societies. These diseases are not seen in more rural societies where people have more microbial diversity. These are not mild conditions. They are debilitating and completely overtake your life. We’re talking about symptoms of gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, any combination of diarrhea &/or constipation, and nausea (with IBS). And the above plus additional symptoms of rectal bleeding, bloody stools, and actual damage to the bowels through persistent inflammation (with IBD).
I highly doubt we are going to see a mass transformation to becoming a hunter & gatherer society again. So what’s a more practical solution to populating our guts with different & “good” bacteria? Eat more whole plant foods! Americans simply are not eating enough whole plant foods. Our microbes yearn for that delicious soluble and insoluble fiber. Give it to them!
Fiber the Fixer-Upper
Our gut microbes have the ability to use dietary fibers and transform them into SCFAs. The three main SCFAs are acetate, butyrate, and propionate. SCFAs are the superheroes of our bowel. Together, they make our colons more acidic which prevents the growth of inflammatory bacterias. This suppression of bad bacteria allows more good bacteria to grow (thus preventing dysbiosis). The more you eat fiber (both in amounts and with regularity) the more efficient your gut becomes at extracting SCFAs. What else do SCFAs do in the colon? They are absorbed into the cells lining our colon walls, repairing them and making them tighter, thus reducing permeability and “leaky gut” syndrome.
Beyond our gut, SCFAs play a major role in optimizing our immune system, improving our cognition, improving our blood sugar regulation (thus alleviating the effects of T2DM!), reducing the risk of developing cancer (as well as an having ability to kill cancerous cells), and can even be a factor in preventing obesity. This is not an exhaustive list of what roles SCFAs play in our whole body health, btw. Remember though, the way to get these superhero SCFAs is through regular (and adequate) consumption of dietary fiber!
Tips for Adding Fibrous Plant Foods to Your Diet
Not everyone is ready or willing to completely overhaul their diets. Believe me, I know. But most people are going to benefit from consuming more whole plant foods. Consider the following tips to help you add fibrous foods your gut will love:
- Make one meatless meal. Yes, just one. Be intentional and find one plant-based meal to make.
- Make a meatless day (hello, Meatless Monday).
- Try eating one meatless, plant-based meal per day. Breakfast is an easy way to start your day with whole plant foods. Hot whole grain cereals- like oatmeal- topped with fresh fruit, sweet potato & tempeh hash, whole grain bread toasted with nut butter & fresh fruit…YUM!
- Plan your snacks– and make them whole plant foods. Fruit & nut butter, nuts, hummus & veggies, crunchy chickpeas, kale chips, etc.
- Change the proportion of plant and animal foods on your plate. No need to go cold turkey. Add a large salad to your meals, add a serving of fresh fruit, eat a smaller portion of meat.
- Try ingredient swapping. Love tacos? Try using mushrooms, or walnut taco “meat.” Try a bean chili vs a meat one.
- Don’t get caught up on transitional foods. If your goal is to eliminate all animal products, fake meats & cheeses have come a long way & can help with the transition. However, keep in mind that replacing animal foods with highly processed foods is not health-promoting in the long-term.
- Educate yourself! The more you learn about how plant based foods improve your health, the easier it becomes to choose them in your everyday life. (Shameless plug for following my own blog to facilitate your plant-based education 🙂 )
- Change your mindset. A “lack” mindset can be detrimental to transitioning to a plant-forward diet. Rather than focusing on what you’re cutting out or eliminating, be excited about the new, delicious and nourishing foods you’re adding to your diet.
Other lifestyle practices to implement: drinking plenty of water, getting plenty of sleep, and increasing physical activity!
Our guts are amazing. And even more so is our ability to make them more functional and healthy through our dietary choices. As always, I am here to provide personalized and in-depth guidance on how to tackle your gut health (and whole body health) through your food.