This article shares information about the gut microbiota, how gut health impacts overall health, and gut health foods including what to eat and what to avoid for healthy digestion.
A recent survey from the American Gastroenerological Association showed that 40% of American’s daily lives are disrupted by digestive struggles.
If you are one of those people, I hope this article helps you understand more about your gut microbiome and gives you some ideas for gut health foods to avoid to also foods to eat to improve your gut health.
Let's start with a basic understanding of the gut microbiome.
What is the gut microbiome?
The gut microbiome refers to the community of organisms that live in your gut, mostly your intestines. There are about 100 trillion micro-organisms found in the human gastrointestinal tract. Most of them are bacteria, but there are also viruses, fungi, and protozoa.
In fact, there are 200 different species of microorganisms that live in your gut!
It might seem a little strange to hear that there are so many microorganisms found in your intestines because you probably hear things like bacteria and think of the “bad” kind of bacteria that cause illnesses.
And the term virus might even invoke some COVID fears.
But many of the micro-organisms that are found in your gut are good bacteria, and they are vital for helping you maintain balance in your body.
Plus, these bacteria make you uniquely you, too! Research shows that about ⅔ of the bacteria found in your gut microbiota is unique to you.
The microbes found in your gut may weigh between 2-5 pounds total. That’s as much as up to 10 IPhones! Needless to say, the gut microbiota plays an important role in your health. So let's talk about it!
How does the gut microbiome impact overall health?
A healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut microbiome has an impact on many aspects of health. Below are just some examples:
- Supports a healthy immune system
- Aids in appetite regulation and fullness/satiety signals
- Helps with digestion of dietary fiber
- Positive impact on insulin sensitivity and glucose regulation
- Affects energy levels
- Helps with absorption of important minerals
- Synthesizes some essential vitamins and amino acids
- Impacts brain health, mood and behavior
- An imbalance of the good and bad bacteria in your gut can lead to something called “dysbiosis” which basically means that there are more unhealthy bacteria than healthy bacteria. Dysbiosis can contribute to weight gain.
Gut Microbiome and mental health
In the past decade or so, emerging research has shown the communication between the gut and the brain through something called the gut-brain axis.
The gut has even been referred to as the “second brain” because brain health is so closely associated with gut health and the health of the gut microbiome.
Improvements in the gut microbiome, which can be aided by change in diet and stress management, may even decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
So as you can see, taking care of your gut health by keeping your microbiome healthy can have impacts on a lot of different aspects of your health! There are a lot of research studies looking at gut health, microbiome diversity, and overall health so expect new information to be released regularly.
Gut Health Foods
Now that you know how a healthy gut can impact your overall health, your next question might be how to improve your gut health or maintain a healthy gut.
Below are some gut health foods to consume and avoid for healthy digestion.
Gut Health Foods to Consume
Foods high in fiber including:
- Vegetables. Examples include leafy greens such as kale, spinach, or spring mix. Also broccoli, asparagus, green beans, and cauliflower.
- Fruits. Aim for fruits that are lower in fructose such as cantaloupe, berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, or bananas.
- Avocados are a high fiber option loaded with potassium
- Whole grains. Examples include whole grain breads or pastas, quinoa, oatmeal, barley, millet, and brown rice.
- Legumes. Examples include all beans (black beans, canellini beans, kidney beans, chickpeas aka garbanzo beans) lentils, edamame (soybeans), peanuts
- Nuts and seeds. Examples include almonds, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), flaxseeds, chia seeds.
- Corn and popcorn are also high in fiber.
Foods high in polyphenols
Polyphenols are found in things like:
- Dark chocolate
Fermented foods that are sources of probiotics
- Cottage cheese labels as made with “live active cultures” is also a good source of probiotics.
- Miso is a fermented paste that can be added to recipes and is high in probiotics. Be sure to add miso after cooking so the good bacteria aren’t destroyed by the heat.
Plant-based foods that are natural sources of prebiotics
Prebiotics are the foods that feed the probiotics in your gut. So in order to maintain a healthy level of probiotics, eat foods high in prebiotics, too.These are found naturally in many plant-based foods including vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fruits. Some examples include onions, garlic, artichokes, leeks, cabbage, bananas, and almonds. These are all great additions for a diet high in gut health foods.
Foods high in fat can negatively impact people with digestive issues. Consuming lean proteins like chicken, turkey, tilapia, tofu, or low fat greek yogurt are good options.
Gut health foods to avoid
Too many overly processed foods
While you don’t need to completely avoid processed foods, try to limit them or choose the better-for-you or healthier option made with natural ingredients when possible when focusing on gut health foods.
Especially sucralose, aspartame, or saccharin which have been shown to disrupt the balance and diversity of gut microbiota.
High sugar intake can have a negative impact on your gut bacteria. This has also been shown to lead to inflammation in the body.
The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 6 teaspoon or 25 g sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoon or 38 g sugar per day for men.
Refined sugar includes table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and sugar found in many processed foods. Natural sugar is found in fruits and milk/milk products.
Since natural sugars are found in foods that have fiber or protein, they are a healthier option if you are looking for something sweet.
Alcohol has been associated with a negative impact on the gut microbiota. When it comes to gut health foods, avoid alcohol as much as possible.
Other things that impact gut health
Lack of sleep has a negative effect on gut health. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night. You can also try to take naps during the day if your schedule allows.
Having a healthy gut impacts many other parts of your overall health including immune health, mental health, and even your risk of obesity and chronic illness.
In order to maintain a healthy gut microbiota, it really comes down to the basics– eat foods high in fiber which are mostly whole food plants including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and beans/legumes.
Aim to also eat foods that are good sources of probiotics and prebiotics and polyphenols.
Lastly, to improve your gut health, find ways to manage stress such as walks, meditation, or journaling and prioritize rest as much as you can.
References: American Gastroenterological Association, Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, Healthline, BMJ, Nutrients, Gut Microbiota for Health, Nutrients (sugar), American Heart Association, City of Hope, Hopkins Medicine, Real Simple
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