Your gut is an incredibly important part of your body, but most people don’t look after it well. It is home to billions of tiny microbes which contribute to your immune and digestive system, and what you eat can affect those vital little helpers.
The good news is that there are good foods for gut health. A number of different foods can help to improve the health of your gut, which is basically the long tube that starts in your throat and ends at your bottom.
Choosing the right foods to keep it healthy will help you to feel better, exercise better and live a more full life.
1. Plant-based foods contain pre-biotics
The first and most important food for your gut is a range of food know as pre-biotics. This is a fancy phrase for the parts of food you eat which you can’t digest but will fertilise your gut bacteria. Pre-biotics are different from probiotics, which contain actual bacteria.
Lots of different foods contain pre-biotics, and the key is to look for products which are described as being high in fibre. This includes most fruits and vegetables, but several stand out.
Jerusalem artichoke has been found to boost microbial activity in the large intestine, and its fibre is mostly made of inulin, which isn’t digested by your gut and instead feeds those helpful microbes.
Garlic, onions and leeks are also good pre-biotics with high levels of inulin.
One of the most popular sources of pre-biotics is asparagus, which can have up to three grams of inulin per 100 gram serving. Asparagus has also been found to help prevent some types of cancer, so you have lots of good reasons to load up your plate with it.
Breakfast is a great time to get some pre-biotics into your system. For example, barley is often used in cereals and it is rich in a pre-biotic called beta-glucan.
Oats are another type of cereal with high levels of beta-glucan, and on top you can pile pieces of fruit which will also boost your gut health. Bananas have inulin, while apples have pectin, yet another useful pre-biotic.
2. Extra virgin olive oil
Many experts have hailed the health benefits of the so-called Mediterranean diet, in which extra virgin olive oil plays a big role.
Research has found that the extra virgin olive oil can really help our gut health. One study, which sounds great to be a part of, looked at the effect of a moderate intake of extra virgin olive oil and red wine. It found that the subjects had increased levels of bifidobacteria, a useful type of bacteria which lives in the colon.
The beauty of extra virgin olive oil is that is incredibly easy to integrate into your diet. Just about all pasta dishes include it, and you can add it to many simple salads as part of a healthy dressing.
Other options include using it instead of butter when mashing potatoes or cooking eggs. You can also flavour the oil or buy it flavoured, and use it for dipping bread.
3. Sourdough bread
Other good foods for gut health are probiotics. These are foods containing live bacteria known to help your gut health. Research is not totally clear about whether that bacteria survives your digestive process to reach the places it needs to go, but that doesn’t mean probiotics are a waste of time or money.
In fact, evidence does suggest that eating these foods as part of a balanced diet can help.
Sourdough bread is a particularly interesting example, because it is made from a starter compound made of wild yeasts and bacteria, and these feed on the sugar in the dough during the proving process. This is the pro-biotic element, but it is believed most of these bacteria die in the heat of baking. However, the unique sourdough process can make the bread easier to digest, especially for people with digestive problems.
Nuts are one of nature’s really good foods for your gut health, and the beauty of them is their vast range. Depending what type you eat, each nut is a tiny packet of healthy fats, fibre, and protein.
And it’s that fibre content which really matters for your gut health. For example, a study in the US found that mice with a bowel disease called ulcerative colitis healed faster when eating a diet rich in walnuts.
Nuts bring other advantages as well, with some rich in calcium, others in omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, zinc, potassium or vitamin C.
You should avoid nuts which have loads of sugar or chocolate added, but salted nuts are usually fine as long as you don’t eat them to excess.
5. Fermented foods
Fermented foods are good for gut health. They are preserved using an ancient process that increases the food’s shelf life and nutritional value.
The process also helps to create probiotics, even though research hasn’t yet proven conclusively that these probiotics will make it to your gut alive. What is understood is that people living in countries where fermented food is a big part of the diet are more likely to have good gut health and less likely to experience bowel disease.
The key to getting the most out of fermented food is finding products which are fermented using natural processes, so look for the words “naturally fermented” on the label. Another tip is to watch for small bubbles in the liquid when you look inside, as this indicates there are live organisms at work.
Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha and many pickles.
If you are looking for good foods for gut health, remember to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fibre from plant-based foods. Make sure you’re getting lots of different types of fruit and vegetables, and don’t be shy about adding a dash of extra virgin olive oil on your salad.
You should be sceptical about some of the promises about pro-biotics delivering ‘good’ bacteria to your gut, but research shows good quality pro-biotics do have health advantages.
If in doubt, talk to your personal trainer, because they can advise on what foods to eat or avoid. Look after your gut and it will look after you.
Majed Alhamad is an accomplished personal trainer who inspires his clients to pursue their fitness and health goals. Read more at his blog http://www.majedalhamad.com/.