Did you know that there are trillions of micro-organisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa, that live in your gut, collectively called your gut microbiome? Not only do they inhabit your body, they also eat your food! But don’t freak out...We have a complex and important relationship with our microbial community and what we eat affects how they affect us! In fact, only a very small percentage of our gut microbiome is determined by genetics -most of it is shaped by what we eat, and can have profound health impacts. Let’s explore!
While there is still a lot to understand about this complex relationship, increasingly, research shows that our gut microbiota influences everything from our metabolism and body composition, immune and digestive systems, and even our brain and behavior! What we eat can support a healthy, diverse, and well-functioning community of gut microbes or can decrease microbial diversity, and lead to the extinction of beneficial bacterial strains. A loss of microbiome diversity has been linked to many chronic diseases, including diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.
Now that we have your attention, you might be asking how you can help your gut microbes not only survive, but thrive?
The answer is both simple...and complex. The simple answer is; Fiber Rich Food!
For happy, healthy, active gut microbes, follow these tips:
Fill up on Fiber
Dietary fiber, found in fruits and vegetables, and other plant foods is the main source of energy for trillions of gut microbes. When these microbes metabolize (eat) dietary fiber, short-chain fatty acids (SFAs) as produced, which keep our gut bacteria happy and active. Additionally, dietary fiber is shown to increase beneficial bacteria that improve metabolism and immune response to intestinal carcinogens and pathogens (aka, dietary fiber plays a role in protecting us from cancer and other disease). So the main take away here is to be sure you include a wide variety of fiber-rich plant foods throughout your day and week.
Of course, as with all foods, it is possible to go overboard as well. For those who experience GI distress (gas, bloating, etc.) when eating a high fiber diet, you may need to start more slowly and train your gut. For you high achievers out there already eating a lot of fiber, we encourage you to listen to your body, and if it is telling you not to eat any more, please don’t! Remember diversity is key here-so it is not only how much fiber you eat. If you currently eat a high fiber diet, but only consume one or two of each fruit, vegetable and grain types each week you can strive for more overall variety. Here are some of our favorite fall fruits and vegetables that provide necessary, delicious fiber:
Apples Cranberries Sweet potatoes
Pumpkin Squash Brussels sprouts
Swiss Chard Pears
Provide Plant Proteins
Protein, which supplies nitrogen, is an essential nutrient to support microbial growth and production of SFAs, but not all proteins are created equal! While there is room for all foods in a healthy diet, including meat and animal products, leaning more heavily on plant-based proteins will help your gut bacteria function well. In case it bears repeating, research consistently shows that eating plant proteins can help lower our risk of inflammatory bowel disease, heart attacks and strokes, and even many cancers. Some great tasting plant proteins to include are:
Lentils Beans (black, pinto, cannellini, or any bean you enjoy)
Peas Quinoa Edamame
Tofu Soybeans Chickpeas
Fight Inflammation with (Omega-3) Fatty Acids
Our gut microbes regulate absorption and metabolism of fat, and omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be beneficial in this process. Additionally, the interaction of omega-3 fatty acids and gut microbes are linked to mood and cognitive function and may help in regulating anxiety and depression and also decrease inflammation. Comparatively, a high intake of saturated fats is shown to increase gut microbes that promote tissue inflammation. Sources of omega-3’s include:
Fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, flounder, halibut, anchovy, sardines, mackerel and trout
Flaxseed Chia and Hemp seeds Walnuts
Soybeans Seaweed Spinach
Go Easy on the Additives
Studies show that some food additives, including artificial sweeteners, can interfere with the gut microbiome’s ability to interact with dietary fiber. These are commonly found in packaged and prepared foods including baked goods, dressing, sauces, frozen meals, meat substitutes, and soups. While these foods can still fit into a healthy, varied diet, making an effort to focus on whole foods and reducing consumption of processed foods that contain additives, is also a good idea. Additives to watch out for:
Artificial sweeteners: Sucralose Aspartame Stevia
Other additives found in some candies, chewing gums, and sauces:
Titanium dioxide (E17) Maltodextrin