With optimal gut health, you can increase your friendly gut bacteria and your “bacteria balance” by changing what you eat. Bacteria live off of a variety of nourishing plant-based foods. Healthy gut bacteria help you digest and absorb nutrients, synthesize various vitamins, and fight intruders such as bad bacteria and carcinogens. They help regulate your metabolism and even boost your immune system!
Increase your dietary fibre
Fibre is the part of food that is not digested in the small intestine. Dietary fibre moves largely unchanged into the large intestine or colon where it is fermented by friendly bacteria that live there. Australians need to eat at least 25-30g fibre each day. Eating more dietary fibre can help keep your digestive system healthy and reduce the risk of constipation, diverticular disease, hemorrhoids, bowel cancer and cardiovascular disease.
There are two kinds of fibre – insoluble and soluble.
Insoluble fibre adds bulk and helps to keep our bowels regular. It’s found in the hard, scratchy outer skins and surfaces of roots, grains, and seeds which are not as easily digested. Insoluble fibre is also very filling. This type of fibre works like a ‘broom’ through the bowel. Foods higher in insoluble fibre include:
- Whole grain breads and cereals
- The outer skins of fruit and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Raw lentils, kidney beans, and chickpeas.
Soluble fibre dissolves in water to form a thick gel in your intestines, slowing down digestion. Foods containing this type of fibre can help stabilise blood glucose levels in people with diabetes and may help to lower LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol levels by collecting fatty deposits as it moves through the intestine. By slowing down digestion, foods that are high in soluble fibre can help people feel fuller for longer after eating. Foods higher in soluble fibre include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Dried beans and lentils
Try to eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dried beans, and lentils each day.
Increase resistance starch
Resistance starch is a unique type of fibre. While most starch is digested in the upper part of the gut, resistant starch resists digestion in the small intestine and so goes all the way to the large intestine. Once in the large intestine, friendly bacteria ferment resistant starch. This process produces substances (gasses) that help to keep the lining of the bowel healthy. Resistant starch can be found in:
- Slightly undercooked pasta
- Under-ripe bananas
- Cooked and cooled potato
- ‘Hi-maize’ which is found in commercial food products such as breads and cereals.
Decrease Processed Foods
When you invite processed foods into your body, your gut flora risks becoming imbalanced with too many bad guys. This can lead to serious health issues, such as: inflammation, IBS, colitis, food intolerance, altered immune function and low mood. Do your best to ditch the packeted foods and choose whole foods as often as possible.
The Low Down on Probiotics
Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria or yeasts (like those found naturally in the gut) that, when taken in adequate amounts, can improve the balance of the gut microbiome. A lot of research has been done on probiotics and the evidence on their efficacy is mixed. Probiotics are found in everyday foods like yoghurt, milk drinks like kefir, and other fermented foods, like kombucha, kimchi, miso, tempeh, sauerkraut and sourdough bread. Probiotic supplements are also available. Bacterial balance can be disrupted by a number of medical conditions, emotional and physical stress, or even aging.
One of the most common causes of gut microbiota disruption is the use of antibiotics, which destroy the good bacteria along with the bad, leading to bacterial overgrowth in the intestines.
Probiotics help tip the balance back in favour of the good bacteria. In doing so, they may provide some relief if you have gastrointestinal pain, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, diarrhea, low mood, and inflammation.
Fibre Versus Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are constantly promoted for their health benefits, particularly when it comes to improving digestion, and gut health. In the past, these benefits have been attributed to the probiotics. As well as probiotics, fermented foods generally contain the by-products of bacterial fermentation – namely acetate. Acetate is a type of short chain fatty acid (SCFA). SCFA are produced by beneficial bacteria in our gut as a by-product of the fermentation of dietary fibre.
It is these SCFAs that appear to deliver health benefits. Whilst all of the research so far points to the importance of consuming a high fibre diet for optimal SCFA production in the gut itself, there remains a huge question mark around how dietary sources of SCFAs might also play a role.
Whilst time will tell, in the meantime, it can’t hurt to try incorporating more fermented foods into your diet where you can, watch for added sugars by checking the label and place more focus on increasing your fibre intake.