The balance of bacteria in the gut (part of the gut microbiome) is the foundation for the now commonly-used term “gut health.” Some types of gut bacteria can cause problems for human health, whilst others can be extremely beneficial, and perhaps even essential for optimal health. Several factors can affect a person’s gut health, including genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle.
Alongside lifestyle factors such as stress levels and sleep quality, nutrition plays a crucial role in gut health. A person’s dietary intake can directly affect their gut microbiome, and subsequently, many areas of their overall health. Before exploring some of the best types of food for gut health, it’s important to understand the basics about the importance of the human microbiome.
The gut microbiome and human health
The human microbiome consists of around 100 trillion microorganisms, many of which are found in the gut. The microbiome plays several significant roles in human health. It’s an extremely complex and multi-faceted topic that still warrants much further research. So far, studies are demonstrating that the microbiome plays an important role in many of the body’s functions. These include immunity, nutrition status, skin conditions, autoimmune diseases, and potentially even mental health via the gut-brain connection. [Find out more about nutrition and mental health in “You Are What You Eat: The Impact Nutrition Plays on Mental Health"].
Studies have shown that diet can play an important role in modifying the gut microbiome, and in turn, improving a person’s health status. Levels of specific types of bacteria have been associated with the typical dietary intakes in those countries. And generally, a higher diversity of gut bacteria is found people living in non-Western countries.
Everyone is different in terms of the specific foods and combinations that will work best for them when it comes to optimizing overall health. However, there are several types of foods that are leading the way when it comes to improving gut health.
Here are some of the most important categories of foods to consider including in your diet for better gut health.
Probiotic foods are foods that increase the levels of “good” gut bacteria. They contain live microorganisms that can modify the gut microbiota and help improve gut flora. Fermented foods and drinks can be excellent sources of natural probiotics.
Examples of fermented foods include miso paste, kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut, milk or water kefir, kombucha, sourdough bread, and tempeh. These ingredients can be incorporated into a wide variety of dishes, and you can sprinkle extra probiotic ingredients throughout your meals. Try including fermented foods into your diet on a regular basis to help improve your gut health.
Prebiotic foods are crucial for excellent gut health because they feed the probiotics in your gut. This process produces postbiotics (such as short chain fatty acids), which play important roles in human health.
Prebiotic foods are best found in plant-based whole foods. Plant-based foods are usually naturally high in fiber, which is one reason they’re excellent sources of prebiotics. Fiber that cannot be digested is essentially food for the good bacteria in your gut, which is yet another reason to make sure your diet is rich in all types of fiber.
Choose minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains to ensure an optimal intake of prebiotics such as fiber. Some of the foods that are highest in prebiotics include bananas, garlic, whole oats, apples, and onions.
Phytonutrients are compounds found in plant-based foods that have many health-promoting benefits and can reduce the risk of disease. Polyphenols are one class of phytonutrients that may be especially beneficial for gut health.
Given that they are not always absorbed well into the cells, they can make their way through to the colon and help feed microorganisms there. Overall, polyphenols can help promote the growth of “good” gut bacteria, and decrease the levels of “bad” bacteria, such as E.Coli.
Some of the richest sources of polyphenols include:
- A wide variety of spices and dried herbs
- Cocoa products, such as dark chocolate
- Berries, such as raspberries and blackberries
- Some nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, chestnuts, and hazelnuts
- Certain vegetables such as olives, and globe artichoke heads
Drinks such as red wine, coffee, and tea are also known for being high in polyphenols. However, with some polyphenol-rich foods and drinks, a moderate intake is preferred due to other qualities within those items. For example, an over-consumption of alcohol (whether it’s polyphenol-rich red wine or not), is likely to have an adverse, rather than a beneficial, effect on your gut health.
Similarly, some people are very sensitive to the effects of coffee, and even a moderate consumption could produce more problems than benefits. Therefore, make sensible choices when it comes to quantities, and be mindful of the effects these foods and drinks have on you personally.
Other important dietary considerations for better gut health
Remember that individual differences are important when it comes to improving gut health through nutrition. When better gut health becomes a key area of focus, a wider range of foods may be more easily absorbed and tolerated by the individual.
Here are a few additional considerations regarding food choices for better gut health:
- Eat a wide range of foods to contribute to a more diverse gut microbiota. Many people habitually eat the same types of food day in and day out, thus limiting the variety of good bacteria available for the gut. Even if your favorite meals are packed with micronutrients, you want to mix it up on a regular basis to ensure you're getting the widest possible variety of nutrients.
- Make small changes when it comes to actions such as adding fermented foods into your diet. Certain types of bacteria could produce undesirable symptoms in some people. Therefore, make a small addition, and take note of how your body reacts.
- Reduce your intake of highly processed foods. They’re typically lower in fiber, and higher in additives such as sugar, salt, and artificial sweeteners. Overall, these types of foods can have a negative impact on the diversity of your microbiome.
Improving your gut health through better nutrition doesn’t need to be complicated. The best foods for gut health are generally those that are recommended as part of a healthy approach to nutrition, and for better overall health. Essentially, aim to include more plant-based whole foods in your diet for the far-reaching health benefits they offer.