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What Foods Should You Eat for Optimal Gut Health

Diet & Nutrition Inspiring People

The gut is a wild and wonderful place. The term “gut” is another word for the gastrointestinal system: a long tube stretching from the mouth to the rectum. 

Bacteria live everywhere; in the air, on surfaces, on your skin, and even in the gut termed your gut “microbiome.” From birth onward, these billions of bacteria multiply in diversity and complexity, two elements associated with a healthy gut microbiome.1 The microbiome plays a big role in health, “training” the body to fight infection, reducing inflammation, producing vitamins and absorbing nutrients from food among other functions.2

What Foods to Eat for Good Gut Health

Feelings of cheesy sayings aside—you truly are what you eat. Food reigns king in feeding gut bacteria and can be a mutually beneficial, “symbiotic” relationship depending on the quality of food put into the body. This is important because both good and bad gut bacteria can exist in your microbiome. Quality of food supports the growth and maintenance of good gut bacteria; impacting behavior, immune function, nutrient redistribution, and long-term disease development. The bacteria within us also use the food we eat to relay important messages to the brain in a two-way system called the “gut-brain connection.”3 If convenience foods leave you with a bloated belly and a foggy brain, you can see why. Let’s talk about the best way to support the good gut bacteria and get rid of the bad.

Which Foods Improve and Promote Good Gut Health?

Luckily, our part in this mutually beneficial exchange is to eat good food for gut health. Eating the right types of food is just as important as an overall dietary pattern; no can be made short-cuts here. Science finds that a plant-based, whole-food approach, called the Mediterranean dietary pattern, performs superiorly in supporting a healthy microbiome4. A Mediterranean diet emphasizes consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and unsaturated fats along with lean protein from eggs, fish, and chicken. If you do not follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, these are the best foods for gut health. 

Veganism, Gut Health, and Which Foods Restore Gut Health?

No matter the dietary lifestyle you chose, the key to optimal gut health is enjoying minimally processed and maximally nutritious food. Whole grains and legumes found in well balanced plant-based diets have a non-digestible element called a prebiotic. Prebiotics can’t be digested by you, the host, but are optimal food for healthy gut bacteria and can increase the quantity of healthy gut bacteria5

Plant proteins also contribute to abundance of good bacteria and are found mainly in beans, nuts, and seeds.4 Probiotic foods are live foods naturally rich in healthy bacteria that can provide a second line of defense against microbiome imbalances.5 Fermented foods are great for gut health. These include foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and yogurt, which are some of the best way to enrich the diet with probiotics. Understanding elements to supporting good gut bacteria, a plant-based diet with special attention to prebiotics and probiotics, let’s now discuss factors that could harm the good or promote growth of bad gut bacteria.

What Causes Poor Gut Health and Which Foods are Bad for Gut Health?

We live in a world where convenience is of primary importance, but there are many foods your should avoid for gut health. The Western diet is one that features high consumption of excess animal proteins, highly processed foods, refined sugar and salt, which are some of the worst foods for gut health. Unsurprisingly, science tells us this diet leads to abnormalities in the gut microbiome. Not only do these elements stimulate growth of pathogenic bad bacteria and kill beneficial bacteria 4 but without room in the diet for healthy prebiotics in foods like whole grains and legumes, the good gut bacteria will be without food. 

When forced to choose, your microbiome will switch to feeding on the mucous lining of the gut, which can lead to long-term diseases such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes6. These typical western-diet elements also lead to a less diverse collection of bacteria, leading to dysbiosis (the opposite of symbiotic—what it should be!) and abnormal activation of immune cells (hello, bloat). We can proactively limit these foods in our diet as much as possible; see a local Dietitian for information on how to eliminate these elements in a way that is conducive to your lifestyle. Of honorable mention is the effect consuming antibiotics can have on your microbiome, as antibiotics can have detrimental effects on growth-ability in the gut microbiome7.

Evidently food components have a key influence on the gut microbiome, impacting quantity and quality of bacteria. The relationship between yourself and your belly bacteria depends on the quality of food provided. For best digestion, immunity and absorption a plant-based, whole-food dietary pattern is best. Now that you know the best foods for gut health and some foods to avoid, you can navigate your diet more easily and help avoid common signs of digestive distress. Bon appetite!


Resources: 

  1. A] Deng F, Li Y, Zhao J. The gut microbiome of healthy long-living people. Aging (Albany NY). 2019;11(2):289‐290. doi:10.18632/aging.101771
  2. Jandhyala SM, Talukdar R, Subramanyam C, Vuyyuru H, Sasikala M, Nageshwar Reddy D. Role of the normal gut microbiota. World J Gastroenterol. 2015;21(29):8787‐8803. doi:10.3748/wjg.v21.i29.8787
  3. Carabotti M, Scirocco A, Maselli MA, Severi C. The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Ann Gastroenterol. 2015;28(2):203‐209.
  4. Rinninella E, Cintoni M, Raoul P, et al. Food Components and Dietary Habits: Keys for a Healthy Gut Microbiota Composition. Nutrients. 2019;11(10):2393. Published 2019 Oct 7. doi:10.3390/nu11102393
  5. Tsai, Y., Lin, T., Chang, C. et al. Probiotics, prebiotics and amelioration of diseases. J Biomed Sci 26, 3 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12929-018-0493-6
  6. Bjoern O Schroeder, Fight them or feed them: how the intestinal mucus layer manages the gut microbiota, Gastroenterology Report, Volume 7, Issue 1, February 2019, Pages 3–12, https://doi.org/10.1093/gastro/goy052
  7. Jandhyala SM, Talukdar R, Subramanyam C, Vuyyuru H, Sasikala M, Nageshwar Reddy D. Role of the normal gut microbiota. World J Gastroenterol. 2015;21(29):8787‐8803. doi:10.3748/wjg.v21.i29.8787

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