Stop me if you’ve heard this before: you are what you eat. It’s a common saying that essentially means your health and wellness reflect what you regularly eat and drink. Part of good health is a digestive system (a.k.a. gut) running on all cylinders. Keeping our gut in good shape is critical to getting the most out of all the foods we eat.
Maintaining a healthy gut has several benefits including enhanced immune function, improved absorption of nutrients, reduced bloating and more. Unfortunately, digestive diseases are an often overlooked but very common issue in the United States. According to the National Institutes of Health, digestive diseases affect 60-70 million Americans. Fortunately, there are several ways to help keep your gut healthy and to reduce your risk for a digestive disease.
One of the major contributors to gut health is intestinal bacteria or flora, often referred to as the microbiome. The microbiome comprises healthy bacteria that are found in your intestinal tract. These good bacteria contribute to the absorption and digestion of some nutrients and the synthesis of some vitamins, like vitamin B and vitamin K.
There are several ways to support a healthy microbiome including consuming prebiotics and probiotics. Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrate compounds found in foods that promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Good sources of prebiotics include bananas, honey, onions and leeks. Probiotics are live bacteria that are introduced to the gut and have beneficial effects. Sources of probiotics are cultured foods, like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi.
Another way to promote gut health is to consume an adequate amount of dietary fiber daily. Fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate primarily found in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains. Fiber helps maintain microbiome homeostasis, supports healthy bowel movements and reduces the risk for coronary heart disease. Make at least half of your grains whole to help consume the recommended 25 grams per day if you are a woman and 38 grams per day if you are a man.
In addition to consuming pre- and probiotics and an adequate amount of fiber, you can also help keep your gut healthy by focusing on variety in your diet. Try including an assortment of veggies and fruits—some have more fiber and prebiotics than others—and seek fortified and whole foods first before turning to supplements.
And it’s not just what you’re eating that matters, it’s how much. Practice mindful and intuitive eating to help prevent that second (or third) helping that you probably didn’t need anyway. Incorporating some of these components and practices will help support and maintain a healthy gut!