5 Tips to Improve Gut Health
Written by: Erin Burke MS, RDN, LDN
Bacteria gets a bad rap. They cause infections, make us sick, and are growing ever-resistant to our strong antibiotics. But what if bacteria could actually improve our health?
Probiotics are health-promoting bacteria that set up shop in our intestines. Certain strands support health and are associated with reduced risk for a variety of chronic diseases. Probiotics are found naturally in some foods, including yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented foods. They can also be taken in supplement form.
Unfortunately, supplements are not regulated, and few probiotic supplements actually contain what they claim to! Looking to make a difference in your gut? Check out the following tips to be on your way to greater health.
1. Eat probiotic-rich foods. Regularly eating fermented foods consistently supplies the gut with a variety of health promoting bugs. Examples include:
- Yogurt (dairy and non-diary), kefir, buttermilk, and lassi
- Soy-based miso and tempeh
- Sparkling probiotic drinks and Kombucha
- Pickled cucumber, ginger, and sauerkraut
- Sourdough bread
- Some wines and vinegars
2. Increase fiber. Fiber may be indigestible to human; however, your gut microbiome thrives on it! Simply eating probiotic-rich foods may not be enough. We need to keep them flourishing with a steady intake of high fiber foods, or prebiotics. Fiber is found primarily in fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole-grain products. When the bacteria in our guts consume fiber, they produce compounds called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFA’s support the health and integrity of our intestinal (gut) lining. It is important that the cells on the gut lining be in good health and closely packed together. SCFA’s provide fuel for these cells. A healthy diet provides at least 25-38 grams of fiber per day.
3. Stress less. Easier said than done! Chronic stress triggers a series of events that may lead to reduced integrity of the intestinal lining (1). Remember from above, this lining needs to be healthy and strong, with closely packed cells. Effective coping methods for stress can help both the immediate impacts of stress, and reduce the chance that we turn to less helpful behaviors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and emotional and/or binge eating.
4. Avoid high fat diets. Hear me out on this one. I am not suggesting we go back to the old days and subsist purely on fat-free snack foods. Rather, focus on consuming a diet with a balance of macronutrients, including moderate amounts carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Research suggests that high fat, high protein, and low carb diets actually decrease the amount of healthful bacteria in our guts (2). One thought is that probiotics do not have enough fuel on this type of diet. Remember: fiber comes from carbohydrate-containing foods! A Mediterranean dietary pattern, one that is based primarily on fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, fish, and a dose of heart-healthy fats, is consistently ranked as the “#1 Best Diet Overall” (3). Conveniently, it is also ranked as “#1 Easiest Diet to Follow”. This pattern promotes about 30%-35% of calories coming from fat, 45%-50% coming from carbohydrates, and 20% from protein.
5. Look at the big picture. It is important to consider the effect of the total diet on the microbiome. In order to sustain a heathly gut, it is necessary to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein every day. The foods suggested in earlier tips are helpful in obtaining and maintaining a healthy gut. However, one or two “superfoods” are unlikely to offer any significant benefit when consumed alongside the standard American diet, which is high in saturated fat, added sugar, fried and fast foods. Similarly, one “unhealthy” meal in the midst of a well-balanced diet is not going to totally disrupt your gut microbiome.
A registered dietitian can provide you with individualized recommendations to support not only gut health, but overall health and wellbeing. If you would like to meet with an Avance Care dietitian, please call (919) 237-1337.
1. JR Kelly, et al. (2015). Breaking down the barriers: the gut microbiome, intestinal permeability and stress-related psychiatric disorders. Front. Cell. Neurosci. 9:392. doi: 10.3389/fncel.2015.00392
2. Russel, et al. (2011). High-protein, reduced-carbohydrate weight-loss diets promote metabolite profiles likely to be detrimental to colonic health. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 93:1062. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.002188
Erin Burke is an RD/N working at the North Raleigh and Central Raleigh offices. She enjoys running, yoga, working in her yard, and snuggling with her dog, Lottie. She is passionate about promoting a healthy lifestyle in a non-judgmental environment.