Go with your gut: 5 key tips to improving your gut health
Why is good gut health important?
I am sure that you have heard the saying, “go with your gut feeling,” which makes complete sense as our gut is connected to our brain with a busy highway of signalling traffic. This direct communication means that our stomach is sensitive to our emotions. Which explains the triggering of uncomfortable stomach symptoms that may be experienced when you feel anxious, sad or angry. This signalling also occurs from our stomach to our brain as around 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut, which influences both mood and gastrointestinal activity.
So, a happy gut equals a happy brain!
This has been demonstrated in several studies that have seen improvements in people’s mental health in reduced feelings of depression and anxiety, with an improvement of their gut health through healthy diet changes.1 Eating for good gut health is an area of boosted interest lately, as research points to diet as one of the most crucial, modifiable factors regulating the gut microbiota.
- Prioritise whole foods, over ultra-processed food and soft drinks.
Eating foods in their minimally processed form is not only more nutritious but can also be more affordable, especially when buying in bulk at local markets.
Take a banana chips, compared to a fresh banana for example. The chips would set you back around $5 per 400g bag, whereas the equivalent of 4 small bananas would cost 2-3 dollars less, contain a lower sodium and caloric content, along with a much richer vitamin and mineral content. Not to mention, the fresh banana will help to keep you fuller for longer so that you aren’t consuming more food to satisfy your appetite.
Prioritising whole foods over foods high in saturated fat, added sugar and salt can have beneficial effects in lowering cholesterol and promoting the growth of good gut bacteria for a reduced risk of developing chronic disease.2
- Plant variety
Have you ever heard that variety is the spice of life?
Well that certainly is true for our gut microbiome! Aim to eat a rainbow of plant foods to ensure that the diet provides all the vitamins and minerals for good health. The three major phytochemicals which are linked with strong antioxidant properties and impart health benefits exist in coloured foods; carotenoids (yellow to red), chlorophylls (green), and anthocyanins (blue, purple, and red).
Studies have found that those who consumed more than 30 types of plants a week had more diverse populations of gut bacteria than those who ate 10 or less.3 A more diverse population of gut bacteria means that the gut becomes more capable and resilient.
Reach the 30 types of plants a week easier with mixed varieties of berries, pre-mix salads, beans, nuts and seeds to add into any meal. Also, try to incorporate a different plant food into your shopping list each week to broaden your diet.
Fibre is an essential dietary component to a healthy diet as it provides the food for your gut bacteria to grow. It is the edible part of plant foods that resists digestion and absorption in the small intestine, usually with complete or partial fermentation in the large intestine. This process feeds the good gut bacteria, which contributes to a range of health benefits to ultimately lower the risk of chronic disease development. More specifically, a diet containing various types of dietary fibres likely supports a more diverse gut microbiome.2
Good sources of fibre include fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. An adequate intake of fibre can also assist in modulating blood glucose, reducing blood cholesterol levels and the risk of some types of cancers. The types of fibre, insoluble and soluble fibre each act in different ways to help to better regulate bowel motions. To improve your fibre intake, include eat unpeeled fruit and vegetables where possible, choose whole grain over white, refined varieties and include nuts and seeds in meals and snacks several times a week.
If you are increasing your fibre intake, make sure you do it slowly as to avoid any uncomfortable gut symptoms.
- Don’t unnecessarily restrict foods.
All foods can fit into a healthy, balanced diet. The key is moderation.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines have made recommendations for the inclusion of each of the five food groups: fruit, vegetables, grains and cereals, protein foods, as well as dairy and its alternative products.4 Each of these food groups contribute a variety of distinguishing important macro- and micronutrients that are essential for good health. As such, those cutting out an entire food group may be more prone to nutritional shortfalls if those essential nutrients are not replaced by other food sources.
It is also important to remember the personal aspects of food for enjoyment, celebration, and cultural traditions. If you are restricting your favourite, more calorie-dense foods, you may find yourself craving them even more. Allowing yourself to occasionally enjoy these nutrient-poor foods means you are less likely to overeat. Remember, foods are not categorised as ‘good’, or ‘bad’, rather they have varying contents of various nutrients.
If you are considering entirely cutting out any foods or food groups from your diet, make sure you seek advice from an Accredited Practising Dietitian to ensure that you still meet your nutrient requirements.
- Include a variety of prebiotic-rich foods
Instead of thinking, “what do I have to take away from the diet?” use the approach of thinking about what you can add!
The microorganisms within fermented foods are suggested to contribute to many health benefits. While high-quality evidence is still lacking, epidemiological studies have linked the consumption of these types of foods with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease, along with improved weight management. The live microbes are proposed to act as probiotics to positively the gut microbiome.
Although kombucha has been termed as the new super drink, there is no current high-quality evidence to support its role in improving the gut bacteria. The only benefit it may offer is as a lower calorie alternative to sugary soft drinks. Instead, foods like yoghurt, kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut have been supported by studies to impose beneficial effects. These foods may also be favourable to those with digestibility issues, like lactose-intolerance, as yoghurt can be consumed in small amounts without uncomfortable symptoms.
I encourage you now to have a think about your current eating habits and check in with what you’re doing well and what may need some improvement. Try counting the number of plant foods you consume this week and see how you add up.
- Oriach, C., Robertson, R., Stanton, C., Cryan, J., & Dinan, T. (2016). Food for thought: The role of nutrition in the microbiota-gut–brain axis. Clinical Nutrition Experimental, 6, 25-38. doi: 10.1016/j.yclnex.2016.01.003
- McDonald, D., Hyde, E., Debelius, J., Morton, J., Gonzalez, A., & Ackermann, G. et al. (2018). American Gut: an Open Platform for Citizen Science Microbiome Research. Msystems, 3(3). doi: 10.1128/msystems.00031-18
- Dimidi E, Cox SR, Rossi M, Whelan K. Fermented Foods: Definitions and Characteristics, Impact on the Gut Microbiota and Effects on Gastrointestinal Health and Disease. Nutrients. 2019 Aug 5;11(8):1806. doi: 10.3390/nu11081806. PMID: 31387262; PMCID: PMC6723656.
- National Health and Medical Research Council (2013) Australian Dietary Guidelines Summary. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.