For many years, it was thought that the only role of the gut was to digest our food. However, with recent research showing that our gut microbiome influences our brain health, immunity, heart health and more, it’s not surprising to see gut health taking a central role in research and the media. Here are a few pointers to help keep your gut healthy.
Avoid Elimination Diets
When someone is experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as bloating, cramping, or abdominal distension, he or she may turn to Google for advice. A quick search will lead you to multiple sources that recommend specific foods to cut out of your diet. The usual “culprits” are gluten and dairy. There are also stricter elimination protocols geared towards gut health such as the low FODMAP diet.
While there are indications to use elimination diets, I never recommend starting there. Changes in dietary and lifestyle patterns can make just as much or more of an impact in symptoms than an elimination diet. Additionally, following elimination diets over the long term can be difficult for your mental and social health and can actually worsen gut health symptoms over time. Working with a dietitian who specializes in gut health will help you determine when or if an elimination diet is necessary and most importantly, how to strategically reintroduce foods for optimal variety and dietary satisfaction.
Increase the Variety
This goes hand in hand with the first tip. Our microbiome is made up of trillions of microbes, which all prefer different fuel sources. By eating a diet that is varied, we can support a more diverse and abundant gut microbiome. You can diversify your diet by aiming for a balanced plate of half vegetables, one quarter carbohydrates (rice, sweet potato, pasta, quinoa) and one-quarter protein (meat, fish, poultry, beans, lentils). Try to incorporate a new recipe or ingredient you haven’t tried before into your weekly meal plan.
Add More Fibre
Fibre has multiple health benefits but when it comes to our gut health, it’s a star. Fibre works to keep our bowels regular, which is crucial in managing GI symptoms. Additionally, many types of fibre are also prebiotic, meaning they feed the good bacteria (probiotics) in our gut and impact multiple areas of our health.
Fibre is found in plant-based foods including vegetables, fruit, beans, lentils, whole grains and nuts. Most adults are not meeting their daily fibre requirements of 25 grams a day for women and 38 grams a day for men. To increase your daily fibre intake, aim to fill half your plate with vegetables at lunch and dinner, incorporate meatless meals at least once per week, and choose high-fibre snack choices such as nuts, berries or whole-grain crackers with hummus.
Eat Something Living
Fermented foods use live bacteria to create lactic acid and naturally preserve foods. Eating fermented foods with live bacteria can improve your overall gut health and enhance the microbial diversity. Some fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, kefir, and tempeh. Try something new! You will be adding variety to your diet and introducing good bacteria.
Manage Your Stress
While food is important for gut health, an equally important aspect is stress management. Our gut is often referred to as our second brain, and research has shown a strong mind-gut connection, meaning that stress and anxiety can have a negative impact on our gut functioning. By finding positive stress coping mechanisms, we can positively influence our digestion and decrease unfavourable GI symptoms. Simple steps such as taking deep breaths, going for a short walk, or taking a moment of alone time can impact our gut function and may provide more benefits than changing your diet ever can.
Gut health is a very interesting area of research and our knowledge is changing daily. One of the simplest approaches to managing your gut health is asking, “What can I add to my diet?” instead of thinking about what to avoid. Additionally, consider areas beyond your diet that might be impacting how you feel. Lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress, and exercise will all have an effect on your gut health.
Jen Rawson is a Registered Dietitian from Calgary who works in a private practice specializing in intuitive eating, sports nutrition and gut health. She is passionate about running and travelling, often combining the two at destination races.