Do you ever find yourself feeling bloated and uncomfortable, having digestive issues you don’t want to talk about, or maybe you’re wondering what the hype over gut health is? You’re not alone. Some surveys show up to 74% of Americans are living with digestive symptoms like diarrhea, gas, bloating and abdominal pain. And even if we aren’t noticing symptoms, science is showing our gut health is actually linked to our overall health much more than we ever imagined before. So taking good care of our digestion means that we’re taking good care of ourselves.
With new research, It’s becoming more and more apparent that the health of our digestive system and the bacteria found there is critical for overall wellness. Your gut can influence your immune system, mood, heart health, risk of developing certain cancers, weight, and more yet to be discovered. So even if you feel like everything is working as it should, choosing foods that support gut health can make an impact on your whole body and mind.
This week we will be continuing to build on how to eat a more whole foods-based diet by focusing on adding foods that support a healthy microbiome for a healthy gut.
The digestive tract is host to over 100 trillion bacteria, and is collectively referred to as the gut microbiome. We want a lot of different types of beneficial bacteria in our microbiome since more diversity is linked to healthy aging and reduced risk of obesity, autoimmune conditions, and heart disease. The health of both your gut and your microbiome is also critical for immune function. The good bacteria serve as a defense from outside “invaders” (disease causing bacteria and viruses) and also help regulate the immune response. Researchers learn more and more everyday about how large a role these bacteria play in maintaining wellness.
Ultra-processed foods can be high in refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour, which means they are missing an important nutrient we’ll touch on more later – fiber! Without fiber, our good bacteria don’t have much to eat and the potentially harmful bacteria love to eat refined carbohydrates. This throws off the balance of bacteria in our gut, and we can lose that diversity in bacteria types that is so important. If our bacteria aren’t supplied with enough food, they can also start munching on the outside layer of our intestinal cells. This makes us much more vulnerable to bad bacteria and viruses making their way through the gut into the rest of the body.
Ultra-processed foods can also contain additives like artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, and preservatives that can reduce the diversity of bacteria in our gut. Studies have shown that these changes in bacteria from eating ultra-processed foods increases the risk of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, chronic constipation, along with other digestive problems. As we learned last week, ultra-processed foods can really wreak havoc on our health!
Fermented foods are considered a minimally processed food, precisely because fermentation is a process where you either allow good bacteria to flourish in a food or introduce specific bacteria into it. The good news is that this process of fermentation is a helpful one. When you ferment certain foods they will have beneficial bacteria, can be easier to digest, have increased amounts or absorbability of nutrients like vitamins, and they become even more tasty!
The live bacteria found in these foods are especially helpful. By regularly eating fermented foods, you help keep your microbiome diverse and crowd out potentially harmful bacteria.
Here are some examples of fermented foods:
Some foods use fermentation to make but don’t actually contain probiotics in the end product, like beer or tempeh. When shopping for fermented foods, look in the refrigerated sections and check the label – it should say it contains live and active cultures, bacteria, or probiotics. Shelf stable sauerkrauts or pickles made with vinegar aren’t fermented and won’t have any of the benefits foods with probiotics will have (they still might be tasty though).
Fermented foods like yogurt or kefir can be used in place of mayo or sour cream in some dishes. Just be sure you don’t heat them, the probiotics won’t survive! You can also add them to smoothies or, of course, eat them on their own.
Most fermented veggies are served as a condiment with your meal. Feel free to get creative! We like adding sauerkraut on top of scrambled eggs, on top of avocado toast, and mixed into salads. Serve real lacto-fermented pickles alongside sandwiches, or chop them up for use in salads.
Fiber is a type of carb found in many plant foods, but we can’t actually digest it for energy, so it doesn’t count towards the total carbs in a meal. It makes the full journey through our digestive system, and that’s the key to its health benefits.
While we can’t digest fiber for our own use, our gut bacteria can. In fact – it’s their favorite food. And when they eat fiber, they provide us with lots of benefits as a result. Lots of tasty, whole foods have plenty of fiber – no need for supplements or additives.
Since fiber is bulky and takes up space, when you eat higher fiber foods it makes your meals much more satisfying and helps you stay full for longer. It also takes more time to digest than low fiber foods. These qualities are what allows fiber to help us prevent over snacking and overeating, and maintain a healthy weight.
Here are some good sources of fiber:
*The amount of fiber in fruits and veggies varies, so be sure to focus on getting a variety of different foods throughout your week.
When increasing your fiber intake, be sure to go slow and drink plenty of water to avoid any uncomfortable digestive symptoms. But once your body gets used to the fiber, it should actually help improve your digestion! Be sure to work with one of our Health Coaches if you run into any issues or have any questions.
If you’re not sure where to start, you can try swapping out foods you already eat with some higher fiber options.
Click on the food you love and we’ll reveal its healthier counterpart.
Swap it for air-popped popcorn or roasted chickpeas
Swap it for a mix of white and brown rice, brown rice, wild rice, or quinoa
Swap it for 100% whole grain noodles & sauce with added veggies or beans
Swap it for nut butter and dried/fresh fruit in oatmeal
Leave the skin on and use half potatoes, half cauliflower
Swap it for 100% whole grain toast with avocado, nut butter, or banana slices
Swap it for whole grain chips & veggie sticks with hummus or guacamole
Swap the tortillas with whole grain tortillas (like corn or whole wheat) and use beans instead of ground meat
If you reach out to our Health Coaches in your Brook app, they’ll be able to help you find simple swaps that work for you!
The American Heart Association recommends aiming for 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day from food. If you’re tracking food in the Brook app, you can see how much fiber you are getting each day. The easiest way to hit that goal is to start choosing more whole foods over ultra-processed foods. By logging food, our Health Coaches can look at your food journal and help you identify areas where you can make swaps to boost your fiber intake.
on November 15th 2020. Kelsea is a Registered Dietitian with her Master's degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA, and is one of our Health Coaches.