Eating for Gut Health
Science finds the bacteria in your gut — your microbiome — might be the key to good health. Here’s what you need to know about gut health foods, along with a set of delicious recipes for a happy belly.
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Twenty years ago, most people had never heard the term “gut microbiome.” But today, it seems as if researchers are constantly finding new connections between your gut bacteria and your overall health. Since the turn of the 21st century, scientists have found links between bacteria in the digestive system (the gut) and chronic diseases including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory bowel diseases, as well as a host of smaller, everyday health issues. And because your gut’s primary job is to digest food, what you eat affects your gut health directly.
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Why is gut health important?
Your gastrointestinal tract is home to trillions of microbes (aka microorganisms, aka the gut microbiota — or in layman’s terms, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other little critters). Those microscopic creatures, in particular the beneficial bacteria, affect your health in numerous ways. They help your body digest food, help control your immune system, and even help support brain health.
Of course, along with the healthy bacteria, you’ll also find some bad bacteria. When the balance of good vs. bad is off, or when you don’t have a wide enough variety of microbes in your gut, it can lead to problems with your health. Think heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes.
How to improve gut health
Boosting the ratio of good over bad bacteria in your gut microbiome appears to offer quite a few health benefits. Experts think a healthy microbiome may help treat obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, type 2 obesity, chronic constipation, and other serious conditions, as well as tooth decay and gum disease, hay fever and asthma, and even acne. To achieve that, you’ll need to encourage the good guys to grow, which is where your diet comes in.
Probiotics help that happen. You’ve probably heard of them in relation to fermented foods. Probiotics are live microorganisms people consume to benefit their health. Research is ongoing, but probiotics might help your gut microbiome find and maintain a healthy balance. They might strengthen your immune system, fight off food poisoning from bad bacteria you accidentally ate, and help your body absorb vitamins and minerals.
Three of the most common probiotics are Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria, and Saccharomyces boulardii. You get Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria in naturally fermented foods like pickles, kombucha, and yogurt. Saccharomyces boulardii are a type of yeast you find in probiotic supplements.
Prebiotics are different from probiotics — these undigestible fibers encourage friendly bacteria to grow. Exactly what you want to happen in your gut! Prebiotics can be found in specific complex carbohydrates: fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
Finally, polyphenols, micronutrients that naturally occur in plants, seem to encourage the growth of good bacteria in your gut, too.
Improving your gut health is as simple as adding foods from all three categories to your diet.
Best foods for gut health
Making sure you have a healthy gut really is as easy as eating the right foods. Those include:
Certain fermented foods. The fermentation process encourages probiotics to grow, but not all fermented foods contain the live organisms your gut needs (that’s why some yogurt and kefir labels promise “live and active cultures”). Pasteurizing foods to kill unsafe bacteria for longer shelf life can also wipe out probiotics, so buy fermented items from the refrigerator case, not grocery store shelves. In addition to yogurt and kefir, probiotic foods to look for include sauerkraut, miso, and kimchi. Pickles may also be a good choice, but read labels closely — the pickling process must allow the cucumbers or other vegetables to ferment, not just sit in vinegar or salt. Although it’s fermented, almost all tempeh is sold pasteurized, so you won’t see much probiotic benefit from eating it.
Carbs with prebiotic fiber. While fiber in general is good for your health, not all fiber will encourage the gut bacteria you want. What you need are specific kinds of carbohydrates, which include inulin and other oligosaccharides. You’ll find them in fiber-rich whole grains like oats, barley, and wheat, in legumes like lentils and soybeans, in veggies like tomatoes, asparagus, leeks, and artichokes, and in fruits like bananas and berries.
Foods with polyphenols. At the top of the richest foods in polyphenols are cocoa powder and dark chocolate, hazelnuts and pecans, plums and cherries, coffee, and olives.
Ready to start eating for gut health? Check out these tasty recipes.
Recipes that provide probiotics
Remember — natural fermentation makes the difference here, so look for that message or the words “live and active cultures” on the label.
This cheater’s version of the Korean dish bibimbap is on the table in minutes. Tons of raw veggies, a fried egg, and store-bought kimchi top simply cooked rice, and a sweet-and-spicy sauce ties it all together.
Frozen strawberries and pitted dates lend sweetness to tart, plain kefir, while fresh basil leaves add a fresh, herbal flavor. Drink this as a quick mid-afternoon snack, and it’ll see you through until dinner.
Normally, because of the corned beef, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, you wouldn’t think of a Rueben as a health-promoting sandwich. This version replaces the meat with tempeh and the dressing with a tahini-based spread, but it keeps that nice gooey cheese and probiotic sauerkraut.
If pasteurization and other heating kills probiotics, how can miso soup work? Simple: Add the miso once the pot’s already off the burner. The soup is still warm and comforting, and with tofu, soba noodles, and watercress, it’s plenty filling, too.
What better way to ensure your pickles are fully probiotic than to ferment them yourself? The process doesn’t need any particular skill — just time. This recipe shows you how to pickle almost any vegetable, but you can choose your own adventure and stick with just one kind (and four to six ingredients).
Recipes to get your prebiotics
To encourage your gut bacteria, you need to choose foods with specific kinds of carbohydrates. Each of these recipes includes some.
Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes, are very high in the prebiotic fiber called inulin. Roasting them brings out their sweet, nutty flavor — and tossing them with miso at the end of cooking makes them even more gut-friendly.
Ready for dunking in just minutes thanks to a quick buzz in the food processor, this classic, spicy dip is great with all kinds of Mexican food.
Unlike their brown, black, or green cousins, red lentils break down as they cook. In this easy Indian classic, they’re stewed with baby spinach and plenty of spices and garnished with a hearty handful of chopped cilantro.
What’s French Onion Soup without the cheese? It’s luscious, satisfying, and uncomplicated — the sweet, mellow flavor of the caramelized onions really shines.
This looks like a treat, doesn’t it? You’d never guess these yummy bars will do wonders for your gut health, thanks to prebiotics like oats, bananas, and blueberries.
Recipes featuring polyphenols
Polyphenols appear in some decidedly fun foods, which leads to dishes you’d eat even if they weren’t so good for you.
This is basically a chocolate milkshake you can have for breakfast. On top of the polyphenols you’ll get from the dark chocolate and cocoa powder, there are more from the bananas, nuts, and berries.
Turning strong brewed coffee — a great source of polyphenols — into ice cubes and buzzing them with oat milk creates a slushy, lightly sweet pick-me-up that feels much more indulgent than it really is.
Sprinkle a single tablespoon of brown sugar on top of plum halves along with crushed star anise, then roast until the fruit turns soft and deeply sweet. The recipe calls for serving it with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, but if you use vanilla yogurt instead, you’ll get a bonus helping of probiotics.
Just as it does with plums, roasting softens olives and intensifies their flavor. Before you pop them in the oven, toss these mixed olives with garlic, lemon slices, jalapeño chili, herbs, capers, and cubes of salty feta cheese. Serve this recipe with crusty bread, and you’ll have a luscious dish for a fine lunch.
You won’t believe how easy it is to make this gelato-inspired frozen dessert. Nobody will guess it also offers gut-friendly polyphenols and probiotics, thanks to frozen cherries and Greek yogurt.
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