What is the gut and why does its health matter?
Gut health has been a trending topic as emerging research shows links between gut health and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders and mental health.
The ‘gut’ is a term that refers to our digestive track, specifically our small and large intestine which house trillions of microorganisms. The main microorganisms present in the gut are bacteria that form our unique gut ‘microbiota’. Our gut microbiota is composed of strains of bacteria that need a diverse range of foods to thrive.
Everyone’s gut microbiota is shaped early in life, but can vary in adulthood depending on dietary habits, exercise frequency, body mass index (BMI) and lifestyle habits. A healthy gut microbiota will help promote immunity, prevent disease development, and keep your bowels regular.
How can I improve my gut health through nutrition?
There are good and bad bacteria in our intestinal track which are profoundly affected by dietary and environmental factors.
For our gut microbiota to thrive we need:
- A varied diet that is high in fibre – this will increase the diversity of our gut microbiota and produce beneficial metabolites which will improve our health and immunity.
- Limit processed foods high in fat, refined sugar and low in fibre – this will increase the bad bacteria and can be detrimental to our health.
- A diet high in fruits and vegetables, wholegrain breads and cereals, olive oil and legumes, nuts and seeds, and a moderate amount of lean meats – this will increase the good bacteria and help produce ant-inflammatory compounds, improving inflammation in our gut and body.
Five foods to eat to improve gut health
- Nuts – high in fibre – and act as a prebiotic which provide a food source for good bacteria, thus maintaining a healthy gut microbiota. Aim for a ¼ cup of unsalted nuts a day.
- Rye bread – high in fibre, 2 slices of rye bread have around 5g of fibre which is more than 15% of the recommended fibre intake for your day.
- Legumes – high in fibre, legumes and lentils help to keep us regular by bulking up our stools and act as a prebiotic. Add to soups, stews, salads or roast with vegetables – aim for 2 cups a week.
- Yoghurt – fermented foods, such as yoghurt, contain probiotics which are live bacteria. Probiotics will help maintain the good bacteria in your gut and promote a healthy digestive tract. Aim to have yoghurt or fermented milk drinks (i.e kefir) every day.
- Fruit and vegetables – eating a variety of colours and types of food has been shown for bacterial diversity which in turn is better for immunity and overall health. Aim for 2 pieces of fruit a day and 2 handfuls of vegetables at meals.
Gut health for mental health
There’s emerging research that has found that an imbalance of gut bacteria and of the gut has been linked to several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression. This is because there is a link between our gut health and the amount of serotonin produced, the hormone that helps regulate your mood.
A diet that is low in fibre and fermented foods and thus prebiotics and probiotics puts you at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions. Limit fast food, soft drink, chips, chocolates, lollies, commercial baked goods and processed meats. These are ‘treat’ foods and should be enjoyed for special occasions!
Author: Kate McDermott (Accredited Practising Dietitian), East Lake Macquarie Dementia Service