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Eating for Gut Health

variety of food on wooden coaster
variety of food on wooden coaster
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Learning about gut health is quickly becoming the latest craze, and for good reasons.  People are realizing how closely related gut health is to overall immunity and whole person health.  You’ve probably learned about the health benefits of probiotics and prebiotics.  You can learn what microbes are and how they affect your health, or even how to feed your microbes and the types of foods that can cultivate a strong, diverse microbial community in the gut.  Here we are going to explore how to support gut health through nutrition and eating habits. 

Bio-Individuality

Nourishing the gut requires a holistic approach, specific to every individual.  No matter how healthy and beneficial some foods are, not all foods work for all people.  What works for one person may does not always work for the next.  So, a food that may be helpful to one person’s gut may be detrimental to someone who has digestive issues or dysbiosis.  This is especially true for people who may have candida, SIBO, IBS/IBD, celiac disease, and etcetera. 

Bio-individuality is the belief that there is no one perfect diet for optimal gut health.  Eating for gut health is largely biologically individualized.  Furthermore, our bodies change drastically from one phase of life to the next, so a diet that may have worked for you at one stage in your life may not necessarily work during another.

Four Pillars of Eating for Optimal Gut Health

1- Dietary Fundamentals

There are some foods that will impact nearly anyone’s gut health.

Some Foods to Avoid:

Highly processed and refined foods, including trans-fats or saturated fats, which reduce beneficial microbes in your gut flora. 

Added sugar in foods can often feed the wrong microbes.  Eating a diet high in sugar on a regular basis can throw off the balance of “good bugs” versus “bad bugs.”  This often influences sugar dependencies and other health or metabolic issues or encourages bacterial overgrowths like candida.

Food colorings, additives, and emulsifiers, such as red food dye, maltodextrin, polysorbate-80, all of which feed harmful or pathogenic gut microbes and promote intestinal inflammation. 

Artificial sweeteners have been known to disrupt the gut microbiome in such a significant way that they can cause sometimes violent bowel reactions.  They can also contribute to glucose intolerance and imbalanced or high blood sugar levels.

Excessive alcohol intake can increase intestinal inflammation and damage the lining of your gut. 

Some Foods to Encourage:

Whole, unprocessed foods that encourage the growth of commensal and beneficial gut microbes. 

Fruits and vegetables in a wide variety can provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber.  These are the essential foods that fuel and support the health and diversity of the “good bugs” in your gut.  When it comes to fresh foods versus canned or packaged foods, if you have a choice, always opt for fresh whenever possible.  The longer a food product sits on a shelf, the more nutrients it loses.  Additionally, many canned foods contain excess salt, sugar, or additives.  They are also occasionally packaged in lined packaging which may leech chemicals into your food which may be harmful to your health in excess amounts, such as BPA, and should ideally be limited or avoided.

Whole, unrefined grains that are rich in dietary fiber help beneficial gut bacteria flourish.  They also promote healthy bowel movements.  A diet rich in fiber is like a natural bottlebrush that regularly cleans your intestinal walls, sloughing off the dead intestinal cells and giving enough fuel to beneficial bacteria to continually maintain a strong barrier between the gut and other parts of the body, aka prevention of leaky gut.  When choosing grains, opt for whole grains or sprouted grains.  Sprouted grains are generally easier to digest because the sprout has broken down some of the proteins.  They also contain more digestive enzymes. 

Healthy fats, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids can actually decrease intestinal inflammation.  Healthy fats provide the body with fatty acids that help optimize energy storage and utilization in cells.  Omega-3 fatty acids increase the gut microbiota that help create anti-inflammatory compounds such as short-chain fatty acids.  These fats can be found in oily fish like salmon or cod, walnut, flax seeds, and more. 

Some people feel better when they also include animal proteins and dairy in their diet.  They should seek out minimally processed, high-quality sources which are grass-fed, pasture raised, organic, and non-gmo.  This helps reduce consumption of harmful chemicals and antibiotics which may harm the healthy bacteria in our gut. 

Drink an adequate amount of water each day.  Staying hydrated promotes satiety, overall health, and prevents constipation.  Dietary fiber depends on an ample amount of water for absorption and ease of passage from the small intestine and through the large intestine.

2- Food Preparation

Most often, foods that are cooked or warmed through are generally easier for the body to tolerate.  This is because the cell walls have broken down when foods are cooked.  It makes it easier for them to pass through the body and for the gut to grab hold of nutrients.  However, some people may feel best eating primarily raw foods.  They thrive with the fiber and have little trouble processing it as it passes through the body.  Conversely, some people may not be able to tolerate raw foods, and some people may feel better eating cold foods.  It largely comes down to a person’s bio-individuality and GI conditions.  This is especially apparent in people with gut motility issues or inflammatory bowel conditions. 

Steamed or baked foods are less greasy and retain a higher nutrient profile than fried or charbroiled foods, making them easier to digest. 

Charbroiled and barbequed foods should be consumed in moderation.  Cooking meats in this method can create chemicals called Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs).  HCAs form when amino acids and creatine react at high cooking temperatures such as grilling, charring, and blackening.  HCAs are considered mutagenic (may damage DNA) and carcinogenic (can cause cancer).

Greasier, fried or fatty foods can be difficult to digest and generally cause more inflammation by feeding harmful microbes in the gut, triggering GI symptoms for some people.  Because saturated and trans-fats are more difficult to digest, they can often cause bloating, nausea, and cramping for some people. 

High heat cooking methods can sometimes cause additional health risks as a result of the creation of harmful compounds such as advanced glycation end products (AGEs).  AGEs are proteins or lipids (fats) that become modified as a result of exposure to sugars.  They cause inflammation which can contribute to premature aging, organ damage, worsening of degenerative diseases such as diabetes mellitus, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and more.

3- Food Quality

Always consider the quality of the foods you choose to put into your body.  Choose whole or minimally processed foods whenever possible.  Having said that, nobody is going to judge you if you go for what you can afford or are more likely to eat.  Canned vegetables are better than zero vegetables.  The same goes for choosing regular vegetables or fruits if you cannot afford organic.  You’re still choosing nutrients over empty calories, and that is a great start.

Even healthy foods need to be processed sometimes.  The general rule is the fewer ingredients it has, the healthier it usually is.  In packaged foods, choose products with fewer than 5 ingredients.  Compare labels will help you notice some ingredients are better than others or other brands which might have fewer preservatives and are therefore more gut friendly. 

4- Eating Practices- How we eat and our mindset around meals

Empower your body and experiment with what works for you.  Eating with intention and awareness can support your gut health just as much as the foods that you choose to put into your body.  Optimal digestion occurs when our bodies are in a relaxed state, free from stress whenever possible.  This is why we so often hear the phrase Rest and Digest.  Even the way we feel about our food can influence our body’s ability to digest it.  You can practice mindfulness by considering mealtime as an act of nourishing your body in gratitude and service to it.  All of these factors can influence whether or not we experience GI symptoms, gas, bloating, indigestion, etc. and promote nutrient absorption, healthy motility, and a happy gut biome. 

Do Not Deprive Yourself

Never try to overhaul your diet and lifestyle all at once.  A sustainable way of life is one which is done in thoughtful, incremental steps rather than large, drastic changes.  A good goal is to avoid feelings of deprivation.  Focus on treating your body to all the good things it deserves and craves for optimal nutrition first, and the lesser foods or activities later.  By prioritizing your health and establishing good habits, you will find that you have naturally crowded out many places in your lifestyle where you used to opt for less nourishing foods and activities.  Small changes lead to great improvements.

And always remember to consult a physician regarding specific foods and therapies which can be beneficial to treat any medical condition.  It is outside the role of a health coach to prescribe any type of diet or supplement, or to create meal plans for a client.  It’s not the job for a health coach to tell someone what specific foods they should or should not eat. 

A health coach provides a vital role in supporting physicians and their patients in living a healthy lifestyle.  A holistic nutrition coach can encourage accountability, help clients to make sense of a vast array of dietary information, implement dietary guidelines in practical and sustainable ways, and provide support in both primary and secondary means of nourishment.

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