There are two main ways to improve the state of the microbiome in your gut. You can add more bacteria into it and you can look after the bacteria that are there already.
How do you do that? By eating and drinking the right kind of stuff. We spoke to Jo Travers, a dietitian working with the campaign Love Your Gut Week, to find out what kind of stuff that is.
Can you just add particular foods to your diet to help your gut health?
You need to have a balanced approach. You can’t just add in something “good” like a probiotic and expect all your problems to go away. Your starting point should be, have I got enough energy, enough protein, enough fresh fruit and veg? The latter is where we’re getting the fibre, vitamins and minerals from.
I always say the first thing to do is think about your plate split into three. You have half your plate filled with veg, or a mixture of fruit and veg, a quarter of protein and a quarter of carbohydrates. If you do that the chances of getting everything you need and not too much of what you don’t need are really high. From that point you can start to fine-tune it, but unless you’ve got those basics in place the fine-tuning isn’t going to make any difference.
Is it more important to eat probiotic foods or focus on your fibre intake?
It’s a balance. By all means having some probiotic foods is brilliant. When you introduce friendly or useful bacteria into your system, the bacteria that already live there can make use of that as well because bacteria can swap genes with each other. That’s a good thing to do.
Once you’ve got useful bacteria there the key is to maintain it. When we take a probiotic product we’re generally just taking one or a few different strains of bacteria, but there are a great deal more than that already living in there, and each bacteria thrives on a different type of fibre. The more variety in the types of fibre you eat, the more likely it is you’re going to be able to sustain the bacteria that are living there.
We call these fibres prebiotics. Probiotics are the ones you add into your system, and prebiotics feed the bacteria already living there.
What are some examples of probiotic and prebiotic foods?
Probiotics are things like yogurt, which is a fermented food, and kefir and kombucha. All of those naturally fermented foods will contain some probiotics. Traditionally fermented soy sauce will contain probiotics, but generally the stuff we get from the supermarket isn’t traditionally fermented and there’s not a great deal of probiotic in there. It’s a similar story with tofu, which is quite highly processed, but the more traditional form of soy protein – tempeh – has lots of probiotics in it.
With prebiotics it’s anything with fibre in it. So fruit, veg, nuts, seeds and wholegrains are the staple prebiotics in our diet.
And eating a variety of these foods is key to looking after your gut?
Yes. There was a study done fairly recently that found people who ate 30 or more different plant foods in a week had a much more varied gut microbiota in their digestive system compared with those who only ate ten or fewer different plant foods a week.
Different colours, different types – it all counts. If you’re having a salad, you could just have your lettuce, cucumber and tomato salad, but actually what I do is add things like jars of roasted vegetables, olives, pine nuts and seeds to my salad. Not only do you get something that tastes really nice without really doing any extra work because you’re just adding it from a packet, you also get all those other different kinds of fibres, as well as the vitamins and minerals that come with those foods.
You don’t need to eat too much of each type then?
Exactly. Just think “what can I add to this to make it even better?” So if you’re making pasta with tomato sauce, for example, adding in a couple of handfuls of frozen spinach adds nutrition, and you’re also adding a different type of fibre as well without much extra work. Remember, all plant foods count: dried, canned, frozen, fresh and wholegrains.
Written by Nick Harris-Fry for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.