If you know, you know. Perhaps it’s the unexplained bloating, the discomfort of going to the toilet, the random skin breakouts or the cramps which seem to come out of the blue. Whatever your symptoms, they all seem to stem from one place: your gut.
Gut health has been a buzz term for some time now, seeping so much into the collective conscious of Australians that kombucha is now readily available at every supermarket — and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi have become staples in the diet of the health-aware. But what exactly does our gut have to do with our overall health and why are we only just realising now?
“Our gut carries a great range of bacteria and other microorganisms, forming the gut microbiota. This microbiota communicates with the immune system and participates and many metabolic processes including regulating appetite hormones, nutrient absorption and digestion, which are important in keeping us feeling healthy and well,” Pennie Taylor, senior researcher dietitian at the CSIRO’s Health and Biosecurity and co-author of The CSIRO Healthy Gut Diet tells Vogue. “A poorly functioning gut can lead to the development of many chronic health problems and the general feeling of discomfort that can lead to reducing the quality of your life,” she says.
Causing everything from discomfort to more serious pain, an unhealthy — or imbalanced — gut can affect every person on every diet, from vegetarians to those following a gluten free lifestyle. And with flow on effects including links to bad mental health and a lower resistance to antibiotics (according to this 2018 study), improving your gut health might just be the key to unlocking a number of more serious health problems.
To begin, Taylor suggest getting to know the types of fibre that research shows our gut needs to thrive. Named resistant starch, this type of fibre is “preferentially fermented by our gut bacteria creating a by-product called butyrate. Digestion of resistant starch has a flow on effect for gut wall integrity, aiding in healthy digestion and optimising immune function for improving overall health,” she says, citing research that shows a higher intake of resistant starch can aid in reducing everything from cardiovascular disease to colorectal cancer and type 2 Diabetes.
So what are the foods to steer clear of, and where do we find the biggest culprits of bad gut health? “Commonly processed foods and beverages that are high in salt and or sugar and low in dietary fibre have a negative impact on your gut over time, this includes alcohol,” Taylor says. “There is strong evidence, outlined recently in The Journal of Translational Medicine, 2017, highlighting that a traditional Western diet which is high in animal fat, salt, animal protein and low in dietary fibre reduced the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut.”
When it comes to planning gut-friendly meals, Taylor suggests starting out with a realistic plan. Trying to overhaul your entire diet isn’t productive, she says, but starting off with simple changes to introduce more fibre and resistant starch can do wonders.
“For breakfast, go with your traditional oats, cooked and topped with some mixed seeds and some probiotic vanilla yoghurt. For daily snacks at home or at work, having some cashews, fresh fruit with the skins on — such as blueberries or raspberries — can be a beneficial snack,” she suggests.
For lunch, Taylor recommends a whole grain or barley-based bread or wrap, filled with leafy green vegetables, artichoke hearts (“in brine”) and filled with a serve of protein source such as tofu, lentils or chickpeas. For animal based proteins, Taylor says lean meat, fish or poultry are your best bets.
“Your mains at dinner can be accompanied by a small portion of cooked chilled potato salad with plenty of green peas added or even a green leafy salad with a portion of cooked legumes or artichoke added for the resistant starch boost,” she says.
As for the famous FODMAP diet, Taylor suggests those not already cleared by a GP or dietitian to undertake it should steer clear. Something of a fad in health circles in 2018, the diet is an elimination of certain key food groups — but should only be followed by those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, as the diet only works for those with severe symptoms, and shouldn’t be a substitute for an alternative healthy gut diet.
“FODMAPs are commonly found naturally occurring in some fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and wheat based foods – these foods are naturally higher in fermentable fibre, prebiotics and many other beneficial nutrients. Removing these from your diet without guidance from a trained health professional may lead longer term poor health outcomes for your gut and overall health,” she says.
So there you have it. Cut the FODMAP, but up the potato salad, people.
The CSIRO Healthy Gut Diet is out now.