We have all grown up hearing the phrase, “Eat your fruits, veggies and whole grains – they’re good for you!” And it’s true – they are extremely good for us. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables are loaded with essential vitamins, minerals and fiber. These foods are not only good for us, but they are also good for our gut microbiota.
You’re now likely wondering “What exactly is gut microbiota?”
Gut microbiota is a term used to describe the trillions of bacteria, comprised of thousands of species and strains, residing in our intestinal tract. Don’t be alarmed – these are friendly bacteria! While we provide these bacteria a safe place to live and food to eat, our gut microbiota help us stay healthy in return. The gut microbiota are an important part of our immune system, aiding us in the ability to fight off bad bacteria and infections. The gut microbiota produce many important enzymes and essential vitamins as well as assist with digestion of foods that we cannot digest.
The composition of the gut microbiota is pretty well established by the age of 3 years old. As we are sterile in utero, our intestine first becomes colonized with bacteria during delivery and then by our first feeding. Research has shown the importance of maternal bacteria for optimal colonization, as babies born vaginally have differing gut microbial composition from those which are delivered by Cesarean section. Many medical authorities strongly suggest that breastfeeding is optimal for babies. This is partly due to the immune components found in breast milk. Breast milk also has friendly bacteria as well as oligosaccharides, a form of carbohydrate which becomes the food source for the friendly bacteria. The gut microbiota develop rapidly as the infant diet changes from a milk-based liquid diet to the introduction of solid foods.
However, there are many lifestyle and environmental factors that can negatively impact the composition of the gut microbiota. Ideally, the gut microbiota is comprised of a rich and diverse blend of bacteria. Studies evaluating the gut microbiota reveal that certain medications (e.g., antibiotics, antacids), stressors (e.g., metabolic, physical, and psychological), and diet (e.g., high fat and sugar) decrease this diversity and allow for bad bacteria to invade. This is termed gut dysbiosis. These alterations are concerning as many chronic health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome are associated with gut dysbiosis.
So, what can you do to maximize the health of your gut microbiota and prevent gut dysbiosis?
Diet is one of the biggest influencers on the composition of the gut microbiota. Tweet This!
What you eat every day not only fuels your “human cells” it also fuels your bacterial cells. Therefore, you are not eating for one type, but for trillions! Maximizing the nutrient density of your diet to optimally support your gut microbiota is the way to go.
The gut microbiota prefer to feed off fiber, especially soluble fermentable fiber. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend to consume 25-35 gm of fiber/day. Most people barely consume half of this amount daily. It is recommended to consume a balance of both insoluble and soluble fiber. Foods such as wheat bran, brown rice, whole grain couscous, barley, nuts, seeds, carrots, zucchini, celery, dark leafy vegetables, dried fruits, and tomatoes are rich in insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber helps you maintain regular bowel movements and avoid constipation. Soluble fiber is found in foods such as beans, peas, lentils, oatmeal, oat bran, nuts, seeds, apples, green bananas, pears, blueberries, artichokes, and boiled potatoes. Soluble fiber consumption not only may aid with appetite control, but is also associated with lowering the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes through its beneficial effects on bad cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Consuming fermented foods and probiotics is another way to beneficially alter your gut microbiota. Fermented foods (e.g., yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchee, sauerkraut) are produced or preserved by the action of microorganisms which convert carbohydrates into organic acids. This is the process in which alcoholic drinks (beer, wine, cider) are made, bread is leavened, and food is preserved such as converting cabbage into sauerkraut. When consuming fermented foods, you may be consuming both the active cultures and their beneficial fermentation byproducts. Probiotics are live active cultures that when consumed in adequate amounts provide health benefits. Probiotics should be bacteria that has been isolated from a human, must be able to survive the acid in the stomach and reach the lower intestine. Health benefits of probiotics typically vary by the individual bacterial strain.
Research is constantly updating us about how important it is to keep our gut microbiota happy, and the best way is through adjustments in our lifestyle that includes a well-balanced diet for both our human and bacterial cells.