Improve your gut health
If you’ve got your finger on the pulse when it comes to nutrition, the importance of gut health will not be ‘news’ to you. In fact, the more we research gut health, the more we realise how central it is to all systems in our body. For example, it plays an important role in immunity, exercise tolerance, chronic disease risk, and even weight management (1). Most noticeably, gut health will influence our digestion, comfort, and bowel habits.
What you eat has a direct influence on gut health, particularly the types of bacteria that ‘live’ there (i.e. your gut microbiome). So, if you’re ‘tum’ isn’t feeling quite right and you’re suffering from wind and/or other symptoms such as fatigue or recurring colds, it may be time you considered a diet change.
You can ‘beat the bloat’ and improve your gut health by including these foods in your daily diet:
Fermented foods are natural sources of probiotics – i.e. ‘good’ bacteria that promote gut health. During the fermentation of foods at room temperature, natural sugars are converted to lactic acid, facilitating the growth of multiple varieties of good bacteria, including lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Observational studies have shown that people with high levels of lactobacilli and bifidobacterial usually have lower levels of inflammatory species such as Enterobacteriaceae (2)
The benefit of fermented foods over probiotic supplements, is that you can benefit from the nutrients within the food sources. Our top picks for fermented foods are:
1. Kefir – a fermented milk drink that’s naturally low in lactose, and one of the richest ‘natural’ sources of probiotics. Kefir often includes over 30 varieties, and up to 50 billion total probiotics per 250ml serve (3)! You can buy kefir in supermarkets these days, as well as health food stores. Kefir has a naturally bitter taste, so it can be tempting to select sugar or fruit-sweetened varieties. We recommend selecting a natural or unflavoured variety, which can be combined with fresh or frozen fruit in a smoothie, or used to create salad dressings or marinades. It can also be used as a substitute for buttermilk in many recipes.
2. Yoghurt – the ‘original’ probiotic food, and probably the most accessible. All yoghurts contain “ABC” probiotics, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus casei, with some brands fortifying their products with additional probiotics. Jalna, for example, fortifies their yoghurt with additional ABC probitoics, and quote a 600 million probiotic count per 200g serve. Avoid added refined sugars by selecting unflavoured yoghurts, and consider low-fat if you are trying to lose weight and/or reduce your cholesterol. Jalna offers a fantastic unflavoured, lactose-free variety for those with intolerance.
3. Sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented vegetables – diversify your intake by including fermented vegetables, which studies have suggested offer different probiotic strains to yoghurt and kefir (4,5). Most manufacturers do not comment on the variety or quantity of probiotic strains in their products, but we know they are there! Plus, fermented vegetables offer beneficial nutrients including fibre, vitamin C, folate and antioxidants. It’s easy to make your own, plus you can control the amount of sugar and salt added in the process. They makes a beautiful addition to sandwiches (think Reuben), salad bowls, traditional cuisines (i.e. Korean, Polish) – or enjoy it as a side dish with grilled protein and veg.
4. Kombucha - like kefir, kombucha (i.e. fermented tea) has risen from obscurity and can now be found in the trendiest cafes and health food stores. Studies investigating kombucha are limited, and when asked about kombucha, CSIRO senior researcher Dr Michael Conlon reports that the concentration of probiotics would likely be ‘much lower’ than in a commercial probiotic, kefir and possibly other fermented foods (6). Despite this, it presents a superior option to soft drinks, and with its base of tea, offers antioxidants as well. Watch out for the added sugars in some brands. We like Remedy Kombucha, which has less than 10g of added sugar per bottle for most flavours.
Prebiotics are dietary fibres that act as ‘food sources’ for good bacteria, promoting their growth and survival in the gut. Higher consumption of prebiotic foods has been linked to reduced growth of some disease-causing gut bacteria, as well as improved digestion and gut motility. Prebiotic fibres also play a role in delayed gastric emptying and stabilising blood sugar levels (2).
Our top picks for pre-biotic foods include:
1. Asparagus – Spring is the season for asparagus, which is an excellent source of antioxidants, vitamin C and inulin - a prebiotic fibre shown to increase the growth of health-promoting bifidobacteria (7). Enjoy asparagus cooked, or raw and thinly sliced in salads
2. Garlic - this list of health benefits for this tasty vegetable is a long one. Like asparagus, it is a good source of inulin. Garlic may also have anti-microbial and antioxidant properties, which will support gut health in alternate ways. Using garlic instead of salt to flavour meals can benefit your heart and kidney health as well as your gut.
3. Konjac root – a root vegetable with an extremely high prebiotic fibre content, native to Asia. It has been shown to improve gut health, relieve constipation, lower cholesterol and boost immunity (7). Konjac root is usually used for making ‘low carb’ noodles – an alternative to rice noodles. Some common brands available at the supermarket include Slendier, and Chang’s ‘low carb’.
4. Oats – Oats are an excellent source of beta-glucans, a prebiotic fibre that is also proven to assist with lowering cholesterol. Oats also contain ALA omega-3 fatty acids for heart health, protein for satiety, and low GI carbohydrates for long-lasting energy. Swapping processed cereals for oats in the morning will improve your gut health indirectly as well, by reducing refined sugar intake.
What if I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Some foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics, including some we have listed, are also sources of dietary FODMAPs. If you have IBS, some of these foods may aggravate, rather than relieve, bloating and other digestive symptoms. Speak to your GP or an Accredited Practising dietitian for low FODMAP options rich in probiotics and prebiotics, to help you overcome bloating.