Let food be thy medicine…for better gut health.
What you eat (or don’t eat) and how you eat (your dietary habits) are arguably two of the biggest influences on your gut health, starting with these 7 essentials for how to eat for better gut health:
7 Essentials to Eat for Better Gut Health
Essential #1: Healthy Gut Bacteria Does a Body Good
Probiotic bacteria (healthy gut bacteria) and a gut comprised of a diverse variety of healthy gut bacteria generally do a body (really) good. Unless you have bacterial overgrowth or severe dysbiosis, adding in 1-3 condiment-sized servings of fermented foods is recommended.
Essential #2: Carbs Are Cool
Contrary to popular no-carb and low-carb diet hype, if there is one food that is associated with the increase in microbial diversity and growth of healthy bacteria (along with a host of other side effects like: reduced inflammation, weight loss, improved immune function and digestion) it is carbs—specifically prebiotic fibers and carbohydrates that foster the growth of short chain fatty acids (1-2). Carbohydrates are the principal carbon and energy source for forming healthy colonic microbes, and pre-biotic fibers are arguably more important than probiotics (since they help your probiotics stick in the first place). PubMed boasts over 4,000 studies alone on the topic, and today, while the most consumed foods in the American diet include: pizza, bread, high fructose corn syrup (sweetener) and grain-based desserts, alcohol, orange and apple juice (for our fruits) and potatoes and tomatoes (for veggies), the top foods of our healthy ancestors were based on a primarily plant-based diet (starchy plants, leaves, nuts and seeds, fruits). The average ancestral diet included 100 grams or more of fiber a day. The average American diet includes less than 15 grams of fiber. Hello carbs!
Prebiotic and short-chain fatty acid fibers include:
- Green plantains and bananas
- Cooked & cooled potatoes/sweet potatoes
- Soluble fibers (winter squash, squash, roasted carrots, beets)
- Dark leafy greens
- Cooked & cooled white rice
- Onion & garlic
- Chicory root
- Soaked, sprouted beans
- Coconut meat & flour
- Flax, hemp & chia seeds
- Raw honey
- Tomatoes (fresh)
- Ginger root
Dilemma: But I feel worse on carbs!!!
This is a common phenomenon many with gut issues experience, especially those with gut infections, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, blood sugar imbalances, dysbiosis or another gut pathology. The key here is not that carbs are innately “bad,” but instead that they may not be good for you “right now”—at least until you address the underlying root imbalance.
Essential #3: Protein is Also Important
Similar to the beneficial effects of the fermentation of fiber in the gut, proteins and amino acids are also fermented by large bowel bacteria and are often overlooked when discussing gut health diet—particularly since plant-based diets have been coined “the food trend” in recent years and nearly 1 in 10 people self-identify as being vegan or vegetarian.
The key difference in “gut friendly” protein versus pathogenic, non-gut-friendly protein? Quality.
Quality dietary protein serves as the major source of nitrogen for healthy colonic microbial growth and is essential to their assimilation of carbohydrates and the production of beneficial products in the gut, such as SCFA (short chain fatty acids)—key sources of energy for healthy bacteria and reducing inflammation and toxicity. Dietary essential amino acid (protein) intake has also been shown to increase the abundance of Bacteroidetes (healthy gut bacteria), regulate fat and carb use in the body (i.e. prevent “sugar” crashes, feeling hangry, and fat storage), boost metabolism, and prevent inflammation and oxidation involved in disease (3-6).
Hence, a diet that includes not only prebiotic fibers (carbs), but also essential amino acids (protein) are perhaps the most important nutrients that contribute to bowel health. Proteins are also the key nutrient sources for the formation of digestive enzymes by gut bacteria—necessary for breaking down all foods and digesting them well. Since humans are unable to synthesize numerous amino acids on our own, we must obtain them from proteins in food to maintain health—preferably sustainably raised proteins that have not been administered hormones, antibiotics or subjected to poor quality lifestyles.
Top sources of gut healing proteins with complete essential amino acids include:
- Pastured, organic poultry (chicken, turkey)
- Wild-caught fatty fish
- Organic organ meats
- Collagen protein
- Bone broth/meat broth
- Pastured eggs (if tolerated)
- Wild game (venison, duck, elk, ostrich, etc.)
- Moderate amounts of grass-fed beef/bison
Note: Many plant proteins (i.e. beans, nuts, seeds) are actually better sources of fiber—not protein. In addition, while these foods can be a healthy part of a balanced diet, these sources can also be inflammatory to some people with underlying gut issues due to the anti-nutrients (lectins and phytates) that plant-based protein sources contain(especially if not properly prepared—soaked and sprouted). Anti-nutrients act like “binders” to nutrients in the food itself, inhibiting complete absorption, since anti-nutrients are actually meant to protect plants from weather and predators in the wild. So you’re saying no nuts? Experiment: Try taking a short-term break from anti-nutrient containing foods, in favor of a variety of “gut healing” foods (i.e. broths, prebiotic and probiotic foods, cooked and softened vegetables, sustainably raised proteins, natural herbs and spices), followed by a reintroduction 30-90 days later and see how you feel.
But I Don’t Like to Eat Lots of Protein….
No, you don’t have to eat protein with every meal, but minimal recommendations would be anywhere from 10-30% of the diet containing quality protein. (See “Fuel: What to Eat” in the Resources at the back of this book for more on gut-healing vegetarian and vegan tactics).
Essential #4: Variety is the Spice of Life
Simply put: A diverse diet does a gut microbiome good. When we eat the same things, day in and day out, we not only deprive our bodies of certain key nutrients but we also deprive our gut bacteria of a variety of foods that encourage the growth and diversity of our that gut bacteria. Additionally, if there’s one takeaway from the “history of diets” and the top “gut healing diets” we’ve discussed, it is this: The more, nutrient-dense real foods the better. Simply put: meat and fish, vegetables, fruits, healthy plant and animal fats. Humans generally ate in tune with the seasons (i.e. variety!) and whatever was available at the time on the “market.” Your body benefits similarly.
Essential #5: Cook, Sautee, Stew, Mash, Steam, Chew, Shredded & Beyond
Cooked, softened, lightly steamed and well-chewed foods are easier to digest—particularly for those with overt digestive issues. If you tolerate raw foods (such as raw carrots or celery), more power to you, but generally speaking, the more broken down the food, the easier it is for the GI tract to break the food down if you’re suffering or recovering from tummy issues. In time, the strength to break down your veggies again can be won!
Essential #6: Hydrate
Water is the most essential nutrient for all human life. More than 70% of you is water and water is essential for keeping things flowing (digestion included). Without enough water, we run dry and bodily processes slow—digestion included.
Essential #7: Combine Foods Wisely
A varied diet is king in a gut healthy diet, but not all foods digest well together. Optimize digestion by practicing some of these healthy food combining practices. The concept of food combining is based on the premise that fruits, proteins and starches digest at different times. Improper food combining can cause gas, indigestion, bloating, metabolic imbalances and eventually speed the process of aging.
- Complex starches & proteins are best eaten separately (or a smaller amount of one when combined with the other).
- Eat fruit alone or with simple foods (smoothie, yogurt, etc.)
- Pair protein with non-starchy veggies.
- Pair starches with healthy fats and vegetables.
- Leafy greens, non-starchy vegetables, herbs & spices go with everything.
- Eat a condiment sized serving of fermented foods with meals.
- Drink water away from meals.
- Minimalist meals digest best.
The bottom line: Eating for a better gut health is not rocket science. If symptoms strike when you do eat a certain “healthy” food (from broccoli to almonds to eggs to apples), simply use it as a context clue that something else may be going on under the hood.
- Sutton, Elizabeth & Beyl, Robbie & Early, Kate & T. Cefalu, William & Ravussin, Eric & Peterson, Courtney. (2018). Early Time-Restricted Feeding Improves Insulin Sensitivity, Blood Pressure, and Oxidative Stress Even without Weight Loss in Men with Prediabetes. Cell Metabolism. 27. 10.1016/j.cmet.2018.04.010.
- Slavin J. (2013). Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients, 5(4), 1417-35. doi:10.3390/nu5041417
- Cummings J.H., Macfarlane G.T. The control and consequences of bacterial fermentation in the human colon. J. Appl. Bacteriol. 1991;70:443–459. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2672.1991.tb02739.x.
- Bifari, F., Ruocco, C., Decimo, I., Fumagalli, G., Valerio, A., & Nisoli, E. (2017). Amino acid supplements and metabolic health: a potential interplay between intestinal microbiota and systems control. Genes & nutrition, 12, 27. doi:10.1186/s12263-017-0582-2
- Topping D.L., Clifton P.M. Short-chain fatty acids and human colonic function: Roles of resistant starch and nonstarch polysaccharides. Physiol. Rev. 2001;81:1031–1064.
- Donohoe D.R., Garge N., Zhang X., Sun W., O’Connell T.M., Bunger M.K., Bultman S.J. The microbiome and butyrate regulate energy metabolism and autophagy in the mammalian colon. Cell. Metab. 2011;13:517–526. d