The Microbiome Explained
Everyone has a microbiome, a unique collection of more than 100 trillion microbes that live in and on your body. The majority of these microbes live in the large intestine. What are we talking about, you ask? Your gut (aka small and large intestines and digestive system) is full of trillions of tiny organisms, and you have between 300 and 500 different strains of bacteria living in your intestines, which help your gut carry out its work. What work you ask? The gut bacteria helps with digestion, destroys harmful bacteria and helps control your immune system. There are certain foods that help create a healthy gut microbiome, while others may have a negative effect.
Inflammatory foods, which include ultra-processed snack foods, red meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages, can cause imbalances in the gut microbiome that increase inflammation throughout your body. Sadly, over time, that inflammation can elevate the risk for certain diseases, such as heart disease, or exacerbate inflammatory conditions like asthma and diabetes.
These foods can also affect the pH of the food moving through your gut, lowering it and making it more acidic, which can harm your microbiome. They can also raise blood sugar levels, impacting insulin. Eating to improve your gut health means choosing foods to support the multitude of healthy bacteria that live in the gut – while avoiding others that fuel the bad bacteria growth. And you’ll never guess what’s good for the good bacteria and what to avoid 😉
Sugary foods and drinks
Yes! You guessed it. No. 1 on the naughty list. Excess sugar is one of the worst offenders for gut health. A 2018 study in the Journal Nutrients found that mice fed a diet high in added sugar experienced an alteration in the make up of their gut microbiome, leading to the so-called leaky gut, and increased inflammation. To top it all, this in turn, can also lead to increased rates of fatty liver disease. Super!
If sugar harms gut health, artificial sweeteners should help you avoid that problem, right? Not so fast, Sweet N’ Low... Artificial sweeteners are anotherculprit of poor gut health. Artificial sweeteners pass through the body undigested, negatively affecting your gut's microflora.
The federal government's 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends moderate drinking for those who like to tip a few...but what does moderate actually mean? The guidelines suggest that “moderate” is defined as two drinks or less daily for men and one drink or less for women (What about one drink in a really large glass? 😄 Drinking more alcohol than this amount can harm your gut microbiome. Research published in the Journal Gut Microbes in 2020 suggests that drinking alcohol in excess can be associated with dysbiosis, which is a process that occurs when the bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract gets out of whack. Dysbiosis is associated with many health problems, including acid reflux, acne, psoriasis, other skin rashes, anxiety, constipation, cramps, diarrhea, bloating, and, sigh, gas.
Saturated fat, an abundant feature of fried foods, is also hard on the gut, making these foods more difficult for your body to digest than fresh fruits and vegetables. The palm and coconut oils often used for frying food are rich in saturated and trans fats, which also cause inflammation..
Diets high in red meat and fats are especially bad for gut health. Fatty meats like burgers, sausage, and bacon can all be problematic since the bad bacteria feed on red meat. When they do this, they release enzymes called sialidases that can lead to inflammation. Interested in learning more about this? Check out this research article.
Diets high in red meat are also linked to colon cancer and heart disease. A diet rich in high-fat foods (according to 2015 research in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care) can decrease the number of beneficial gut bacteria and increase those that can damage the intestines, thus leading to inflammation.
Processed foods containing additives are also on the foods-to-avoid list. Not only do they lack diversity and are low in fiber, but many ultra-processed foods also contain lots of added sugar, which as we know, is gut-unfriendly. Those processed foods include bacon, ham, pate, sausage, cakes, cookies, processed lunch meats, and soft drinks.
For goodness sake - what CAN I eat?
The diverse population of good gut bacteria loves to feast on fiber.. We recommend a balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Prebiotics are plant fibers that the healthy bacteria in the gut love to feed on. Adding more prebiotic foods can help ensure this population of bacteria thrives. You don't need to take a pill to get these gems. Our favorite prebiotic foods include bananas, raspberries, other fruits, leeks, onions, and other vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains.
Probiotic foods are also fantastic for gut health and contain strains of live, healthy bacteria that can help repopulate the gut with the right kind of microbes. Probiotic foods are typically fermented and sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, and miso.
The Bottom Line:
A healthy, balanced, plant-forward diet with plenty of unprocessed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds is good for you and good for your gut. These foods are excellent for the microbiome and help feed beneficial bacteria. They are anti-inflammatory and do not cause a spike in blood sugar. They also keep the pH of your gut a little higher which is much healthier for the microbiome. Taking care of our gut microbiome is essential by being mindful of what we put in it. Prioritizing fiber and avoiding processed foods, while limiting sugar and alcohol will have a wonderful impact on the health of our microbiome.
Like Mom says; Moderation, Moderation, Moderation.
While avoiding processed foods is best, we don't want to scare you into thinking they can never eat a cookie or French fry again! It's all about balance! A plant forward diet without added sugar and processed foods will take you far! Making good choices is a lifestyle, and we understand that adding the occasional (key word - occasional) indulgence is part of life. We can sustainably reach our health goals by maintaining a healthy, plant-rich diet and enjoying the occasional treat!!!