Over the past few years, the relatively obscure topic of gut health has gone mainstream. It’s an exciting step in the right direction, as gut health really is incredibly important for overall health and wellbeing, and we would all benefit greatly from eating in a gut healthy manner. It’s fascinating to see the sharp increase in interest, as demonstrated by the Google Trends chart below. Those who have been eating for gut health know that this trend is only the beginning.
Of all nutritional interventions, gut healthy eating has been the most powerful tool for my family’s health journey. The unbelievable impact from eating food for gut health that we’ve personally experienced (see Isaac’s story here) is what led me to create my online program, Quirky Cooking for Gut Health, where get into the practical “how to’s” of gut health based on the GAPS protocol, with videos, tutorials, meal plans and recipes. I wanted to share the information and simple ‘food hacks’ that we found most helpful for beginning this way of eating, which is why I wrote the program.
Our gut plays many roles when it comes to our health and well being. The health of the gut itself is therefore paramount when it comes to the larger health of the individual. There are two major factors to consider when looking at gut health:
The lining of our gut absorbs and transports nutrients across the intestinal wall. This is facilitated by the semi-permeable nature of the gut lining, which allows small particles of nutrients to cross into the blood stream but stops larger molecules, such as proteins and microbes from entering. The gut lining is also where the most number of immune cells are produced. If the gut lining is not healthy, our immune system is directly compromised. The gut lining can also become leaky, allowing large, unwanted molecules to pass into the blood stream. As these large molecules enter our blood stream, our immune system responds with inflammation which leads to a host of health issues. Any gut healing diet must address the health of the gut lining.
There is 10 times more microbial DNA in and on us than there is human DNA. The gut contains an incredible number of bacteria, fungi, yeast and viruses that are important for our health. They play a large variety of complex roles that range from food digestion to manufacturing vitamins. The absence or presence of certain species, or even the relative ratios of bacterial species determines how healthy we are. Our modern life places a lot of stress on our gut health. Anything from chlorinated water to antibiotics or eating refined foods will have a direct impact on the microbiome. Eating to support existing beneficial microbes and to reduce the population of harmful microbes is necessary for gut health.
Now that we’ve covered some basics of gut health, let’s take a look at the Top 5 Foods that should be included in a gut healthy diet.
Bone broth is now appearing in cafes around the country, which is wonderful news as it is one of the most gut healing foods around. Bones from grass-fed cows or lamb, free range chicken or wild caught fish make a highly nutritious broth that contains gelatine, a compound with numerous health benefits. Specifically for the gut, gelatine increases gastric acid secretion for improved digestion, and restores a healthy mucosal stomach lining, which seals the gut for decreased permeability. Don’t be deterred by the name bone broth, a good quality chicken soup is rich in gelatine, as is any other bone-based soup. You can also buy powdered gelatine (see here) or powdered collagen (see here), which is a great supplement to have in your pantry for those days when the whole food option of broth or stock is unavailable. Gelatine powder can be added to hot liquids to turn them into a jelly. Collagen does not jellify but easily dissolves in cold water.
What’s old is new again. Fermented foods are a cornerstone staple in traditional cuisines. Ferments such as yoghurt, sauerkraut or fermented vegetables, kefir, kombucha, apple cider vinegar and kimchi are delicious additions to our diet, and contain probiotics – beneficial bacteria – which our body needs for optimal health. Many of these beneficial bacteria are transient – they do their good work as they pass through the digestive tract. This means that when it comes to fermented food, regular intake is more important than quantity, so include them with every meal. The acids produced by fermentation also help in the breakdown of food, and lower the glycemic index of starchy carbohydrates – another win!
A few years ago, Omega 3 fats were all the rage. Most health articles included some reference to fish oil or grass-fed butter, touting the benefits. We’ve been hearing less and less about them recently, but the thing about biology is, it doesn’t care for fads. Omega 3 fats are incredibly important for our health, and their ability to lower inflammation is beneficial for gut health. Preliminary research is also pointing towards a beneficial relationship between the intakes of EPA – a type of fat found in fish oil – and gut bacteria. Be warned, however. Not all fish oil is created equal. We personally use Carlson’s lemon flavoured fish oil which is produced from high quality fish and are stored in good conditions.
Tip for getting kids to take fish oil: Add their daily fish oil to a smoothie or juice, or stir through some yoghurt or apple sauce with cinnamon.
In addition to the specific benefits of Omega 3s found in natural foods, there is a massive benefit to gut health that is to be gained by switching from polyunsaturated vegetable oils to traditional fats. The polyunsaturated fats derived from grains and seeds (often genetically modified) such as canola, soybeans, rice bran or corn are extracted using harsh chemical processes and heat. They are also stored in less than ideal conditions which result in oxidised, rancid, inflammatory fats that we believe are unfit for human consumption. Removing these fats from your diet and replacing them with traditional fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, butter and ghee, duck and chicken fat, lard and tallow will reduce inflammation and promote gut health. The fear of cholesterol that caused us to move away from most of these traditional fats turned out to be unjustified and butter is back (in case you haven’t heard)!
Learn more about healthy fats here: Which Oils When
When trying to lower the numbers of bad gut bacteria, lowering your starch intake is important. Bad bacteria love sugar and starch and it helps them proliferate. Plant-based foods, however, need to be the bulk of our diet, and so switching to non-starchy vegetables maintains the high plant-based food quota but lowers the starch content. There’s also been some recent research that suggests that leafy green vegetables in particular contain a sugar molecule that encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. Those with digestive issues are advised to eat their vegetables simmered in broth and with some added fats. The cooking makes them easier to digest, and the fat helps carry the fat-soluble vitamins into the blood stream.
Try simmering your greens in broth: Breakfast Broth Station
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Written by Jo & Fouad – Pre-order our cookbook Life-Changing Food: gluten-free wholefood recipes with and without a Thermomix, coming March 2017.