10 foods that are great for your gut

Amy Wood - Nutritionist | 02 Sep, 2022

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Research continues to connect the major knock-on effects of looking after our gut to a whole host of health parameters. It's not only important for healthy digestion, but also plays a role in controlling our immunity, cognition, skin, and mental wellbeing to name just a few functions.

We know a major part of our gut health starts with our diet. The two main groups of foods we should be prioritising for a healthy gut can be classified as 'probiotics' and 'prebiotics'. You've probably heard these terms before on food packaging and adverts, but what do they actually mean? We're going to delve deeper to understand the difference, and I'll highlight 10 of the best foods to include in your diet to promote a happy, healthy gut!

Probiotics

Probiotics

It's been estimated there are around 10 trillion bacteria populating the lining of our gut – that's 10 times more than there are cells in the entire human body [1]! The foods that pass through the gut have a direct impact on how healthy our gut bacteria are, and some can even improve the quantity and diversity of our gut microbiome.

Probiotics are foods and supplements that actually contain cultures of live bacteria. By eating these foods, we may be able to improve the diversity and quality of the good bacteria lining our gut wall, as the good bacteria we eat can help to throw out potentially harmful bacteria. This may be especially beneficial for people experiencing gut issues or taking antibiotics, as antibiotics can kill off the good bacteria as well as bad bacteria.

As the term 'probiotic' isn't regulated, there's a question mark over whether all the bacteria in probiotic foods survive to reach the gut alive, so you may find some products work better for you than others, but it's well worth giving them a go. Here are five probiotic foods to include in your diet that could help to restore balance in your gut bacteria – there may be some you haven't heard of, but give them a go if you see them in the supermarket:

  1. Yoghurt: look for products that are listed as 'live' on the packaging – this means the bacteria in the yoghurt are still alive after processing, increasing the chance of them surviving to reach your gut and working their magic
  2. Kefir: fermented milk/yoghurt
  3. Sauerkraut/kimchi: both are types of fermented cabbage – one originates in Germany/Eastern Europe, the other bears more Korean flavours
  4. Kombucha: fermented tea
  5. Tempeh: fermented soybeans, can be used as a meat substitute
Prebiotics

Prebiotics

Unlike probiotics, prebiotics don't contain any live bacteria. Instead, these foods are high in dietary fibre, specifically galacto-oligosaccharides, fructo-oligosaccharides and inulin. While we can't digest fibre ourselves, the bacteria in our gut can – in fact, it's their favourite nutrient! By incorporating high-fibre foods in the diet, you are effectively 'feeding' your gut bacteria and enabling them to crack on with their job – breaking down the fibre to form vitamins, hormones, and small molecules called 'short-chain fatty acids'.

Short-chain fatty acids nourish the gut lining and also play a role in lots of processes within the body, including hormone production, immunity, and interestingly, appetite. These fatty acids tell our body it's full, decreasing the production of the hunger hormone ghrelin and increasing the production of the 'I'm full' hormone leptin. This may shed some light on why we see high-fibre diets associated with lower BMIs, so increasing your intake of prebiotics might help make your weight loss journey easier.

Although your gut bacteria will be kept happy by most plant-based foods, these five foods in particular are renown for their prebiotic properties:

  1. Bananas
  2. Legumes: beans, peas, pulses (chickpeas, lentils)
  3. Oats
  4. Artichokes
  5. Garlic

Variety is the spice of life!

This old saying couldn't be more true when it comes to our gut health. While probiotics and prebiotics are great inclusions to promote a healthy gut, they aren't a substitute for eating a balanced diet based on whole, minimally processed foods. The key is variety. We know that including a wide range of foods in our diets has a positive effect on our gut – one large study by the American Gut Project identified that participants including at least 30 different types of plant-based foods in their diets per week had a more diverse gut microbiome than those who only managed up to 10 [2].

Unless you have a specific allergy, restricting your diet by cutting out lots of foods or entire food groups may not have the best consequences for your overall health. Diversifying your diet as much as you can, trying new foods and experimenting with new ingredients is the best way to broaden not only the nutritional quality of your diet, but also the variety and effectiveness of your gut bacteria.

Nutritionist Amy Wood (ANutr), MSci BSc Nutrition has a keen interest in the relationship between diet and health. Having been published in the European Journal of Nutrition, Amy is passionate about making evidence-based nutrition accessible to everyone and helping others to adopt a food-focused approach to taking control of their health.

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