Wondering how to keep your gut healthy? Here's my take on dietary fibre and which foods could deliver gut benefits to your daily diet.
Gut health is currently getting increasing attention from the scientific world, the media and the public alike – and with good reason. Ground breaking research continues to reveal the far-reaching effects of an unhealthy gut on overall health and wellbeing.
At Gut Reaction, many clients who come to see me present with symptoms such as low energy, cravings, unexplained weight gain, food sensitivities, allergies, irregular bowel movements, bloating, and skin conditions, as well as conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome.
More than 2,000 years ago Hippocrates said “all disease begins in the gut” - but we’re only now coming to understand just how right he was. Because, the nutrients we absorb from food play a role in supporting every single system in the body, what I’ve come to appreciate in my practice as a nutritional therapist, is that whatever the complaint or health goal, optimising digestion by helping support gut health is a great place to start.
What’s more, our gut, and in particular the large intestine, is densely populated with roughly 100 trillion bacteria. This is our gut microbiome – our body’s own unique ecosystem of gut flora. The gatekeeper of the intestines, the state of our microbiome contributes significantly to our ability to digest and absorb nutrients from the food we eat.
And because of their symbiotic relationship with the rest of the body, the microbes in our intestines play a critical role in our health affecting a broad range of conditions beyond the digestive tract itself. Recent research is revealing the gut microbiome may affect everything from our mood and mindset to our immune system to our metabolism and weight.
How to feed a happy gut?
A diversity of foods with a host of properties can help support a balanced and resilient gut. Gut loving favourites include probiotics and anti-inflammatory foods – but also of note are fibrous foods.
We think of fibre as indigestible matter that just passes through the system. It’s true that fibre makes it to our intestines unaffected by the digestion process, whereby it then helps support stool formation keeping us regular - but in fact its benefits extend beyond that. Whilst we don’t digest fibre per se, some types of fibre do in fact provide fodder for certain gut microbia to ferment.
By doing so, this stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria, which in turn is positive for the ‘host’ because healthy bacteria assist with the digestion and absorption of food and can help increase the host’s resistance to pathogenic bacteria. This is known as the prebiotic effect and it’s exclusive to fibre.
But not all fibre is prebiotic. It’s certain soluble fibres that are prebiotic - soluble being the type that can dissolve in water, as opposed to insoluble fibre. The most well-researched types of soluble fibre include inulin (which belongs to a class of carbohydrates called fructans), oligofructose and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) – all of which have been show to significantly increase the population of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli when consuming about five to 10g a day.
What’s more, some soluble fibres do not serve as prebiotics but can still be fermented by gut bacteria, producing short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) as a by-product of the process. These SCFAs may help regulate intestinal inflammation amongst other notable digestive and health benefits.
Some favourite fibrous foods:
The Jerusalem artichoke is also known as the ‘sun root’ and about a quarter of its weight is composed of inulin fibre. Traditional artichokes are more like three to ten percent. A distinctive flavour, these area great with some olive oil and chilli, shaved and tossed in your Jerusalem into salads or slaws, into pasta dishes, or served as part of a mezze.
Leeks, onions and garlic
These bulbs all contain high concentrations of inulin and FOS. The good news is they are all great for building flavour so remember to add them to all your soups, sauces, curries and stews.
Asparagus is rich in fibre and contains a valuable amount of inulin. Enjoy succulent and tender spears with your poached eggs in the morning, add to your favourite salad or make it a main feature in your evening meals, for example, sautéd with garlic, mushrooms and chicken.
Flax seeds are reputed for their combination of lignans (fibre like compounds which offer antioxidant benefits), mucilage fibre and omega 3 content. ‘Mucilage’ refers to a water-soluble, gel forming fibre that provide support to the gastro-intestinal tract. Daily use of flaxseed has been shown to improve gut bacteria and insulin sensitivity in overweight women. If you wish to try flaxseed, add a 1-2 tablespoons of milled or crushed flax seeds (linseeds) to foods or smoothies each day, sprinkle over breakfast foods such as porridge or yogurt, add to stews, or incorporate in home baking recipes.
Some other fibrous foods of note are sweet potatoes, bananas, broccoli, psyllium seed husk, beans, rye and lentils. Everyone is individual and their digestive system may respond differently to fibrous foods. Be sure to introduce new foods slowly and find the foods that work best for you.