When someone suggests you should “go with your gut” — they’re more right than you probably realize.
Thanks to a whopping 40 trillion bacteria perpetually hard at work, your gut helps power your entire body.
Why Gut Health Is Important for Your Body and Your Mind
The gut is composed of a whole host of microbes that affect your physiology and keep your body and brain functioning as they should.
As studies tell us, these gut microbes affect the way you store fat, how you balance levels of glucose in your blood, and how you respond to hormones that make you feel hungry or satiated.
The wrong internal mix can set the stage for obesity and other health issues later in life.
Scientists have also found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters that regulate your mood including serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.
Researchers have also discovered that a nervous system in your gut (known as the “second brain”) communicates with the brain in your head. It also plays a role in certain diseases and in mental health.
In other words, the wellness of both your body and your brain depend on your gut health.
Good ‘Gut Bugs’ and How to Get Them
Positive bacteria are often called healthy “gut bugs.”
Good gut bugs help your body digest and absorb nutrients, synthesize certain vitamins, and rally against intruders, such as the flu and toxic-forming carcinogens.
In the wise words of David Perlmutter, MD: “A healthy microbiome translates into a healthy human.”
How The Foods You Eat Help (Or Hurt) Your Gut
When it comes to maintaining your microbiome at its healthiest level, nothing is more important than what you eat and drink.
The internal environment of your gut is dictated by what you put in your mouth — so the foods you choose to eat are a crucial component of maintaining gut health.
The good news is, even a lifetime of bad eating is fixable — at least as far as your microbes are concerned. Amazingly, your body can create a new microbiota in as little as 24 hours — just by changing what you eat.
What you eat determines which bacteria thrive in your gut. And research tells us that the good “gut bugs” get stronger when fed colorful, plant-based foods.
A 2014 study published in the journal The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society found that vegetables, grains, and beans fed a positive gut environment. But meat, junk food, dairy, and eggs fed a negative gut environment.
Probiotics and Prebiotics: Two Gut-Healthy Compounds
These two terms — probiotics and prebiotics — are becoming more widely known, so you’ve probably heard them.
Probiotics are beneficial good gut bugs. And prebiotics are food for these bacteria.
You can get both probiotics and prebiotics by eating the right foods.
Probiotics are found in fermented foods, as well as in some supplements. And prebiotics are found in certain fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The most central prebiotic of all is fiber.
The Fabulousness of Fiber: Why It’s Critical for Gut Health
While people tend to get up in arms about protein consumption, there’s another nutrient that’s more worrisome as far as deficiency risk: fiber.
Approximately 97% of Americans get at least the recommended amount of protein. But only about 3% of Americans get the recommended 40 grams of fiber they need per day — and fiber is the most crucial ingredient for gut health.
Fiber feeds the good bacteria we’ve been talking about, so it’s vital to eat fiber-rich foods as often as possible.
Our microbes extract the fiber’s energy, nutrients, and vitamins, including short-chain fatty acids, which can improve immune function, decrease inflammation, and protect against obesity.
Cleanse Your System
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber helps lower blood glucose levels and LDL cholesterol. You can find it in oatmeal, legumes, and some fruits and veggies.
Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, offers more of a cleansing effect on your digestive environment. Find it in whole grains, kidney beans, and in fruits and veggies, too.
Fiber Helps Prevent One of The Most Common Gut Disorders
Fiber also plays a role in one of the most common digestive illnesses worldwide: diverticulitis (aka inflammation of the intestine).
According to a 1998 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, eating insoluble fiber-rich foods has been found to reduce the risk of diverticulitis by an impressive 40%.
All the Kraut: Getting Your Fill of Fermented Foods
Fiber isn’t the only all-star that starts with the letter F. Fermented foods can also be a key component of a diet that fuels gut health.
These foods give your gut healthy, living microorganisms to crowd out the unhealthy bacteria, improve absorption of minerals, and support overall health.
Fermentation is a process that’s been around for centuries. Our intrepid ancestors fermented foods to preserve them.
Here’s how it works in a nutshell: Bacteria or yeast is added to a particular food, and they feed on the natural sugars. These microorganisms create lactic acid or alcohol, which help preserve the food. They also create probiotics (as discussed above) and other beneficial compounds.
Amazingly, the fermentation process also adds additional nutrients to foods.
Gut-Healthy Fermented Foods You Might Love
Think about eating or making these fermented foods to keep your gut happy and healthy. Other than tempeh, all of these are best kept “raw,” so you don’t kill the beneficial probiotics.
Sauerkraut: Fermented Cabbage with A Distinctive Flavor
Sauerkraut is a staple in German cuisine. You can find it in most grocery and health food stores, but it’s even better to stick with homemade (or “freshly fermented”) varieties to achieve the full nutrient value.
Fermented cabbage is high in B vitamins and helps you absorb iron, too.
You can pile it on a carrot dog, add it to a German-inspired “Buddha bowl,” or use it to season just about any grain, legume, scramble, or vegetable dish.
Tempeh: A Traditional Soy Product That’s Been Eaten for Hundreds of Years
This fermented soy food is becoming easier to find these days, with more and more eateries offering it on their menus and more stores stocking it on shelves.
A 2014 study published in the Polish Journal of Microbiology showed that this popular protein can increase healthy bacteria, including Lactobacillus.
Try eating tempeh on sandwiches, in salads, or as a plant-based “bacon” alternative. Unlike most fermented foods, however, tempeh should be thoroughly cooked before you eat it. And most people find that it needs a lot of seasonings to taste good because plain tempeh can be a bit bitter and very bland.
As with all soy products, choosing organic is best if you can. (Learn the truth about soy from John Robbins.)
Kimchi: A Spicy Alternative to Sauerkraut
A Korean alternative to sauerkraut, kimchi is also fermented cabbage made with several different spices and ingredients. Common ingredients include salt, chili powder, onion, garlic, and ginger. It’s sometimes traditionally made with a fish stock base, but it’s easy to find a plant-based version in stores or to make your own at home.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food confirmed that kimchi is high in probiotics, and is an excellent fuel for gut health. Other studies have shown that kimchi can help to fight cancer, obesity, aging, and constipation, while also contributing to your immune system, skin health, and brain health.
Eat kimchi in bowls, wraps, or as a seasoning on just about anything.
Miso: A Traditional Japanese Bean Paste
If nothing else, you’ve probably had some experience with miso soup, but this soybean paste has a whole host of uses in the kitchen.
Plus, it’s brimming with good bacteria, and may even help prevent cancer and lower blood pressure.
Miso paste can be used to make soup, added to salad dressings, or turned into a healthy mustard or plant-based “miso-mayo.”
Remember to choose organic miso products if you can because most non-organic soy is genetically modified.
Kefir: One of the Most Probiotic-Rich Foods on the Planet
While this cultured product is traditionally made with dairy, its coconut or water-based counterparts can be even better — and keep you free from the controversial health effects of cow’s milk.
You may be able to find dairy-free kefir in your area. Or you can order kefir starters and make it yourself using coconut water or nut milk. Just be sure that you don’t oversweeten it because sugar can be bad for your microbiome.
Pickles: Uniquely Sour Vegetables
But not all pickled foods are fermented. It’s best to stick with fresh varieties (sold in a fridge in stores — not the ones that are in shelf-stable bottles) to make sure they are raw and alive and that the nutrients stay intact. Or try making your own pickles.
An Important Note About Eating Pickled Vegetables
Making pickled veggies, like sauerkraut and kimchi, part of your diet can be a healthy step. But pickled veggies should only be part of your vegetable consumption.
They are usually very salty. And people who make pickled vegetables a primary source of vegetables in their diet tend to get more sodium than is optimal, which can contribute to higher rates of certain forms of cancer.
So to be sure not to increase your risk of cancer, aim to make fresh, non-fermented vegetables a more significant part of your diet than pickled vegetables.
Think about eating small portions of fermented foods daily and using them as a source of salt, replacing table salt, soy sauce, or other salt sources with pickled vegetables.
Best Foods for Gut Health: 11 Foods to Consider Eating Often
Besides fermented foods, what exactly should you be eating for better gut health? What are the best foods for gut health?
Some of the best options for good-for-your-gut foods include these 11 all-star edibles:
Go Green for Your Gut
Dandelion Greens: An Edible Weed That Is Great for Your Gut
This super healthy green is GREAT for your gut. Dandelion greens are full of minerals, improve blood lipids, and they are rich in inulin, a particular prebiotic fiber that boosts your gut’s production of healthy, good-for-you bacteria, like bifidobacteria.
David Perlmutter, MD, comments: “Boosting bifidobacteria has a number of benefits including helping to reduce the population of potentially damaging bacteria, enhancing bowel movements, and actually helping boost immune function.”
They can be bitter. But Dr. Perlmutter recommends sauteeing them with onions or drinking them as tea. You can also use them in soups and salads.
Broccoli: More Reason to Eat This Popular Veggie: It’s Good for Your Gut!
Not everyone is a fan of this green cruciferous veggie, but its health benefits are undeniable.
In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Functional Foods, when mice ate broccoli with their regular diet, it improved their intestinal health.
The effects may also apply to other veggies in the cruciferous family. So load up on cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage. Add them to stir-frys, roast them, steam them, or grate and pile them on top of your favorite salad.
Asparagus: A Crisp Spring Veggie That Aids Digestion
Rich in prebiotics, these green stalks are as good for you as they are delicious.
Like dandelion greens, asparagus is also rich in inulin. It can help promote regularity and decrease bloating.
Eat your asparagus steamed, sauteed, roasted, or chopped raw in salads. Or enjoy lightly steamed and chopped asparagus over quinoa or rice, or added to a range of dishes.
Seaweed: A Sea Algae That’s Good for You and Your Gut
Seaweed is hardly a weed. It would probably more aptly be named “sea gem” on account of its nutrient- and fiber-rich benefits.
A study of Japanese women showed that high seaweed intake increases good gut bacteria. Another study researched alginate, a substance in brown seaweed, and found that it can strengthen gut mucus, slow down digestion, and make food release its energy more slowly.
If you’re wondering how to eat it, here are a few ideas. Try some nori (dried seaweed made into sheets) wraps, make seaweed salad, add wakame to soup, or add kombu (edible kelp) to your stir fry or pot of beans (it will help reduce gas).
Roughage Does A Gut Good
Jerusalem Artichoke: Also Known As Sunroot, Sunchoke, or Earth Apple
This unique tuber may be widely overlooked, but it’s one of the best foods for gut health, as it’s also rich in inulin.
Don’t let the name fool you though — it’s nothing like the leafy green “artichoke.” This root vegetable is starchy, savory, and has a slightly sweet and nutty taste.
A 2010 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that the prebiotic effect of Jerusalem artichoke can increase the fecal Bifidobacterium level and causes an increase in the level of the Lactobacillus/Enterococcus group (all good stuff).
One thing to note: Jerusalem artichokes can — ahem — increase digestive activity, so go slow if you’re just starting to eat them. And for newbies, you can cook them like a potato. Or to get the most gut-boosting benefits, shred Jerusalem artichoke raw and add it to salads.
Jicama: Also Known As A Mexican Turnip
This fresh, sweet and crunchy root vegetable is power-packed with fiber. One cup of raw jicama chopped up and added to a salad will bring a whopping 6g of fiber to the table — 15% of your daily recommended intake.
And jicama is also great for weight loss and blood sugar control. Plus, it’s high in vitamin C.
This uniquely textured veggie is perfect for salads, smoothies, and stir-fries.
Flaxseed: A Tiny But Tremendous Seed for Your Gut
Thanks to its wealth of phytonutrient precursors, this powerhouse seed creates the highest content of lignans (antioxidants with potent anticancer properties) of all foods used for human consumption. Flaxseed fuels your good gut flora.
These seeds contain soluble fiber and can help improve digestive regularity.
Eat ground flaxseed sprinkled on smoothie bowls or salads. But be sure to choose freshly ground flaxseed or to grind it fresh yourself because whole flax seeds pass through your body without being digested.
Also, know that flaxseed goes rancid (or bad) quickly. Buying whole seeds and grinding them in small batches yourself as well as storing them in the fridge or freezer is best. (And, yes, rancid flaxseed will taste bitter and unpleasant.)
Get Fruity for Your Gut
Bananas: One of The Most Popular Foods in the World
This popular and versatile fruit is brilliant at restoring harmony in your gut’s ecosystem.
Bananas are also heavy in potassium and magnesium, which can aid against inflammation. A 2011 study published in the journal Anaerobe even showed that bananas can reduce bloating and help support release of excess weight.
So slice some on your cereal, blend them in a smoothie, or keep them on hand for midday snack attacks.
Apples: An Apple A Day Keeps The (Gut) Doc Away
Maybe the easiest fruit to find, apples are an excellent dietary addition.
They are high in fiber. And, a 2014 study published in Food Chemistry found green apples boost good gut bacteria.
Eat apples raw as a snack. Or you can even enjoy them stewed. Stewed apples have been found to be good for your microbiome, and they may also help to heal your gut.
When buying apples, choose organic if possible because apples are on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of produce with the most pesticides.
Two More Foods Your Gut Will Love
Garlic: A Pungent, Spicy Vegetable Closely Related to Onions
The ultimate in food flavorings, this tasty additive is also great for your gut health.
A 2013 in-vitro study published in Food Science and Human Wellness found that garlic boosted the creation of good gut microbes. The research showed that garlic might also help prevent some gastrointestinal diseases.
So go wild! Throw garlic into many of your favorite foods. And try to include some raw garlic, too, because it has the most prebiotic benefits.
Gum Arabic: Sap From The Acacia Tree
You may not have heard of this superfood, but it’s a prebiotic and has a substantial amount of fiber.
A 2008 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that gum arabic increases good bacterial strains, particularly Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.
Also known as acacia fiber, you can stir the powder in water and drink it —or take it as a supplement.
What Are The Best Foods for Gut Health?
To summarize, here are some of the best foods for gut health:
- Fiber. Think whole grains, beans and legumes, and whole fruits and veggies.
- Fermented foods. Sauerkrat, kimchi, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kefir, pickles.
- Greens. Dandelion greens, broccoli, asparagus, seaweed.
- Roughage: Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, flaxseed.
- Fruits. Bananas, apples.
- Also: garlic and gum arabic.
What About Probiotic Supplements?
Probiotics can be helpful in treating irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, colitis, acne, and eczema. And the strongest evidence for probiotics is related to their use in improving gut health and boosting immune function.
But probiotic supplements don’t always work. In fact, a lot of people are taking probiotic supplements that are essentially a waste of money.
Here’s the issue: the vast majority of probiotic bacteria are active and effective in the lower portions of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. To get to there, though, these bacteria must survive your highly acidic stomach environment.
So how can you keep these probiotics intact? In other words, when should you take them?
To Eat Or Not To Eat
In a 2011 study published in Beneficial Microbes, researchers attempted to look at whether probiotic supplements were better when swallowed on an empty stomach or with a meal.
The researchers found that probiotic bacteria had the highest rates of survival when taken within 30 minutes before or simultaneously with a meal or drink that contained some fat.
Basically, the food provides a buffer for the bacteria, ensuring that it passes safely through your stomach.
Which Probiotic Supplements Are Best?
There are thousands of probiotic products on the market, with each company claiming theirs is best. Scan the supplement aisle at your local grocer and you’re likely to be overwhelmed with options.
If you decide to take a probiotic supplement, here are four factors to look at when you shop:
- Price. Probiotics vary widely in price, and why spend more than you need to?
- CFUs (Colony-Forming Units). This the total count of all of the bacteria in the probiotic. There’s a wide range here, with brands offering anywhere from 1 billion to 100 billion CFUs per dose. The bigger the number, the more beneficial bacteria you get.
- Strains. The total number of different types of bacteria in each probiotic varies greatly, and diversity is good. Every expert has a favorite combination, but the reality is that science knows very little about how the various strains interact with the human body. A broad spectrum of different kinds is likely to give you the best chances for success.
- Expiration Date. Some probiotic supplements get so old that they are literally dead by the time they reach the consumer. Check expiration dates to be sure the product isn’t expired.
Healthy Gut, Happy Human
In most cases, supplements aren’t needed to support a healthy gut. They can help, but what you eat is by far the most important factor.
New York Times columnist Jane Brody sums up good gut-health advice, saying: “People interested in fostering a health-promoting array of gut microorganisms should consider shifting from a diet heavily based on meats, carbohydrates and processed foods to one that emphasizes plants.”
If you aim to follow the recommendations in this article, you’ll be supporting better bathroom habits, a healthier immune response — and even a better, brighter mood. Take care of your gut, and it will give you the TLC you need.
Let us know in the comments:
- Do you have any tips for good gut health?
- What do you think are the best foods for gut health?
Featured Image: iStock.com/andriano_cz