Food and Health

Gut-Health Promoting Foods & Recipes to Nourish Your Microbiome

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10 min read
Summary

COVID-19 has exposed a huge weakness in our society: our immune systems. It turns out that a key part of immune health resides in the gut, in the form of the trillions of bacteria that work to digest food and help keep us healthy. And modern lifestyles can undermine the gut microbiome in many ways. So are there things you can do to strengthen your gut microbiome and improve your immune function and overall health? (Spoiler alert: Yes!)

Do you like pop music? If so, you’ve probably enjoyed hit songs by some of the following artists: Britney Spears, Katy Perry, NSYNC, Taylor Swift, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Justin Timberlake, and The Backstreet Boys.

You may already be tapping your feet at some of their work, such as: “Baby, One More Time,” “Roar,” “It’s Gonna Be Me,” “Shake It Off,” “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” “I Kissed a Girl,” and “I Want It That Way.”

What you may not know, unless you’re a music insider, is that those songs, plus hundreds more performed by the most famous and commercially successful artists of the last couple of decades, were written by a retired Swedish singer turned songwriter and music producer, Max Martin. Preferring behind-the-scenes collaboration to frontman credit, Martin has turned the writing of pop hits into a science — and has the Billboard awards to prove it.

You know what else is a crucial behind-the-scenes partner to amazing achievement? Your gut microbiome.

Virtually unstudied until recently, the gut microbiome is now seen as the key to many aspects of health — digestion, immune function, even cognition and mood. And while Max Martin may prefer to stay under the public radar while he plies his craft, the human microbiome is now under the microscope, as it were, of public scrutiny.

With new popular awareness of the importance of the trillions of little critters that make their homes on and in our bodies, social media, blogs, and mainstream news outlets bombard us with tips on how to keep them strong and healthy. And like much of medical and wellness info these days, there’s at least as much misinformation as valid and useful guidance.

Gut and Immunity

intestines sketch with guts bacteria
iStock.com/TLFurrer

Here is one particularly timely aspect of the gut microbiome: how it interacts with and supports our immune system. There are two basic ways the immune system can go wrong: it can underreact to infection (or become overwhelmed by it), and it can overreact or get triggered by false alarms (attacking benign foreign cells, and even the body itself).

The second problem, overreacting, appears to be responsible for the steady increase in gut health disorders and autoimmune diseases in the developed world that we’ve been seeing for many years now. Now, since the emergence of COVID-19, scientists have been  studying our immune systems with renewed vigor, including looking at how our microbiome impacts acute infections as well as chronic conditions.

The link is partly numerical: about 70-80% of the human immune system resides in the gut. This makes sense when you realize that the gut is where the outside world meets our squishy, delicate insides. The world is teeming with microbes, and a lot of them hitch rides on our food and end up splashing around in our intestines. If there was ever a place for a robust and alert immune system, it’s there.

And robust it is; the population of live microorganisms in the gut is estimated at around 100 trillion, which is 50 times greater than the number of galaxies in the known universe. 

These critters aren’t freeloaders, either; in exchange for room and board, they keep us alive and well in a bunch of ways. They regulate metabolism, digest food that our native digestive systems can’t handle, and support the mucosal immune system to protect the body from infection.

But modern life has been hard on our microbiome, for reasons we’ll explore in a bit. For now, suffice it to say that we tend to have fewer beneficial microbes and more problematic ones than are good for us. Which means it’s harder to keep our guts healthy and harder to maintain a well-functioning immune system.

In health and wellness circles, you often hear that you need to “heal your gut.” In this article, we’ll offer a collection of gut-healing recipes, so you can get started optimizing your own gut health.

The State of Our Gut Health

the photo of large intestine on the mans body against a grey background
iStock.com/Tharakorn

The gut health of modern humans in developed countries has been severely compromised. We didn’t know how badly until we started comparing our gut populations to those of Indigenous peoples who were maintaining, more or less, their traditional lifestyles. It turns out that Americans’ microbiomes are about half as diverse as those of the Yanomami, an Amazonian tribe with limited interaction with the modern world.

Partly to blame is our modern obsession with cleanliness and fear of germs. Our approach to microorganisms has been total eradication, with many household products and sanitizers promising to wipe out 99.99% of all bacteria, viruses, and so on. The problem with this is that nature abhors a vacuum. And sterile environments are basically unclaimed territory ripe for exploitation by whatever new bug comes along.

Another source of harm to our microbiomes is the chlorine in municipal water, which, while doing important work in removing potentially deadly microorganisms from our drinking supply, also appears to reduce the diversity of species in our microbiomes. After all, if it kills bacteria in water, then what do you think it does when it makes its way inside a human gut?

Antibiotic Resistance

But we’re not only making ourselves less capable of dealing with harmful pathogens; we’re also empowering and training the worst ones, making them even more virulent and dangerous. By overprescribing antibiotics, our medical system artificially selects for the mutations that don’t respond to antibiotics — the so-called “antibiotic-resistant” strains. After decades of miracles from antibiotics, we’ve reached the point where stronger and stronger drugs are providing fewer and fewer benefits against these “superbugs.”

Even if all medical professionals got the message, we’d still have an antibiotic overuse (I’d say abuse) problem. Factory farms are by far the largest consumers and deployers of antibiotics, both to keep animals alive in incredibly cruel, unhygienic, and crowded conditions, and to increase their growth rates and weights to increase profits.

These are industrial inputs, not prescribed drugs, and they attack all bacteria, including ones that are crucial for the animal’s health. And if we eat those animals or drink their milk, we’re at risk of exposure to the very antibiotic-resistant bacteria that the antibiotics have fueled.

We may not be able to personally end factory farming or reform the medical system or invent a water purification method that removes the chlorine before it enters our homes. But there’s one area that’s degrading our microbiomes where you do have control: the food you put in your mouth. 

How Food Can Heal Your Gut

bowel model and variety of healthy fresh foods
iStock.com/RossHelen

Your gut microbiome is an extremely important part of you. The tiny critters inside your tummy and intestines help you digest your food and absorb the nutrients your body needs. So it’s crucial to feed them the right foods, so they can thrive — as well as protect them from foods that can harm them. Together, you’ll optimize your nutrition, your mood, and your health.

Fiber is Your Friend

The most gut-friendly nutrient is fiber, which comes in two basic forms, soluble and insoluble. Both are crucial for happy beneficial microbes. If you aren’t sure if a food is problematic or not, a simple question is, “Does it contain fiber?” Problematic foods don’t contain much, if any, fiber. For example, there is zero fiber in animal products and bottled oils. Likewise, sugar, white flour, and other refined products contain little to none.

A good rule of thumb: in a packaged food, the ratio of grams of carbohydrates to grams of fiber should be 5:1 or less. For example, a serving of Cheerios contains 23g carbohydrates and 1.7g fiber. 23/1.7 = 13.5, which is a lot bigger than five. Ezekiel bread, with 15g carbohydrates and 3g fiber per serving, just makes the cut (15/3=5).

Your best bets for fiber-filled, gut-healing foods are whole plants. While all of them will give you a fiber boost, look especially for those that contain prebiotic fiber that you can’t digest, but your microbes can. Some rich sources include jicama, bananas, legumes, allium vegetables (the onion/garlic clan), and leafy greens.

Probiotics

The probiotic foods that can add microbiotic (yes, spellcheck, that’s a real word!) diversity to your gut include fermented dishes such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurts, kefirs, kombucha, natto, and so on. Keep in mind that not all fermented foods still contain active bacteria by the time they reach store shelves. For example, heat treatments (think pasteurization) deactivate them in some brands of sauerkraut and yogurt, so if you’re not making your own, be sure to read labels to make sure the foods inside contain live cultures.

Resistant Starch

You also want to enlist the Resistance in your campaign to strengthen your gut microbiome — resistant starch, that is. Some starches in foods are not digested in our stomachs or small intestines, and instead, pass through to the large intestines where they provide a feast for our gut bacteria. This increases the production of short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate, which performs a long list of beneficial functions for us.

Sources of resistant starch include whole grains, seeds, legumes, and potatoes, all of which are widely available, and therefore can be staples in our diets.

Now, want some yummy recipes that are rich in gut-healing foods? You’re in the right place!

7 Gut Health Recipes to Replenish Your Microbiome

The gut health recipes below all contain ingredients that can help restore the gut — whole plant-based foods that are packed with phytonutrients, fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics.

The Fluffy Buckwheat Chia Pancakes are a fun and tasty way to incorporate buckwheat (a high-fiber food that cooks like a grain, though it’s botanically considered a pseudo-grain), into your morning routine. You’ll enjoy a fiber-filled, satisfying salad with the Grilled Peach and Barley (a member of the Resistant Starch Brigade) Salad. And get a double dose of prebiotic goodness with the Balsamic Dijon Artichokes and Asparagus.

Add some live bacteria to your plate by enjoying the Kimchi “Fried” Rice and Veggies. You’ll also find fiber, prebiotics, resistant starch, and phytonutrients in the Blackened Tempeh and Sweet Potato Bowl with Avocado and Kale. Turn creamy cashews into tangy yogurt with at-home fermentation, and you won’t even have to think about food labels.

Finally, gift your gut some anthocyanins, polyphenol pigments that act as prebiotics, in the Blueberry Ginger Smoothie. The ginger in the smoothie also supports gut health by reducing inflammation, relieving nausea, and fighting pathogens. Cheers to a healthy gut and a happy you!

1. Fluffy Buckwheat Chia Pancake

Studies show that those who eat a variety of whole grains have more diverse bacteria in their guts, which may lead to better health. Swap out traditional pancakes with these nutty and fluffy buckwheat chia pancakes and enjoy fiber-fueled nutrition with each bite. Word has it that your gut will thank you!

2. Grilled Peach and Barley Salad

Barley is a good-for-you whole grain food that contains resistant starch — a fiber-like nutrient that resists digestion and ferments in the large intestine — contributing to a healthy gut. The accompanying Lemon Shallot Vinaigrette is also good for your gut, thanks to its prebiotic fiber. Finally, leafy greens provide plenty of phytonutrients that can reduce gut inflammation, and fiber that can contribute to digestive and gut health. It’s a healthy gut trifecta!

3. Balsamic Dijon Artichokes and Asparagus

Both artichokes and asparagus have a type of prebiotic fiber called inulin, which feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut, keeping them happy and thriving. And, happy and thriving healthy gut bacteria help to keep you happy and thriving, too! This gut health recipe is delicious as a side dish alongside grilled tofu or tempeh or as a part of a grain bowl.

4. Kimchi “Fried” Rice and Veggies

This dish delivers fiber from the rice (and veggies), colorful phytonutrients from the vegetables, and probiotics from the kimchi. It also tastes super delicious and looks really pretty on the table! Pro-tip: Add the kimchi at the end of cooking to avoid destroying its bountiful beneficial bacteria.

5. Blackened Tempeh and Sweet Potato Bowl with Avocado and Kale

Tempeh is a fermented food, but since it needs to be cooked before consumed, we can’t benefit from its probiotics. Tempeh does, however, contain many other nutrients, including prebiotic fiber, which can feed the already existing healthy bacteria in our guts. What’s more, sweet potato contains resistant starch while avocado and kale bring the phytonutrients — all key ingredients for a healthy gut. Your good gut bacteria are probably getting hungry as you read this description!

6. Easy Homemade Cashew Yogurt

homemade cashew yogurt in a bowl

Are you into making magic? Because that’s what it feels like when you create your own yogurt! Technically, yogurt isn’t cooked. It’s incubated, which means it’s held at a constant warm temperature to encourage gut-friendly bacteria to be fruitful and multiply. This equates to a yummy, tangy yogurt and a happy belly!

7.  Blueberry Ginger Smoothie

Fun fact: Healthy bacteria in the gut enjoy more than just fiber. They also enjoy certain phytonutrients like anthocyanins from blueberries, which act as food to help good bacteria thrive. Ginger has been touted for its ability to help heal the gut for centuries. It can reduce inflammation, alleviate nausea, and fight intestinal infections. Plus, it adds a little zing to this nourishing smoothie!

Go Forth & Heal Your Gut

Modern society has an immunity problem, which stems partly from a multipronged onslaught against our gut microbiome. Many of us live in a world that doesn’t expose us to enough pathogens to “exercise” our immune systems. We kill beneficial bacteria with soaps and sanitizers; we dump repeated doses of antibiotics into our bodies; and we eat diets that starve the good bacteria and feed harmful bacteria.

But there are things you can do to protect and even heal your gut, which can strengthen your immune system. One of the best ways to improve gut health is by improving your diet. Focus on whole foods, especially fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fermented foods. Eliminate processed foods, sugar, and factory-farmed meat (especially processed meat).

That way, you’ll be able to say about your gut bacteria what Max Martin wrote for Katy Perry in the song “Part of Me”: “This is the part of me / That you’re never gonna ever take away from me.”

Tell us in the comments:

  • What foods do you eat to feed your beneficial gut bacteria?
  • What lifestyle changes can you make to help your microbiome thrive?
  • Which gut health recipe from this article will you try next?

Feature image: iStock.com/RossHelen

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