Similar to how our skin protects us against pathogens in the environment, our gut protects us against pathogens in the foods, drinks, and other products we consume.
There are many reasons to keep the gut healthy, and nourishing it with the right foods is one of the best ways to do so. A gut-healthy diet is one that regularly includes foods with probiotics and prebiotics, and eliminates inflammatory foods that are fried, processed, full of sugar, and lifeless.
Probiotics are live bacteria that promote good health. The most common probiotics are from the Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria family. Probiotics are found both in supplements and fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, miso (fermented soybean paste), tempeh, kombucha, and naturally fermented pickles, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
When choosing yogurt look for those labeled with “live and active cultures,” and limit those that are flavored as they often contain a significant amount of added sugar. Instead, choose plain versions and add fresh or defrosted frozen fruit for natural sweetness. This is really important! Too many people eat yogurt thinking it’s a health food but it’s full of sugar. Sugar feeds the bad bacteria and can lead to an imbalance in the gut bacterial population.
Choose plain kefir, and add it to cooked oatmeal, cereal, or smoothies in place of milk. If you are avoiding dairy, water kefir is also available in some health food stores.
Use crumbled tempeh in recipes in place of ground meats, like meat sauce or sloppy Joe’s, or try it cubed in stir fry.
Pickles, Kimchi, Sauerkraut
Naturally fermented pickles, kimchi, and sauerkraut can usually be found in the refrigerated section. Try using them as sandwich toppings or in stir fry.
Prebiotics are non-digestible foods that are fermented in the colon, ultimately promoting the growth of certain good bacteria. More simply, prebiotics are food for probiotics. Foods that contain prebiotics include whole wheat, onion, chicory, garlic, leeks, artichokes, and bananas.
Onion & Garlic
Sauté onion and garlic in a bit of oil as a base for most recipes.
Leaks & Artichokes
Try making a risotto with sautéed leaks and artichokes.
Add bananas to smoothies, top them with almond butter for a snack, or mash and use them in whole grain pancakes.
Chicory is a great caffeine-free substitute for coffee. Make a delicious mocha by dissolving 1 tablespoon of roasted chicory root powder and 1 tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder in a mug of steaming hot water, milk, or milk alternative. Sweeten as desired.
Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) includes many inflammatory foods that can irritate the gut, including excessive amounts of meat, fried foods, refined grains, and sugary foods. Instead, focus your diet on whole and minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean meat.
For some, foods like gluten, corn, dairy, soy, eggs, legumes, and/or other foods can irritate the gut. If you think this might be you, I recommend getting a food allergy and/or sensitivity test for an individualized understanding of what foods might be worth eliminating or reducing.
Quigley, Eamonn MM. "Prebiotics and probiotics; modifying and mining the microbiota." Pharmacological research 61.3 (2010): 213-218.
Slavin, Joanne. "Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits." Nutrients 5.4 (2013): 1417-1435.