Today’s world and the media focuses so much attention on the macronutrients carbohydrates, fat, and protein. The hot topics are always how much you should have, when you should have them, the dangers of saturated fat, the benefits of organic, quitting sugar – then realising rice malt syrup is virtually the same thing, what oil I should cook my dinner in?, and the risk of too much salt in the diet. One of the most important things in our diet is something we can’t actually digest….fibre. It is the fact that we can’t digest it that is so integral to our long term health and wellbeing.
Fibre is a prebiotic – it provides the food for our beneficial gut bacteria. And it is these gut bacteria (microbes) that are being seen as one of the cornerstones of long term health and vitality. Having a good, healthy ’gut microbiome’ (the range of microbes living in our digestive system) involves feeding these microbes, exposing ourselves to more microbes, and ensuring we have a healthy environment for them to proliferate. There are over 6,000 different known species of microbes, with upward of 100 trillion of them living in our digestive tract.
These microbes are being seen as responsible for digestion and absorption of some carbohydrates, ensuring health of the gut lining and epithelial cells, suppressing less beneficial bacteria, promoting a healthy immune system that recognises pathogens early, absorption and synthesis of vitamins, minerals, nutrients and some hormones, reducing oxidative stress and reducing chronic inflammation.
The importance of healthy gut microbiome in weight management is also evident. Studies have shown that people who are overweight/obese have a much narrower spectrum of microbes in their gut, with leaner people having a broader spectrum. This is a sign that a healthy environment in which we create a vast ecosystem of microbes may be one of the keys to weight management.
There are also many schools of thought linking mental health conditions to gut health. There have been associations between reduced gut health and anxiety, depression, increased stress and autism. Associations have also been made in the opposite direction, with anxiety and stress having an effect on gut health.
Gut health diet
There are several easy way to help improve our gut microbiome. Get started by increasing your soluble and insoluble fibre intake. Choosing wholemeal/wholegrain/high fibre carbohydrates such as oats, brown rice, quinoa, wholemeal bread and sweet potato can achieve this. Also, increasing our fruit and vegetable intake is an easy step, with most Australian’s not reaching their target of 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit each day. Upping our intake of microbes is also a great way to improve our gut health by increasing our intake of fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, chicken broth, kombucha and smelly cheeses (like blue vein cheese).
Exposing ourselves to more microbes is also a good practice to improve our microbiome – less time in sterilised and clean environments (such as indoors) and more time outside with our hands and feet in the dirt. Also, less exposure to antibiotics in foods is important to increase numbers of gut microbes and to prevent antibiotic resistance.
The end message is that we need to nourish and care for our gut microbiome. New research is revealing every day just how integral having a diverse gut microbiome is for many of our body’s functions.