Your gut is key to your physical and mental wellbeing – home to your microbiome, an army of microbes that influences your weight, mood and immune system. Here are 11 ways to help your gut help you.
Retrain your palate and your microbiome by cutting back on sugar
Believe it or not, as your gut biome changes, the cravings will fade. Feeding up the good microbes with a healthy diet will gradually silence the messages being sent out by the sugar-loving ones that are calling for more. You should notice a difference within a few weeks.
Skip the sweeteners too
These cheat your system into expecting a sugar fix and help maintain your sweet tooth (they’re often many times sweeter tasting than the real stuff). They can also damage a healthy microbiome. Kick the habit and your tastes will change. You will become more sensitive to other flavours and enjoy much lower levels of sugar.
Choose more vegetables
Try and ensure they take up at least half a plate. Make them interesting and varied. Add butter or olive oil. Pep them up with flavouring such as chilli flakes, cumin or a squeeze of lemon. If you are not a great fan of veg, start your meal with them, so that you are eating them when you are hungry. They may become your favourite part of the meal. My husband Michael [Dr Michael Mosley] used to shuffle his veg around his plate with little interest. He now even adds extra – and consumes far fewer starchy carbs as a result.
Don’t get too caught up on calories
Whatever the calorie content of the food you put in your mouth, the mix of microbes in your gut will help decide what proportion of it is absorbed. Some people have much more calorie-rich poo than others. Different foods behave differently, depending on how you prepare them and what you eat them with. So, for example, eating a baked potato is likely to raise your blood sugars less if you add butter or cheese. Who would have guessed?
Eat healthy natural fats
These are found in plant foods, such as nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocado, and in dairy products, as well as meat and seafood – oily fish being one of the best sources. Increasing the proportion of healthy fats you eat helps to reset your metabolism and reduce blood sugars. Fat slows the release of starchy carbohydrates and sugars (hence the baked potato conundrum above). Being slow to burn, it provides a steady source of energy that doesn’t stimulate the release of insulin (the fat storage hormone). That said, there are oils that you should try to avoid – the trans and partially hydrogenated fats that are mainly present in spreads and processed foods.
Thai prawns with coconut milk and seaweed from The Clever Guts Diet Recipe Book is packed with health-boosting antioxidants
Get enough fibre
Fibre acts like a broom for the digestive system, helping the gut to push waste through the intestine. It is broadly made up of non-digestible carbohydrates and acts as a source of energy and nutrients for the creatures that live in your gut. We should all be aiming to eat at least 35 g of fibre a day [Australian Nutrient Reference Values suggest 25-30 g per day]; unfortunately, the average Western diet contains less than half of that. Most foods contain a mix of soluble and insoluble fibre. Soluble fibre attracts water and partially dissolves, forming a thick gel which helps to create the stool and move it through the intestines. It can also help reduce heart disease. Soluble fibre is found in foods like oatmeal, barley, lentils, beans, potatoes, carrots, bananas, avocados and okra. Insoluble fibre doesn’t dissolve; it is more ‘scratchy’ and adds bulk to the stool. Two of the most important types of it, as far as your gut is concerned, are insulin and fructooligosaccharides. These are prebiotics, which are not digested in the small intestine but continue on down the gut to become an important source of nutrients for the microbiome, promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria. Insoluble fibre is found in foods such as asparagus, chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, stringy beans, wheat bran, celery and tough stems of cabbage or kale. In some people, it can exacerbate symptoms of IBS.
This breakfast fry-up from The Clever Guts Diet Recipe Book contains with green bananas - an excellent prebiotic.
Get help from prebiotics and probiotics
Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates, usually fibre, that encourage the growth of gut-friendly micro-organisms. They are like the fertiliser that helps the grass grow in a lawn. Probiotics are like the seeds that you scatter on the lawn to keep it lush and compete with the weeds. They are ‘friendly’ live bacteria, found naturally in fermented foods, which work in a variety of ways along the digestive tract, boosting healthy microbes and driving down numbers of the harmful ones. We love them!
Fermentation occurs when microbes in food convert sugars into other compounds. The unique flavours and textures are due to the different species of bacteria and yeasts. Wine, cheese, yoghurt and chocolate are all fermented foods, as are kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, pickles and miso. The microbes in fermented foods are also far more likely than most other bacteria to make it safely down into your colon because they are extremely resistant to acid, having been reared in an acidic environment.
Give your gut a break
We now know that intermittent fasting – short periods of reducing your calorie intake – improves your metabolic markers beyond those expected for weight loss. It also reduces blood sugars, leads to improvements in the lining of the gut and boosts the health of the microbiome. Giving your gut a rest from having to constantly digest food allows the lining to regenerate and encourages the growth of good bacteria. There are various different ways of intermittent fasting – from simply increasing your overnight fast to 12-14 hours, to doing prolonged periods of 800-calorie fasting as Michael outlines in the 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet, or the popular 5:2 fasting approach that he sets out inThe Fast Diet. Simply avoiding snacks is the minimum ‘fasting’ you could do. Most snacks prevent your body from going into fat-burning mode and cheat your microbiome of the chance to repair the gut lining between meals. If you must snack, choose unsalted, unflavoured nuts. Or snack on chopped veg or even a small amount of dark chocolate (at least 70 per cent cocoa solids).
This helps to bypass ‘willpower’, which is usually in short supply and easily gets used up. Practice a bit of kitchen hygiene – remove temptations from your surfaces and cupboards.
Get up a bit earlier, get to bed earlier
Ten more minutes in the morning gives you time to make a healthy swap from toast and jam or processed cereals to a delicious and filling breakfast, such as scrambled eggs or porridge. Better sleep enhances concentration, resets your stress levels, improves your metabolism and has a beneficial effect on your microbiome. Aim for seven to eight hours’ sleep most days.
Exercise is fantastically good for us. It boosts our mood, helps us sleep, cuts our risk of almost disease and burns a few calories. There is now good evidence that regular exercise will also improve the quality and diversity of your microbiome. Ideally, you should do a mix of exercises that build muscle strength and aerobic fitness. To keep his muscles in shape Michael likes (well, perhaps not ‘likes’) to do a mix of press-ups, squats and sit-ups most morning. For his heart and lungs, he takes the dog for the occasional run and cycles where he can, incorporating high-intensity bursts. I try to run for 20 minutes 3 times a week when I can, adding short high-intensity bursts up hills, as well as practise yoga (which incidentally has recently been found to improve gut health, too). The important thing is to push yourself so your heart rate goes up. If you are not able to commit to specific exercises, you can do yourself a huge amount of good simply by getting outside and moving more. Get your hands dirty, whether in the garden or the park, to get more bugs in your life!
Edited extract from The Clever Guts Diet Recipe Book by Dr Clare Bailey with Joy Skipper (Simon & Schuster Australia, pb, $39.99), a companion to The Clever Guts Diet by Dr Michael Mosley. Find out more at cleverguts.com This information is not intended as, and should not be relied upon as, medical advice.
For more from Dr Michael Mosley, watch the Insight episode Gut Feeling on SBS On Demand.
These indulgent wholemeal pancakes have extra substance and flavour thanks to the oats and pecans.
Posh pot noodles to take to work – all you need is a spoon and some boiling water.
Put a warm glow in your belly and set you up for the day with this grain-free bowl.