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You probably already love the 8 foods nutritionists say are best for gut health.

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The food you put into your body not only satisfies your taste buds, it also feeds the trillions of organisms that live in your gut. If you eat the right things, you’ll reap the rewards of physical and mental health, and feeding your gut the wrong things can really harm the little critters that live in your GI tract.

The idea of ​​tiny organisms living in your belly might seem a little unsettling, but they are helpful — aka good — bacteria. In case you didn’t know, gut bacteria help your body digest food and therefore absorb the nutrients you need. Not only that, but digestive health plays an important role in immune function and even mental health.

We spoke with two registered dietitians – Tamara Freuman, a registered dietitian at New York Gastroenterology Associates and author of the upcoming book, Regular, and Alyssa Lavy, owner of Alyssa Lavy Nutrition & Wellness, a private practice focused on digestive health – about the importance of gut health and the best foods to nurture the microbiome.

Heaps of rolled oats on white background (Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images)

Heaps of rolled oats on white background (Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images)

What is Gut Health?

The term “gut health” is trending on social media, but you might be surprised to learn that there is no true definition for the phrase. When experts discuss gut health, they are often referring to the microbiome, or the trillions of microorganisms that reside in the gut and impact overall health.

“The composition and health of the gut microbiota has been linked to a variety of health conditions, both gastrointestinal and otherwise,” says Duker Freuman. “[Poor gut health] is associated with an increased risk of inflammatory bowel disease and cancers of the digestive system (especially colon cancer) and conditions such as frailty, mood disorders and metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease,” adds Duker Freuman. On the other hand, a healthy gut can reduce the likelihood of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, depression and cardiovascular disease.

How to ensure you have a healthy gut?

There are several ways to control the composition of the gut microbiome, including what you eat and what you don’t. “The American Gut Project, which is the largest study that has looked at the human microbiome, found that increased plant diversity in the diet was associated with increased microbial diversity,” says Lavy. Research suggests that the most diverse microbiomes are more resilient and stable. On the contrary, diets high in ultra-processed foods, sugar and saturated fat have been linked to lower gut diversity and favor bacteria that are significantly associated with a higher risk of heart events, strokes and type 2 diabetes.

It will probably come as no surprise that the best foods for gut health are plant-based and low in saturated fat and sugar. But Duker Freuman emphasizes that “the habitual intake of these foods is what promotes good intestinal health; eating beans once in a blue moon doesn’t have any magically transformative impact on gut health.

According to both nutritionists, you should regularly fill your plate with these eight types of food to build a healthy gut.

Fiber rich foods

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate known for its role in keeping the digestive system moving. There are two types of fiber – soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into a gel during digestion. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to the stool and helps food pass through the GI tract. Both types of fiber are necessary components of the diet and contribute to good gut health.

Fiber is found in a variety of plant-based foods and is especially robust in:

  • Vegetables, especially broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, potatoes with skin and kale

  • Legumes (beans, lentils and peas)

  • Fruits, especially unpeeled pears, unpeeled apples, and berries

  • nuts and seeds

  • Whole grains such as brown rice, farro, mal, quinoa and wheat

Kiwi Macro, Fresh Kiwi sliced ​​to use as a background (banjongseal324 / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Kiwi Macro, Fresh Kiwi sliced ​​to use as a background (banjongseal324 / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Two plant-based foods with notable fiber include:

Oat

Oats are known for their soluble fiber, which can improve stool consistency and bowel regularity. “They also contain beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber that lowers cholesterol,” says Lavy. A review of research states that eating oats increases bacterial counts in the gut, reduces intestinal permeability, and leads to more short-chain fatty acids that fight inflammation.

Kiwi

This deliciously sweet green fruit has vitamin C, potassium and 2 grams of fiber per kiwi. In addition to fiber, kiwi has another compound that can help keep you regular. “Recent research shows [kiwi] may be useful for improving stool motility and consistency, probably due to actinidin, an enzyme present in the fruit,” says Lavy.

probiotic foods

Probiotics are live microorganisms that reside in the gut and may have health benefits. The most common probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. They develop during the fermentation process that occurs when making foods like tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and kombucha. Microbes are also added to yogurt to break down the sugar lactose into lactic acid.

The following foods are rich in probiotics:

yogurt/kefir

Have you ever noticed that one of the ingredients in yogurt is “live active cultures”? These are the live bacteria that ferment the dairy product to create yogurt or its well-known tangy cousin, kefir. “Fermented foods have their own diverse and unique microbial populations, which can have transient health benefits as they pass through our guts out the proverbial back door,” says Duker Freuman. Additionally, research has found that fermentation can result in the release of bioactive peptides (organic substances), which can lower cholesterol.

sauerkraut and kimchi

Both spicy condiments are made from fermented cabbage in a salty mixture. The end result is a crispy topping for sandwiches, stir-fries and more. Both sauerkraut and kimchi contain a probiotic that boosts the immune response and reduces inflammation. Not to mention, a study in mice suggests that the probiotics in kimchi may help treat inflammatory bowel disease, but more research is needed.

tempeh

If you’ve never had tempeh before, say hello to one of your new favorite plant proteins. Tempeh is a fermented soy product that is mixed with a grain – usually rice – and formed into a solid block. It’s easy to slice, marinate, and cook, and it’s also high in probiotics. Research on tempeh is limited, but one study suggests that eating this soy product increased beneficial bacteria in the gut. Another interesting study gave elderly participants tempeh-derived probiotics in supplement form for 12 weeks. The researchers found that one of the probiotics in tempeh increased participants’ memory, language and spatial awareness.

Bananas are full of prebiotic fiber and resistant starch, a carbohydrate that helps the large intestine.  (Getty Images)

Bananas are full of prebiotic fiber and resistant starch, a carbohydrate that helps the large intestine. (Getty Images)

prebiotic foods

Prebiotics are fibers that feed the microbes in the gut. Eating these fibers helps the probiotics in your gut to flourish and grow. Fortunately, they are found in a number of plant foods, including beans, artichokes, garlic, onions, asparagus, barley and wheat bran.

Here are three prebiotic-rich highlights:

beans

“Beans support a healthy gut microbiota specifically through their prebiotic fiber, which nourishes some of the microbes that produce short-chain fatty acids,” says Duker Freuman. “These short-chain fatty acids lower the pH of the colon, which plays a role in preventing colon cancer, and inhibit disease-causing species of bacteria,” adds Duker Freuman. In addition, recent research suggests that some bean varieties may also improve the integrity of the intestinal barrier, which prevents bacteria from getting too close to the inner layers of the intestinal wall and triggering immune cells. Not to mention that beans are affordable and versatile.

artichokes

Artichokes are also rich in prebiotic fiber, which “selectively feeds health-promoting members of our microbiota, including species from the genera Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria,” says Duker Freuman. She adds that these microbes trigger intestinal cells to secrete mucus, which improves the mucosal barrier function. They also produce short-chain fatty acids, which promote an anti-inflammatory environment throughout the gut.

banana

It’s time to stop avoiding this starchy fruit, which is good for gut health. Bananas are not only full of potassium, a nutrient that lowers blood pressure, but they are also known to treat constipation. Bananas contain prebiotic fiber and resistant starch, a type of carbohydrate that is absorbed slowly in the large intestine and results in fermentation.

the bottom line

“It makes more sense to think about general eating patterns for good gut health than specific foods,” says Duker Freuman. In other words, these foods are great for gut health, but you don’t have to limit yourself to them. Just integrate them into your meal plan.

Duker Freuman also notes that a diverse diet full of plant-based foods is best for overall gut health; so choose the fiber-rich foods you like best. “Your consistent, regular eating habits are what promote long-term gut health,” says Duker Freuman, “There are no shortcuts here.”

This article originally appeared on TODAY.com

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