Feed your gut flora

When was the last time you through about your microbiome? Apart from popping a live yoghurt into our trolley every now and then, most of us don’t think much about the gut flora ecosystem in our digestive tract that plays such an important role in our health. 

In the last few years the bacteria living in our digestive tract have been vastly researched to reveal some surprising effects on our health. From immune health, to weight regulation, hormone balance to mental wellness, the diversity and abundance of these trillions of bacteria have a more important effect on our bodies than we ever realised.  

As unique as our DNA, it seems likely that every human on the planet has a different diversity of microbes. Some of the less friendly bacteria have been linked to weight gain, others to an increased likelihood of IBS, but when our microbiome is well balanced, the beneficial bacteria have wide ranging implications for our health and longevity, so they are worth thinking about. 

The balance of bugs in our gut doesn’t happen my accident. We need to do our bit to look after these healthy, happy bugs that play such a vital role in our health and wellbeing. 

Did you know that what you eat can quickly change your balance of bugs?

Here’s some easy ways to feed your microbiome:

  • Eat more plant foods. The more plants you can eat, the better. Packed with fibre and polyphenols with direct action on our probiotic levels, fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices should form the base of your diet. Set yourself a challenge and see how many different plant foods you can eat in a week. Aim for at least 30. Eat fruit and veg that are grown locally and are in season. If you can, opt for organic produce as the agricultural chemicals used in farming are thought to have a detrimental effect on our gut flora. 
  • Pack in the fibre. Aim for at least 30g of fibre a day and think outside the cereal box for this one! Instead of relying on processed cereal like All Bran and Shreddies for your daily fibre fix, increase natural and unprocessed foods like flaxseed, jumbo oats, beans, lentils, vegetables and fruit. Fibre keeps us regular, but also acts as fuel for the friendly bacteria in our gut. 
  • Eat some fermented foods. Back in the day, many of our grandparents would have slurped their way through their fair share of buttermilk to provide them with their daily fix of probiotic bacteria. These days the buttermilk we consume has been pasteurised, so is devoid of any probiotics, so a better option is to explore some different cultured foods and drinks that are making their way onto supermarket shelves. Live yoghurt will do the trick (just make sure it is the natural stuff, otherwise it will be next to useless). Here are a few other foods that are worth adding to your diet: 
    • kefir – a fermented yoghurt drink
    • kombucha – fermented tea or green tea – often flavoured and slightly fizzy, to make it taste a little like lemonade of ginger ale – delicious!
    • sauerkraut – fermented cabbage, sometimes with other ingredients or spices like caraway 
    • kimchi – a traditional Korean dish made from garlic, cabbage and chilli
    • miso – fermented soya bean taste – good to use as a stock, or soup. I like to use it as at the base for stir-fries by mixing a little with some lime juice, garlic, ginger and chill
    • raw (unpasteurised) cheese – Gouda, mozzarella, cheddar and cottage cheese, and some blue cheese such as Roquefort. The cheeses contain significant good bacteria mass-manufactured cheeses don’t have this potential benefit because of the way they are made, so look out for small, local producers like Mike’s Fancy Cheese . Likewise raw milk is thought to offer gut-friendly benefits too. 
  • Choose extra-virgin olive oil over other fats when you can. It contains the highest number of microbe-friendly polyphenols.

… and less of these: 

  • avoid sugar 
  • avoid refined and highly processed foods
  • avoid snacking – try to increase the time between meals to give your microbes a rest
  • avoid artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose  

This blog post first appeared as my column in The Irish News on Saturday 5 December 2020.