How to Improve Gut Health With a Whole Food Plant-Based DietWritten by Ali Donahue
Keeping hearing about gut health and wondering what the big deal is? We’ve got your back (and your gut) with this quick guide outlining how to improve gut health — what it is, how it affects your health, and what to eat (and avoid) to keep things in balance and feel your best.
The Full Story
Did you know there are 39 trillion microorganisms in your digestive tract? Why does this matter? Well, it turns out these trillions of microorganisms, AKA your “gut biome,” affect your health big time.
First, let’s cover what the gut biome actually is. It’s the two-pound ecosystem inside you that contains thousands of types of bacteria and microorganisms. These types of bacteria differ for each person based on environment, age, stress levels, and a whole smorgasbord of other factors. The gut biome is important because it’s the frontline of your immune system. It aids digestion by breaking down dietary fiber, synthesizes vitamins and minerals, notifies your brain to secrete insulin, and helps you efficiently absorb nutrients.
So what happens when our gut bacteria is off balance?
5 Ways Gut Health Affects Your Body
1. Your Digestive Tract
The microbiome lives in your digestive tract making the digestive system the first thing affected by its health. From small discomforts like heartburn or constipation to bigger issues like Crohn's disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome, your gut flora influence it all.
Pro tip - skip highly processed fatty foods to avoid inflammation that often causes these ailments
2. Your Cancer Risk
Is there a relationship between gut flora, diet, and cancer? Research suggests yes. This study reveals a more plant-based diet can help repair the gut biome and produce more short-chain fatty acids in your body which suppress cancer cells from growing.
3. Your Arthritis
Most people don’t realize it, but arthritis is an immune disorder. It involves the body attacking its own cells, like those of the membranes that line the joints. This causes inflammation, discomfort, and pain. This study showed that patients with newly diagnosed untreated Rheumatoid arthritis had an increased level of Prevotella copri present — a gram-negative bacteria found in your gut that increases inflammation and symptom severity.
4. Your Mood
Did you know that 90% of your serotonin receptors are actually located in your gut? Well, it’s true. And Harvard doctors studying the relationship between diet and mood found that processed foods don’t make the cut when it comes to boosting your mental health. Plant heavy and anti-inflammatory diets, on the other hand, were found to be protective against depression.
5. Your Blood Sugar and Weight
Type 2 Diabetes and obesity are two of the most common chronic conditions in the United States and our gut can kickstart or exacerbate both. Yale researchers found high-fat diets may increase the level of acetate in the body. Acetate is a short-chain fatty acid that tells your brain to release insulin and eat more. Too much acetate causes a cycle of over-eating and insulin release, boosting the risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
What to eat for optimal gut health
Ok, so all of the above sounds a little scary, especially if gut health is a new concept to you. But rest easy! Our gut biome is largely influenced by the foods we eat and we have the power to change it almost entirely in just four days with diet. Whew!
Think your gut bacteria is out of whack? Right your ship quickly by moving to an anti-inflammatory whole food plant-based diet and following these tips:
5 tips for eating for gut health
1. Fill up on fiber
High fiber foods feed the good bacteria in your gut! Stock up on fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains. (Fun fact: dietary fiber is found naturally in plant-based foods only.)
2. Skip refined sugar
Refined sugar is inflammatory and decreases the number of good bacteria you need for a healthy gut biome. Not to mention, it’s addictive which means eating sugar often leads to eating more sugar. A vicious cycle for your health and gut. Does this mean you have to deny your sweet tooth? No way! Get our tips for using natural sweeteners. That’s right — you can have your plant-based cake, and eat it, too!
3. Drink lots of water!
Fill up your water bottle because hydration is key when it comes to gut health — and your general health. Drinking lots of water keeps your gut health in the balance, not to mention it’s great for your skin, energy levels, blood pressure, the list goes on!
4. Add in some (plant-based) probiotics
Fermented foods have live bacteria or yeasts called probiotics that improve your gut and health. But before you hit the supplement aisle, know that you can find plenty of plant-based probiotics in actual foods, like sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, tempeh, or even some brands of plant-based yogurts with live cultures (double check to make sure these aren’t loaded with refined sugar though).
5. Limit fats (especially animal fats)
High-fat diets, especially those including red meat, high-fat dairy, and fried foods, can increase inflammation in the body and reduce the good bacteria. Plant-based foods are lower in fat than animal foods in general and have less saturated fat, to boot. One good way to reduce your fat intake? Skip the oil! Get our pro tips for cooking without oil here.
Your gut health plays a major role in your overall health and your risk factors for certain chronic disease. What you eat can really hurt or help the bacteria in your gut. So it’s been true all along...you are what you eat.
Want to keep your gut bacteria in check?
Eat lots of fiber like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes
Drink water like it’s going out of style!
Get probiotics from whole food plant-based food sources like sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, tempeh, and dairy-free cultured yogurts.
Avoid sugar and high-fat foods (especially animal-derived fats)
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