Not all bacteria are bad. In fact, your gut needs a stable amount of healthy bacteria (probiotics) in order to function properly. Your amazing gut is a diverse collection of more than one thousand species of microorganisms and trillions of bacteria that work together to keep your entire body running smoothly. Pretty wild, huh?
When we think of the gut, we think of digestion. We chew, swallow, digest, and dispose fairly frequently. But our guts do so much more than just process sustenance.
Your gut is so complex it's often referred to as the “second brain." To function effectively, your gut needs a ton of good bacteria. The good bacteria, known as microbiota symbiosis, are found primarily in plant foods; while "bad" bacteria known as microbiota dysbiosis, the type that can cause intestinal and extra-intestinal disorders, are most commonly associated with the consumption of animal products.
Good bacteria not only help to aid digestion and fight off bad bacteria, but they affect your entire body from your heart to your brain.
Your gut's ultimate goal? To maintain equilibrium, which is a healthy balance of good bacteria.
The more fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics you eat, the easier it is for your body to function, thrive, and fight off disease.
Feeling stopped up? You're not alone.
Most Americans experience constipation because many of us aren't eating enough dietary fiber. In fact, 97% of Americans are fiber deficient!
Why does this matter? Well, our gut microbiomes run primarily on fiber. Fiber promotes that good bacteria growth. When we consume fiber, our gut produces short chain fatty acids which aid in the growth of the cells that line our colons, suppress inflammation, and fight disease.
Without fiber, we can't feed our good gut bacteria, resulting in dysbiosis, which is an overgrowth of bad bacteria. This overgrowth can lead to inflammatory disease (like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, for starters).
Good bacteria like butyrate, on the other hand, has anti-inflammatory and cancer fighting properties. And fiber promotes the growth of butyrate producing bacteria, so no surprise: vegetarians are found to have a much higher concentration of butyrate producing genes.
When it comes to your gut, every person falls into one of two general types of gut microbial communities, usually determined by the foods you eat. Those who eat a vastly plant based or vegetarian diet fall into the prevotella category, while meat eaters are found to have much higher levels of bacteroides. Studies show those with with more prevotella tend to benefit from more regular digestion and are 50 times less likely to get colon cancer than those with bacteroides bacteria.
Gut bacteria helps to keep your BMI lower. Individuals with a higher bacterial richness are associated with a healthier overall weight, while those with low levels of good bacteria are more susceptible to obesity and are more likely to gain weight over time.
So what can you do to maintain a healthy weight? Eat more plant foods to help you reach that ideal bacteria equilibrium. Already overweight? Changing your lifestyle to incorporate more plants in your diet can even reverse obesity and help you regain critical gut bacteria while promoting overall health.
Food doesn’t just mend a broken heart. Research shows the more good bacteria living in your gut, the less likely you are to have a cardiac event. Our gut flora converts choline found in animal products, especially eggs, into trimethylamine which is later turned into TMOA in the liver. TMAO is a toxic compound that leads to stroke, heart disease, kidney failure, atherosclerosis and early mortality. People with higher TMAO levels in their bloodstream have more than twice the risk for cardiovascular complications and failures.
Those who eat a primarily plant based diet do not have spikes in TMAO, even if they were to consume an animal product here and there, while those who eat a more standard American diet have spikes in TMAO when they consume foods with choline. This is due to the different flora found in the guts of vegetarians versus meat eaters. Vegetarians are unable to synthesize the compounds into TMAO in the liver, resulting in an absence of the toxic chemical altogether.
Ever feel a little down after binging on junk food? Turns out this reaction is not just psychological, but chemical and biological, too! Your mental health is directly affected by your gut health, which can over time be controlled by what you eat.
Our guts and brains are connected by neurotransmitters that transmit chemicals between nerve cells during a process called synapses. These endogenous chemicals like dopamine and serotonin help control our emotions. Our gut actually produces a large amount of these neurotransmitters, like serotonin, or the “feel good” chemical. High fiber plant foods increase your neuroplasticity, making that transmission during synapse more effective. That is why a healthy gut full of good bacteria can help with mental illness conditions like anxiety and depression.
Good news: it's easier than you think. To increase and diversify the good bacteria in the gut microbiome, start eating more plants. One month of eating more plants can result in an increase of commensal microbes (good guys) and a decrease in the pathobiont population (bad guys), resulting in reduced intestinal inflammation.
Your genes adapt overtime when you change what you eat. For example, when you cut out meat and diary, you reverse your ability to convert choline into TMAO.
Supplements alone did not result in the same levels of bacterial diversity and richness as eating a well-rounded whole food plant-based diet. Whole grains lead to an increase of bacterial diversity and lead to a drop in systemic inflammation and an increase in immunity. The more variety in your diet, the more variety in your gut. Enjoy endless combinations of whole plant foods for the best results.
In other words, eat the rainbow!
Your guts goal is to maintain a healthy equilibrium, flooded with diverse, good bacteria. A healthy gut can help:
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Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Licensed Dietitian, Addie Dulaney Majnaric answers your plant-based nutrition questions.