7 tips for improving your gut health

Eating healthy during the festive season is challenging. Your usual eating habits can get lost amidst an overconsumption of Christmas party food and celebratory champers, taking a toll on your digestive system. So what can you do to prevent stomach upsets and bloating during the holidays?

Food and gut health
Gut health has become a common area of research over the past two decades, with the medical community striving to understand the complexities of the human gut. What we do know, is that a healthy gut is important for proper digestive function. Gut microbiome – the bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts – plays a key role in controlling digestion and immune function.

An unhealthy gut microbiome is a leading cause of disease, warns Food Scientist, Nutritionist and gut health specialist Kriben Govender.

In a recent study published in the journal Microbiome, it was found that diet is a key influencer in the composition of microbiome. Researchers examined 29 dogs suffering from illnesses similar to inflammatory bowel disease. The dogs were placed on a therapeutic diet where stool samples were analysed. The results showed positive changes in the microbiome in 20 of the 29 dogs over time, including better bile levels and reduced inflammation. Similar studies have been conducted on mice, which researchers advise are models that can guide our understanding of human gut health.

Accredited Practising Dietitian Joanna Baker agrees that what we eat is significant in shaping our gut microbiome.

Here’s seven tips from our experts to help you keep your gut healthy throughout the silly season and beyond:

1. Become comfortable saying ‘no’
Avoiding food and drinks that will cause discomfort and stomach bloating will help you enjoy the celebrations, says Govender. 

Be selective: you don’t have to dig into every item on the grazing table at every party. While we can’t imagine a world without cheese and wine, try reaching for the fruit platter instead of the pavlova in between sips.

2. Avoid fried food and processed meat
You’re likely to have a selection of deep-fried finger food and processed meats at your fingertips at most parties. High in salt and sugar, and often containing preservatives and trans fats, Govender warns they can be detrimental to your gut health and can increase your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

In a recent study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, researchers compared the gut microbiota profiles of mice following diets high in hydrogenated soybean oil (containing trans-fatty acids, also known as iTFA) versus those following a normal diet. It was found that trans-fatty acids increased harmful gut bacteria and inflammation and decreased beneficial bacteria. 

According to Govender, hydrogenated soybean oil is a cheap oil commonly used in the food industry to cook finger food, fast food, snacks and baked goods. So go steady on the fried chicken wings.

3. Eat fermented foods
‘Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, which balance out the negative microbes,’ says Govender. 

‘Your gastrointestinal tract has the highest concentration of bacteria in your entire body, and if you don’t have enough beneficial bacteria, you’re more likely to experience digestive problems, autoimmune issues and even mental health problems.’

Fermented food and drinks to include in your diet include kombucha, sauerkraut, milk kefir, water kefir, yoghurt, kimchi and miso. So drink up pre-Chrissy meals. 

4. Prebiotics are your friend
‘Prebiotic fibres increase the abundance and diversity of gut microbiota, which has a positive effect on gut health. Prebiotic molecules travel through the gastrointestinal tract in tact, and once they reach your colon they ferment, providing fuel and nourishment to the resident microbiota,’ explains Baker.

‘Humans have about two kilograms of bacteria living inside their intestines. These bacteria are varied and diverse, and each person’s unique gut flora has developed as a result of numerous influences from birth, including diet composition throughout life, exercise habits, medications, geographical setting and stress levels.’

There’s plenty of foods containing prebiotics that you can include in your diet to help nourish what is already there, including: 

Vegetables Jerusalem artichokes, chicory, garlic, onion, leek, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel bulb, green peas, snow peas, sweetcorn, savoy cabbage
Legumes Chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans, soybeans
Fruit Bananas, custard apples, nectarines, white peaches, persimmon, watermelon, grapefruit, pomegranate and dried fruit (e.g. dates, figs)
Breads/cereals/snacks Barley, rye bread, rye crackers, pasta, gnocchi, couscous, wheat bran, wheat bread, oats
Nuts and seeds Cashews, pistachio nuts

5. Variety is key
Eating a variety of foods helps to provide your body with a diverse range of nutrients.

‘Our gut bacteria are picky eaters and different bacteria like different types of nourishment. The more variety of plant foods you eat, the greater the number of nutrients you are providing to your body and your gut, leading to a more diverse gut microbiome,’ says Baker.

‘Fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains should make up the majority of your diet.’

A 2014 research review published in Nutrition Reviews examined the relationship between diet and the risk of chronic disease. It was found that plant-based foods are protective against diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease when compared to animal-based food. Fish was found to be protective while  dairy foods were neutral in terms of overall health risks. Red meat and processed meats were linked to higher risks of disease.

Further research published by the American Society for Microbiology in mSystems found that people who ate 30 different plant food types per week had a significantly more abundant and diverse microbiome than those who only ate 10 different plant foods. So when digging into the Christmas feast, ensure you take a sample from every plate, particularly the salads. 

6. Include plenty of fibre in your diet
Fibre is a great source of prebiotics. It helps to regulate bowel movements, keep blood glucose levels stable, prevent heart disease and bowel cancers, and it increases satiety, explains Baker.

‘Fibre is essential for the production of butyrate, which is the primary energy source for the gut cells,’ says Govender.

Read more about the benefits of fibre and try our gut-friendly chickpea and sweet potato salad for your next get-together.

7. Avoid food additives and pesticides
‘Food additives, pesticides, and antibiotics found in meat, fish and poultry are damaging to the gut. I recommend choosing fresh produce, cooking from scratch and avoiding processed meats, finger foods, store-bought salad dressings and sauces. Follow the motto: Just Eat Real Food (JERF),’ says Govender.

That said, Baker points out that food additives and pesticides are used to prevent food from spoiling. While a small portion of the population claim to be sensitive to food additives and pesticides, there is a lack of evidence linking them to gut problems. She recommends focusing on a diet rich in gut-friendly fruit, veg and whole grains wherever possible. 

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About Angelique Tagaroulias 18 Articles
Angelique Tagaroulias is a communications professional with background in magazine journalism, content creation, PR and marketing. She moved from the sunny East Coast to Melbourne to pursue her dreams, where she now combines her main loves: health, fitness and wellbeing, and creating engaging content.