The gut is the general digestive system in the human as well as the animal body. It is also referred to the abdomen which is the part of the body below the thorax and above the pelvic region. It can be simply understood as the whole of the gastrointestinal tract. We try to understand about the gut, its working and how to maintain a healthy gut.
What does the Gut do?
The function of the gut or alimentary canal is to take the food, digest, absorb energy and nutrition and excrete the waste.
The entire host of microbes comprised in the gut affect the physiology of the body. It causes the body and the brain to work appropriately. Gut microbes are responsible for hormone responses that produce the feeling of hunger or satiety. They are also engaged in balancing the glucose levels in the blood and storing fat.
The nervous system of the gut is known as the second brain as it directly communicates with the brain in the head by producing neurotransmitters.
In other words, the overall health of the body and the mind depend on the health of the gut.
Having realized the importance of the gut in maintaining the health, it is as crucial to know the types of food that are considered best for a healthy gut.
Two types of foods are consumed by humans. They are called prebiotic and probiotic power foods.
What are prebiotic foods?
Prebiotic food contains non-digestible ingredients of food, mostly carbohydrate-based, which identify selectively and stimulate the activity and growth of the bacteria that exist in the colon.
Cereal grains like whole wheat, barley, rye etc., oats, legumes, mushrooms, greens, asparagus, onion, garlic, and almonds are some examples of prebiotic food which contain more fiber.
What are probiotic foods?
Probiotics are live microbial dietary supplements promoting the intestinal microbial balance. Probiotics are full of healthy bacteria.
Fermented vegetables, soya, dairy products like yogurt, cheese and buttermilk, fermented beans, grains, kombucha, raw apple cider vinegar are some examples of probiotic food.
Both prebiotic and probiotic power foods can be included in the diet by selecting appropriate food items from the varied food items sourced and prepared by us. Many commonly consumed foods have been identified for their potential in improving the gut health.
Why is fiber great for the gut?
Foods that are high in fiber content are generally good for the gut. While selecting food for regular diet it is important to ensure that adequate Required Daily Amount (RDA) of fiber is present in them. The fiber in the foods boost the good bacteria. Both soluble and insoluble fibers are beneficial. Some of the soluble fiber providers are some of the fruits, legumes, and oatmeal. Insoluble fiber is obtained from some fruits, whole grains, kidney beans etc. The fiber in foods not only cleans the gut but also help in lowering the blood sugar level and reducing the bad or LDL cholesterol level.
Best foods for a healthy gut
Some of the particular foods that are identified as good for the health of the gut are:
Bananas are the most commonly consumed fruit by all sections of the people. A number of vitamins and nutrients are present in it. It has the potential to enhance the performance of good bacteria in the digestive system. High levels of magnesium and potassium present in the fruit improve digestion and reduce inflammation. It is a common knowledge that bananas are consumed to provide relief to an upset stomach. Besides providing satiety it improves the bowel movement. This fruit is also known to reduce bloating in addition to preventing weight gain.
Apple is another popular fruit that enhances the gut health. The famous saying can be slightly modified as “an apple a day keeps the gut doctor away”. It means that regular consumption of apple make one avoid calling a doctor for any disorder relating to the gut. However, it is better to select apples that are pesticide free. Stewed apples are still better as they can cure inflammatory conditions of the gut.
Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable consumed in many parts of the world. It provides a number of health benefits in addition to being helpful with the glucosinolates present in it to break down the microbes. This process releases substances that are capable of reducing inflammation of the gut. Some of the other cruciferous vegetables like kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage are also good foods for the gut health. These special types of vegetables are also helpful in fighting colon, breast, lungs, liver and stomach cancer. All these cruciferous vegetables can be water or steam cooked adding salt and other spices and consumed by including along with regular diet.
Yogurt is another excellent food for the gut health. Both types of yogurt, namely dairy based and non-dairy based yogurt are equally beneficial in improving the health of the gut. Some of the non-dairy yogurts are prepared from the milk of almonds, soy, and rice. It may be noted that it is preferable to avoid adding sugar to any variety of yogurt (1).
Besides providing the essential protein to the body yogurt not only gets digested quickly but also facilitate easy digestion of other forms of food consumed resulting in good gut health. In addition to this yogurt has the potential to keep satiety for a longer duration of time. Non-dairy yogurt is more beneficial as it does not contain lactose like dairy-based yogurt. Probiotics in yogurt can eliminate harmful bacteria from the gut besides treating irritable bowel syndrome. In the case of dairy-based yogurt, preference must be given to milk procured from grass-fed animals.
Sprouted grains form an important group of gut-friendly foods. Whole grains by themselves are beneficial for their nutrient value when consumed cooked. They are more beneficial when such grains are sprouted. In addition to the enhanced nutrition value, sprouted grains are easily digestible. Moreover, they provide more protein with less carbohydrate and with their enzyme activity on account of sprouting starch is transformed into smaller compounds and easily digested.
Fermented food is excellent for keeping the gut in good health. Fermentation is a process in which degradation of sugar takes place and then converted into energy in the form of ATP (three phosphate groups esterified). ATP is a nucleotide which plays a vital role in the metabolic process leading to maintaining the gut health in fine form. The other sign of benefit derived from fermentation is that the ATP is a much-required neurotransmitter (2). Most of the raw food items can be fermented. To explain, all dairy and meat products, fruits and vegetables can be fermented by adopting the appropriate process. When fermented, yeast, bacteria and other good organisms in the food prompts the colon to produce millions of good bacteria. Fermented food consumption also prevents all types of infection in the gut (3).
Kefir is another probiotic rich food excellent for gut health. It may resemble a tart or thinner yogurt. It is a beverage made from dairy and non-dairy milk fermented by yeast and bacteria sourced primarily from kefir grains (4). Kefir can be both dairy and non-dairy based. But non-dairy kefir like the one based on coconut water is better for it does not contain avoidable ingredients found in a dairy-based one. (Please do not think of kaffir corn or kaffir lime which are totally different)
Legumes, in general, are good for gut health. These are plants with seeds in long pods. Some of the legumes are white beans, split peas, chickpeas, lentils and navy beans. They strengthen the intestine and help absorption of micronutrients. Legumes contain fiber, folate, protein and B vitamins all of which enhances the gut health.
Mangoes contain enzymes capable of breaking down proteins. In addition to this, the fiber content in mangoes improves gut health. Mangoes provide a number of health benefits like balancing the alkaline level of the body(5). With vitamin A and C combined with a number of carotenoids present in it, mangoes improve the immune and digestive system besides lowering cholesterol and preventing cancer (6).
Roughages (Think flaxseed, artichokes)
Roughages like flaxseed, jicama and Jerusalem artichoke are also beneficial for gut health. These roughages keep the bowels working and enable other food consumed move through the body. Jerusalem artichoke is a prebiotic containing inulin, an insoluble fiber (7). Inulin is a starch present in the roots and tubers of many plants. It is a form of starch that can be hydrolyzed to fructose. It travels through the small and large intestines. When it reaches the colon it ferments into a healthy microflora. Inulin is also present in asparagus, onions, bananas, and leeks.
Other gut-healthy foods
Greens like asparagus, seaweed, and dandelion greens are also helpful in maintaining the good health of the gut.
Kombucha is another good food for the gut. Kombucha is prepared by fermentation of tea with sugar by yeast. IT is packed with probiotics and so is good for the gut.
Blueberries, apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, coconut oil, wild Solomon, chocolate, garlic, and onion are some other food and spices that are good for gut health (8).
Steamed vegetables are generally good for the gut as they are easily digestible and also contain good amount of fiber with a number of nutrients.
Gluten, artificial sweeteners, refined sugar, refined vegetable oils are not good for the gut and hence their consumption must be limited to the barest minimum.