Giving yourself a gut check may be one of the best things you can do for your overall health. Approximately 70% of our immune system is located in the gut. When the gut is healthy, it helps the entire body stay healthy. Consider maintaining it your number 1 New Year’s resolution this year!
Your bacterial community (aka the microbiome) is home to trillions (that’s right, trillions) of bacteria that thrive on the foods we eat and may play a role not just in digestive health but in mental health, too. Emerging research is discovering a connection between the brain and the gut (known as the gut-brain-axis), which is home to a whole set of neurotransmitters that reduce depression, anxiety and stress.
What does all this mean for you? Healthy food stimulates healthy bacteria. In fact, more research leads us to believe we can alter and modify this “second genome,” which has been proven to respond directly to the foods we eat. A Harvard-led study found diet can alter the population of human gut bacteria in as little as one day.
The reverse is also true. Diets low in fiber and high in sugar and processed foods have less bacterial diversity and contain more of the “bad” bacteria associated with obesity. But a diverse diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and good-for-you bacteria helps seal your gut lining and prevents those bad bacteria from entering the blood.
So how do we get more of these good bacteria in our diet? It’s easier — and tastier — than you might think.
Kefir is a liquid yogurt that’s naturally effervescent and extra tangy. It’s cultured 5–8 times longer than yogurt, giving all that good bacteria more time to multiply. It contains as many as 12 strains (versus about two in regular yogurt). It’s great for smoothies and overnight oats — simply sub kefir for yogurt or milk. Another reason to love it: It has 11g protein per cup! Buy the plain variety to avoid added sugar and add your own fruit to sweeten. Not a fan of the tart? Buy fuller fat versions or add a spoonful of almond butter to help balance the tanginess.
Kimchi is a crunchy, spicy Korean side dish created by mixing cabbage and other veggies with garlic, ginger, chili peppers, and fish sauce — then setting it aside to ferment. Fermentation is a process that involves breaking down natural sugars to form lactic acid, a preservative that inhibits bad bacteria from growing and even creates B vitamins and other good-for-you nutrients. Fermentation is much like a form of pre-digestion as it makes hard-to-digest nutrients more bioavailable. It also adds a very sour, pungent flavor to foods. Kimchi’s spiciness and puckery tartness make it difficult for some people to eat it alone, but it’s a great condiment for a variety of meals.
The active cultures in yogurt not only help with digestion (one reason lactose-intolerant people can eat yogurt) but also help us better absorb nutrients from our food. The FDA requires at least two strains of bacteria in all yogurt (L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus), though manufacturers can add more — check the ingredient profile which should list all strains. Other reasons to love yogurt: It’s packed with protein (14g in 6 ounces of Greek), easy to find, and delivers 30% of your daily needs for calcium, which is more readily absorbed by your body thanks to the probiotics. Want to know how to win the expansive yogurt aisle? Read labels carefully — most of the yogurt out there contains a good bit of sugar and many contain unwanted thickeners.
This savory, nutty paste is made from fermented soybeans; it’s loaded with umami flavor and rich in probiotics. The concentrated salt content (about 400–600mg per tablespoon) helps protect these good bacteria from contamination, and there’s a balanced sweetness that makes the flavor much milder than most other fermented products. The longer miso ferments, the darker in color (often red), saltier and richer in flavor it gets. Another reason we love miso: It’s versatile — a lovely addition to soups, dressings, grains and glazes for roasted vegetables and proteins, like this Miso-Ginger Glaze.
Tempeh is made from whole soybeans fermented and then packed into a block (making it less processed than tofu), and it has a nutty, pleasantly sour, savory flavor. The fermentation process reduces the amount of phytic acid, a substance found in soybeans that prevents your body from absorbing good-for-you nutrients. Another reason to love tempeh: It’s a great source of plant-based protein and fiber, with 16g protein and 9g fiber in just 3 ounces. Try this gut-friendly riff on a Reuben — it has a double dose of probiotics from the tempeh and sauerkraut. Tempeh can also be crumbled and used as a ground meat substitute or cut into cubes and stir-fried with vegetables.
In its most basic form, sauerkraut is just cabbage and salt. Millions of good-for-you bacteria (the same found in yogurt) live on the surface of cabbage. When sealed airtight, they convert the natural plant sugars into lactic acid, which aids in digestion, increases vitamin availability, and gives sauerkraut that pleasantly sour edge. Radishes and cucumbers will often be mixed in with the cabbage, too. Choose refrigerated varieties instead of canned; the latter has been pasteurized, which kills all the probiotics. A great sub for pickles, the uses go well beyond just hot dogs — serve over salads, sprinkle into sandwiches, tuck into tacos, mix into salsa or guacamole, add into mashed potatoes, or stir it into soups.
Drink up! This fermented beverage is made by adding a culture of probiotic-rich bacteria and yeast (called a SCOBY) to lightly sweetened tea. It’s fizzy and pleasantly puckery, like a fruity probiotic-packed soda — cold, bubbly and sweet — but with 45 fewer grams (about 11 teaspoons) of sugar. There are hundreds of varieties available in today’s supermarket, and all of them are a little bit different — try a few to find a brand that you like … or make your own!
Prebiotics serve as “food” for all those healthy bugs we want to flourish in our gut. We need prebiotics to stimulate probiotics. Prebiotics are high in an indigestible fiber called inulin, which enhances the gut’s production of friendly bacteria. Food sources include whole wheat, leeks, cabbage, artichokes, dandelion greens, flaxseed, seaweed and even breast milk.
Be good to your gut. Choose more whole foods that are naturally rich in probiotics and prebiotics and stimulate a diverse bacterial environment. Do this by eating more fermented foods and limiting processed foods — especially those high in sugar and artificial additives. A healthy gut and microbiome not only boost immunity and digestive health but they have brain-stimulating benefits, too. Now that’s food for thought!